Are There Limits to the Use of the IDF?

It is high time that legislation limiting the government’s authority to use the IDF to the needs of the defense of the country be introduced in the Knesset. In the absence of such a law it is by now hopefully clear that law enforcement is not one of the IDF’s missions, and that that task is best left to the police.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 3, 2013.)

The IDF is subject to the authority of the government – but are there limits to the government’s utilization of the IDF, or is the government free to order the IDF to perform any mission it sees fit, even if the mission is not directly related to the defense of the country against its enemies?

Since it is the country’s security needs – and only those needs – that justify compulsory military service for Israeli young men and women, it stands to reason that that service should be utilized by the government only for the needs of the country’s defense. Surprisingly, there is no legislation that limits the government’s authority to use the IDF only for the defense of the country.

This is not a hypothetical issue. The IDF has on occasion been ordered by the government to perform missions connected to law enforcement but not directly related to the defense of the country, missions in which the IDF used force, or was prepared to use force, not against enemies of Israel but against Israeli citizens.

For a period of 18 years from 1948 to 1966, areas populated by Israeli Arab citizens were governed by the IDF. This military government was established by the government on the basis of emergency regulations promulgated by the British authorities during the days of the British Mandate, regulations which had not been revoked when the State of Israel was established in 1948. It was in Kafr Qasem, an Arab village under military government rule, that a massacre of Israeli Arab citizens by military personnel took place in 1956.

This tragedy was evidently not sufficient to bring about legislation that would limit the circumstances under which the IDF could be ordered to act against Israeli citizens.

It was in the absence of such legislation, and contrary to all common sense, that the Sharon government ordered the IDF to uproot Israeli citizens from their homes, and use force if necessary, as part of its disengagement policy. It is now generally recognized that not only was the disengagement from Gush Katif an error, but that the IDF should not have been ordered to execute it. Yet, there is still no legislation limiting the government’s power in regard to the use of the IDF in cases other than the defense of the country.

What is the situation in this regard in other countries? There is no need to compare Israel to Arab countries run by dictators, like Syria, where the rulers use the armed forces freely against their own people. We should compare ourselves to democracies like the United States. There the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 places limitations on the use of armed forces in law enforcement unless expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress.

It is high time that legislation limiting the government’s authority to use the IDF to the needs of the defense of the country be introduced in the Knesset. In the absence of such a law it is by now hopefully clear that law enforcement is not one of the IDF’s missions, and that that task is best left to the police.

After the unfortunate experience with the uprooting of Israeli settlers from Gush Katif by the IDF, it is highly improbable that, even in the absence of such legislation, any future government will decide on similar measures and call on the IDF to execute them. As a result, the public debate about whether some IDF soldiers would in the future be faced by dilemmas of conscience if called upon to use force against Israeli citizens has by now lost all relevance. It may make exciting reading in the middle of an election campaign, but it is bereft of all meaning.

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