Israel’s strengths are more than arms and land

As a hardline government settles into power, the military’s outgoing chief upholds the wisdom of protecting noncombatants under international law.

Aviv Kochavi, chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces, speaks during a holiday ceremony with Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, Nov. 29.

Israel has a new governing coalition, one tilted toward conservative and religious parties that aim to expand the Jewish presence in Palestinian territories and alter governance of the West Bank. While critics worry about the potential for violent reaction to these changes, one voice stands out – the view of the Israeli military.

In an unusual meeting with the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said the proposed changes would divide command over the West Bank and potentially put the military and police at cross-purposes. Lieutenant General Kochavi also objected to the idea of giving Israeli troops immunity from prosecution for acts committed during operations.

His concern points to the need to cling to values that assure mutual security of Israelis and Palestinians. These include honoring the rights of noncombatants and the humanity of nonviolent adversaries who disagree with the proposed actions.

For more than half a century, Israel’s status as an occupying force in the West Bank has bound it under international law to the equal protection of innocents regardless of their identity. Based on Lieutenant General Kochavi’s concerns, that principle now seems in doubt.

“The values of the IDF and international law are not only intended to prevent harm to bystanders on the other side, but they are also equally aimed at enabling us to protect our citizens,”  Lieutenant General Kochavi said in 2021.

Israel is not alone in trying to balance national goals and military concerns. Under the Geneva Conventions, occupying forces are obligated to observe and protect the human rights of those under their control. That principle has been reaffirmed in more recent international court cases and embodied in national security plans. The Pentagon, for example, last year adopted a plan making protection of noncombatants a moral imperative.

That imperative is also practical. In countries like Ethiopia and Sudan, human rights abuses by the military in each of those countries pose significant obstacles to peace negotiations. That points to a key lesson that emerged during the 2016 peace process in Colombia. “Our military were in every blacklist for human rights violations,” former President Juan Manuel Santos said in 2020. “We had to make the military understand that their most important asset was their legitimacy and the relations that they could develop with the community – respecting human rights.”

The proposed changes in Israel appear to have deep public support. Ahead of the elections last November, the Israel Democracy Institute found that more than 60% of Jewish Israelis identified as right wing, up from 46% in 2019. Among young Israelis between the ages of 18 and 24, that number rises to 70%. Yet, as Lieutenant General Kochavi has told his troops, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, warned in 1948,  Israel’s “fate is in the hands of the security forces.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition is seen as the most hard-line in Israel’s history. Yet as his outgoing military chief suggests, Israel’s strength also requires softer forms of power.

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