No Scorched Earth

Thankfully, the IDF achieved an exceptional level of success in its Jenin operation, accompanied by an unusually low casualty rate.
July 7, 2023
Four Israeli soldiers stand behind razor wire near the Palestinian village of Bil’in in the West Bank (Joel Carillet/Getty Images)

Over the past week, the unfolding of the Jenin operation has sparked concerns about potential violence near Israel’s populated areas. Thankfully, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) achieved an exceptional level of success, accompanied by an unusually low casualty rate.

Official reports indicate that out of the 12 Palestinians killed and the 20 severely injured, none were civilians. Each individual was found to be armed or carrying explosives. Consequently, Israel faced relatively mild condemnations, even from countries like Turkey, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Surprisingly, considering the current political and diplomatic climate, official sources in Washington endorsed the operation. Even more remarkably, Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza have so far shown relative indifference – simply paying lip service to their ideological antipathy for Israel.

The IDF has attributed this success to several factors – with the exceptional professionalism of the soldiers deployed to Jenin at the forefront. Many of these soldiers are part of specialized and highly trained units – such as Maglan, Duvdevan, and Ergoz.

They were accompanied by troops from the Paratrooper Brigade and the Kfir Brigade, who possess prior operational experience in Jenin’s terrorist hotbeds. Most importantly, the operation was executed with precision and strict control to prevent the escalation of violence.

These experienced IDF soldiers – sadly including David Yehuda Yitzhak, who was unfortunately killed during the withdrawal from Jenin – received explicit instructions to adhere strictly to the mission’s objectives. As a senior IDF official emphasized during a media briefing, ethical conduct and avoiding harm to innocent civilians were paramount – considered critical in achieving the mission’s goals.

The operation involved meticulous planning, and the coordination of over 15 preemptory airstrikes utilizing drones. And although the ground mission has now concluded, the drones continue to be deployed over Jenin, fully prepared for any further developments.

The remarkable success of the ground mission has also been attributed to the capabilities of these drones and other associated aerial technology – the utilization of advanced marking and identification technologies accurately identified safe passages for ground forces, and distinguished between armed terrorists and innocent civilians.

The bottom line: Israel wants to minimize civilian casualties and is focused on creating circumstances that take out or neutralize the “bad guys” without resorting to the “scorched earth” tactics that has been the tactical MO for military planners since time immemorial.

Throughout its 75-year history, Israel has maintained an unwavering commitment to minimizing collateral damage and safeguarding civilian lives during military operations, even when faced with challenging circumstances. With a profound regard for the value and sanctity of human life, Israeli military planners have consistently pursued precise and targeted strategies.

Through painstaking intelligence gathering and the utilization of the latest technological capabilities, Israel’s armed forces have always sought to mitigate the impact on innocent civilians while effectively countering security threats, which are often existential for Israel. This commitment is deeply rooted in both ethical considerations and the understanding that a sustainable and secure future necessitates the creation of a safe and trusting environment for all individuals, regardless of their background.

Time and again, Israel’s approach has exemplified a profound respect for human rights and a steadfast dedication to upholding international legal standards. In doing so, Israel has set a commendable precedent for responsible military conduct when confronted with complex challenges.

Israel’s commitment to minimizing collateral damage and protecting civilian lives has at times necessitated the implementation of “shock and awe” military interventions.

The pre-emptive strikes against Egyptian air bases in 1967, which were carried out to neutralize the threat of imminent aggression, is one notable example.

Unfortunately, there have been instances when holding back from decisive action has resulted in tragic consequences, as seen in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the fiftieth anniversary of which we will commemorate in a few months. Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, chose not to attack Egypt despite clear indications of an impending assault, and the loss of life that resulted from her decision was substantial – highlighting the potential ramifications of cautious restraint.

These historical events serve as poignant reminders that striking a delicate balance between preserving civilian lives and ensuring national security is a complex and often challenging endeavor.

Kneejerk condemnations to the Jenin operation – such as the one from Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, who called it a “reckless crime and a prominent measure of state terrorism” – fail to acknowledge that by lancing a boil, even if it causes pain, the greater good is served, and long-term stability is assured.

Unlike the wholesale slaughter that accompanies military operations executed by most other countries – as we are currently witnessing in the senseless violence and loss of life in the war being waged by Russia against Ukraine – Israel’s primary objective is to minimize loss of life, even if loss of life is involved. It is the paradox of military operations that carefully calibrated violence is the surest way to avoid wholesale violence, that all agree would be much worse.

Israel’s approach to minimizing the loss of human life, even at the expense of some lives, has a parallel in the biblical account of Pinchas (Numbers 25). Pinchas took drastic action when he killed Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess with whom Zimri was cavorting publicly.

Their assassination ended the plague that had been generated by the immoral behavior they personified, but which their death brought to a sudden halt. While Pinchas’ act was undoubtedly violent, it served the purpose of preventing further unnecessary deaths. And in recognition of his actions, God granted Pinchas a covenant of peace.

Peace is not always synonymous with a complete cessation of violence; rather, it prevents excessive violence. In an imperfect and complex world, it is essential to navigate through messy circumstances with the aim of minimizing chaos and harm.

While ideal scenarios of absolute tranquility may ultimately be unattainable, the pursuit of peace lies in the diligent effort to mitigate conflicts and reduce unnecessary suffering. Striving for peaceful resolutions requires a nuanced understanding that sometimes difficult choices must be made to prevent greater violence or chaos. The objective must always be the minimization of disruption and harm, taking into account the intricate and imperfect realities of our world.

Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues.

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