What Does an Illegal Order Look Like?

I always knew that I could disobey an order during my military service. I just never knew which ones I was supposed to disobey so I followed them all.

That’s what happens when you spend a year being trained up as a soldier rather than a lawyer.

I read Tuvia Book’s post with interest. It reminded me of the kinds of articles I read before my army service, when I was sure it was all just a conspiracy against Israel, when I thought that Israel represented everything that was pure and good and the Palestinians everything else.

Read his piece. He was there, he served, he did it and he earned the respect of myself and hopefully yours too by putting himself in harm’s way to protect our country.

He says he was never asked to follow an illegal order, I wonder if he means he was never asked to carry out an order his own moral compass had an issue with. Personally I never carried out an order I took issue with at the time, but looking back I’m not sure that’s the same as never carrying out an order that was illegal, because, quite frankly, I don’t know what the law is in these situations.

I fired rubber bullets at civilians in Nablus. Was that illegal? I begged my sergeant to let me shoot at them and then he pointed out where to fire. Was that legal? Is a mere sergeant allowed to make that kind of call, legally?

The army had imposed a curfew on Nablus that day, my tools with which to impose that curfew were rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. Which is kind of like being given a knife and fork and told to go build a house.

No one was listening so I fired rubber bullets at them. Was that legal? I had no training in the use of any of those weapons, save having tear gas thrown at me on a regular basis during my own training. The first time I had even seen rubber bullets was the night before the operation when they were handed to me.

I wanted to shoot them because they were disobeying my orders to them which were to get out of the street and go home. I was desperate to be a good soldier and I wasn’t ready to tolerate failure on one of my first missions. But if I’m really honest I wanted to shoot them because I was fresh out of training and I was desperate to get “into the shit” (to borrow an Americanism). I was desperate to impose my authority as a brand new, fully trained soldier of the IDF in the midst of the Al Aqsa Intifada.

Was it legal for the IDF to send out soldiers with rubber bullets, but without rules of engagement for their use? Without even training their soldiers in their use?

I dunno, funnily enough it never came up at the time. We were given a job to do and we did it as best we could.

When we were running jeep patrols in the Nablus area we used to go into a small village in our area of operations called Kussra just around the time school was finishing in the hope that the kids there would start throwing bottles at us, we could then break out the riot gear and play a more intense game of hide and seek. I could call that something I am now morally uncomfortable with, but someone who was there with me might look at me in surprise and simply say;

“But we were patrolling in our assigned area and this happened as a result of our routine duties”.

Both of us would be right. And wrong.

Or what about when we set up random checkpoints on the dirt tracks Palestinians use to bypass the main roads and checkpoints? Is it okay to hit a Palestinian while operating on those dirt tracks?

Is it okay to hit him if he’s shouting and gesticulating wildly?

Is it okay to hit him if he’s shouting and gesticulating wildly and then puts a hand in an inside jacket pocket to pull out…God knows what?

Who knows? It usually depends on whether someone filmed it and put it on YouTube.

What if you’re on an operation and the rules of engagement are that anyone you see, you shoot? What if you think that order is inhumane and disobey it only to see a friend get shot as a result? What if you obey it and kill an innocent civilian as a result?

Either response can be thrown by the IDF back on the individual soldier as their responsibility. Either the soldier hasn’t followed orders and as a result a fellow soldier died, or a soldier followed an inhumane order and so is now guilty of murder or manslaughter…or nothing.

I dunno go ask a lawyer. Did it get uploaded to YouTube?

I went on operations in Nablus where the standing order was to shoot on sight anyone walking around at night as they were to be considered an enemy combatant. I was out on operations where civilians were shot and I was out where civilians weren’t shot because soldiers risked something in order not to shoot them.

There was no guidance in any of this save what the guys who had been in the army a little longer told you. You do what you can to get through and hope you don’t kill…or not kill the wrong person.

So where does the accountability lie in all this? Is it always just going to be heaped on the shoulders of the individual soldier? The lowest ranked, least trained and most overworked beast in the army is the one who has to make the toughest decisions. In the 21st century always their actions have the potential to go viral. The colonels and generals who are responsible for placing them there have the luxury of orchestrating their fate from far back in the rear.

They rarely turn up on a YouTube video.

Where is the institutional accountability? Where is the pressure placed on the IDF to ensure adequate training for the soldiers they place in harms way? I was trained for a whole year to be a soldier, two weeks of that year was devoted to training on making arrests and none of it on use of non lethal equipment, crowd control, Arabic, how to man a checkpoint or anything else that might have proven useful in occupation duties.

The Military Police say to Breaking the Silence they should hand over any information they have on crimes committed.

I ask where are the Military Police when soldiers actually need them? Where are their briefings to soldiers on what does and does not constitute a criminal act?

Where are the military lawyers who are ready to step in and advise soldiers before they go on duty rather than standing ready to attack them when they make the wrong call in a world that has neither black nor white only very similar shades of grey and the difference between being a hero and a criminal is so faint you can’t recognise it.

I read a lot of pieces like Tuvia’s before I went into the army, before I made aliyah. But unfortunately that view didn’t survive my mandatory service. In fact, I resented Israel afterwards, I was angry because I couldn’t find the country I had been told existed in pieces like his.

I came out of my service absolutely convinced Israel needs to get out of the West Bank. Almost all of my friends came out thinking the opposite, hating Palestinians more for the fact they had to serve in the first place. We barely talk about it because it doesn’t come up very often in the real world between friends.

Why should it? Talking about the matsav doesn’t change the matsav.

I am glad there is a Breaking the Silence, a space where soldiers can talk about the things they did in the heat of the moment. Where they can criticise their government for putting them in uniform and sending them to a place they feel they were ill equipped to deal with.

After putting their lives on the line they are owed more than the criticism they are receiving right now. They are owed the respect of a grateful nation, people should read their words and then make their minds up, not decide to hate them before even listening to what they have to say.