The myth of Israel’s ‘most moral army’

Manipulating international law allows Israel to evade condemnation for its war crimes.

Israeli troops in tanks and other armoured vehicles amass in a field near the Israeli city of Ashkelon on October 14, 2023 [AFP/Thomas Coex]

As Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians – many of whom are the children and grandchildren of refugees – to leave their homes in northern Gaza ahead of its ground offensive, I asked myself how much more killing and destruction will be necessary to satisfy this death drive.

Israel is clearly seeking retribution in the wake of Hamas’s horrific attack. In the Israeli imagination, October 7 will be forever remembered as the day Hamas massacred more than 1,300 citizens. Hamas fighters entered Israeli settlements and towns, killing hundreds of children, men and women. An attack on a music festival in the desert left more than 250 Israelis dead.

Legally speaking, these attacks constitute a series of blatant and egregious war crimes and thus it is only natural that leaders around the world have denounced them as heinous acts of violence.

Yet, Israel attacking civilian buildings and infrastructure and killing more than 2,300 Palestinian children, men, and women have been met with silence from Western leaders. Moreover, Israel’s decision to cut off electricity, limit the water supply and flatten large parts of the Gaza Strip has barely engendered any criticism from the West even though these actions also constitute flagrant war crimes.

In order to understand why the death of Palestinian civilians fails to generate moral indignation among the Western elite as well as what likely lies ahead for Palestinians in Gaza as Israeli troops cross the border, we need to take a look at dominant Israeli narratives of past assaults.

In 2014, for example, during Israel’s invasion of Gaza, more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, 556 of whom were children; this is compared to 64 Israelis who were killed in that round of violence.

So how is it, then, that even after Israel unleashed such disproportional and lethal violence in 2014, the West overwhelmingly continues to believe that the Israeli army is “the most moral in the world”, while Palestinians have been relentlessly cast as “violent aggressors”? Why is it that Western leaders never publicly denounce Israel for war crimes?

The answer is complex, as there are a number of factors at play. But one of them is Israel’s incredibly savvy manipulation of the laws of war that has successfully helped to frame Israeli violence as ethical.

Israel’s legal manipulations draw on a series of ambiguities and exceptions that constitute international law, revealing that the laws of war favour states over non-state actors and the strong over the weak and consequently might not be the best tool to shield civilians in Gaza.

Let us take some concrete examples. The standing orders given to the soldiers entering the Gaza Strip in 2014 were clear: Palestinians who did not heed Israel’s warnings to evacuate their homes and flee south became legitimate military targets. One soldier explained to the Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence that:

“There weren’t really any rules of engagement … They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot’. Whether the person posed a threat or not wasn’t even a question; and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all because it’s Gaza, and second because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot’, and they made it clear that there are no uninvolved civilians.”

One might think that a military order permitting indiscriminate firing at civilians would be deemed illegal under international law, particularly given the principle of distinction (the bedrock of the laws of war calling on warring parties to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, and prohibiting the intentional attacking of civilians) – and given the fact that over half of the 2.3 million Palestinians currently living in the Gaza Strip are children.

The irony is that Israel actually uses the laws of war to portray itself as the moral actor. As it has done earlier this week, in 2014, the Israeli army instructed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes and travel to the south knowing full well that among those living in the area are thousands of elderly and sick people and that the time it gave them to vacate the area was not sufficient.

But Israel also knows that warning the Palestinian civilians and instructing them to leave will allow it to deny the very existence of civilians within northern Gaza. That is precisely the meaning of the phrase “there are no uninvolved civilians”, since it brands all those who have remained in the area – even if civilians are still the majority and are unable to leave, as the United Nations has averred about the current situation – as “participants in hostilities” or as “voluntary human shields”. Such terms render these civilians “killable”, according to some interpretations of the laws of war.

And since the claim to morality is based on compliance with the laws of war, the lethal violence that Israeli soldiers use against civilians who remain in their homes is then constructed as morally justifiable and even ethical.

Alongside this legal discourse, Israel also circulates a colonial narrative that presents the Palestinians as “human animals” that do not understand the laws of war. By combining these colonial tropes and “legalese”, it frames Palestinians as immoral barbarians who “deserve to die”. This rhetorical move, in turn, construes Israeli soldiers as the opposite, namely, the “civilised” and moral “fighters”.

Furthermore, the linking of international law with colonial tropes – or what we might call colonial legal discourse – helps justify the execution of massive violence. About a month ago, CBS News’s 60 Minutes programme interviewed Shira Etting, an Israeli pilot who had been active in the protests against attempts by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul Israel’s legislature. “If you want pilots to be able to fly and shoot bombs and missiles into houses knowing they might be killing children,” she said, “they must have the strongest confidence in the [politicians] making those decisions.”

Etting nowhere admits to any intention of killing children. Yet she does acknowledge that when she and her fellow pilots set off on a mission over the Gaza skies, they understand that the missiles they fire may very well – and often do – end up killing civilians.

In other words, Israeli pilots, like Etting, know that they kill children when dropping massive bombs on city centres, but since they did not “intend” to kill them, international law as well as media outlets like CBS News and Western leaders consider their actions to be morally sound. This is despite the bombardment these pilots carry out resulting in the death of exponentially more civilians, including children, than in a Hamas attack. Western media outlets portray them as heroes who did not intend to kill non-combatants – euphemistically called “collateral damage”.

Note, however, that within this colonial legal discourse, it is not only the perpetrators of violence who are framed as morally distinct, but the victims of this violence as well. Israeli victims have names and life stories, which have been tragically cut short. These victims, in other words, are presented as people worthy of being grieved.

Palestinian victims, by contrast, remain nameless; and they tend to be presented as mere numbers rather than flesh and blood human beings whose lives also deserve to be grieved. This, too, helps to perpetuate the myth of the Israeli military as moral.

Ultimately, then, it is not only that those who deploy the weapons of the strong are considered more ethical because they kill innocent people from a distance, but also because the colonial legal discourse constructs the people they kill as “human animals”, “collateral damage”, or as a statistic.

So long as the dead are dehumanised in this way and, consequently, presented as unworthy of being grieved, the death drive will continue unabated. This, I fear, is a recipe for genocidal retribution.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.