This is the time frame that an IDF soldier has when he needs to make a snap ethical decision in the field. Equipped with the IDF’s code of ethics, the soldier must decide: shoot or don’t shoot. The YU Israel Club brought in Colonel Bentzi Gruber on November 7th to talk about this—as well as other moral dilemmas that IDF soldiers face every day—to Yeshiva University students in a seminar entitled “Ethics in the Field.”
It’s a lecture he has delivered all over the world, created for the purpose of shattering myths and educating the public about the morality of the Israeli army. With over thirty years of serving in the IDF Reserves, Gruber’s position has given him access and permission to present materials and information that is usually only seen by military or government officials. He has even spoken at West Point, where he addressed hundreds of US cadets. Twice a year, he embarks on speaking tours, traveling to synagogues, schools, churches, and universities.
In his interactive speech, Gruber took students and placed them on the battlefields. “What is your name?” he asked a student in the front of the room.
“Talia,” she replied.
“Ok, Talia, you are my sniper.” He described the situation: A terrorist grabs a child as a shield while he flees. He is now a moving target. What do you do?
Talia decided not to shoot. Gruber agreed. “Why are they doing this?” Gruber asked the audience. “Because they know that collateral damage is a big issue for us.”
The rules that an IDF soldier must follow are simple. Gruber outlined three questions a soldier must ask himself before making a decision. Am I using force only to accomplish my mission? Is my use of force harming innocents? Is the collateral damage proportional to the immediate threat?
If a soldier has a doubt about any of these questions, his decision is very simple: don’t shoot. Gruber added that collateral damage is never a black and white issue. For example, if a terrorist is driving with four children to Jerusalem, intending to blow up a school, the army will be forced to bomb the car.
However, Gruber made an interesting distinction. If the soldier is unaware of the terrorist’s plans, and only knows that he killed ten Israelis yesterday, the soldier cannot risk the children. The soldier is not the judge, Gruber said. He is not trying to punish someone for something he did in the past. His goal is to prevent terror in the future.
In his presentation, Gruber highlighted the extreme measures that the IDF takes to prevent unnecessary harm. For example, when the Israeli army is forced to attack an urban area, ample notice is given to allow bystanders to evacuate targeted areas, to ensure that the least amount of people get hurt. At least forty-eight hours before a bombing, leaflets are distributed with printed warnings instructing inhabitants to leave. Twenty-four hours before an attack, local families will be called, and even texted, with a message to flee. And even in the final five minutes, a last call will be delivered.
YU students know this is nothing new and is in line with the ethics of the IDF, but these procedures have been met with disbelief by students in other colleges participating in Gruber’s lectures, prompting him to add some proof. Gruber presented a video of a senior Hamas activist named Abu Bilal al-ja Abeer who appeared on CNN explaining these very practices. “I answered my cell phone and someone asked me, ‘Are you Abu Bilal al-ja Abeer?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’m Israeli security. You have five minutes to evacuate the house: you and your children,’” Abeer said.
Instead of fleeing, Abeer explained to the news anchor what he decided to do instead. “I shut the phone, called some friends, who called more people via loudspeakers, and they all gathered on the roof of the house and remained up until now to defend on the roof of the house. Until Allah so wants.”
As shown in the Abeer interview, while the IDF insists on taking the moral approach, they are met with only resistance. Still, they persist. The army developed another tactic named “knocks on the roof” in which low yield devices are dropped on the roofs of targeted civilian homes. This acts as a warning of more bombs to come, to give inhabitants enough time to flee. Many of them do, setting traps in their homes before they leave. “These procedures are unheard of anywhere else,” Colonel Gruber explained.
Regardless of these practices, said Gruber, the words killers, murderers, and criminals often grace headlines concerning the IDF. “I’ve heard it all,” he remarked. “We are killing babies in Gaza. We are using blood for our matzos. We’re taking organs from kids.”
Colleges all over America have been affected by these claims. At one university, angry students were distributing hundreds of flyers all over campus titled “Wanted for war crimes: Bentzi Gruber.” At another, students began heckling him, and one even claimed she watched with her own eyes as he took an organ from a baby. “You were in Gaza?” he asked her incredulously.
“Listen, for me it’s a joke,” he explained to the assembled students. “But for you and your friends in those colleges, it is four years under that attack. You need a lot of courage and knowledge to stand up and say ‘No, this is not the truth.’”
Though these claims continue to circulate, the IDF continues to fight to protect itself, Gruber said. The mission is not merely to win battles that are integral to Israel’s survival, but to win while remaining moral human beings. To ensure that his soldiers stay sensitive, Gruber brings children from different institutions to interact with them. Children with mental illnesses and other disabilities come to watch maneuvers and eat with the soldiers at least twice a month. He also flies the children and soldiers to Masada for a special ceremony in which the kids can participate. This all done to ensure the soldiers remain sensitive in their missions.
Gruber concluded his presentation with a tribute to his mother, who survived the Holocaust. She and her twin were tortured by Mengele. She often told her son, “Bentzi, you are a big hero. You fought in Lebanon, Gaza, you command twenty thousand soldiers.” But, she always emphasized, “we are not doing a favor to Israel when we serve in the army; Israel is doing us a favor.”