Yagil Levy: Israel’s New Hierarchy of Death

By | Dec 31, 2012

Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Israeli, Gazan: Whose life is least valuable?

On the surface, November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, the eight-day Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, was a success. A ground incursion was averted, Israel projected a measure of deterrence toward the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the performance of the Iron Dome anti-missile system proved impressive, and the clash ended with an unsigned memorandum of understanding among Israel, Egypt, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, brokered by Egypt and the United States. Israel killed about 160 Palestinians while losing only six Israelis. However, the operation exposed some of Israel’s military constraints, namely what I call the “hierarchy of death”—the extent to which the state values the lives of its soldiers, compared to its civilians and enemy noncombatants.

Until the 1980s, Israel generally chose to place in jeopardy soldiers from the privileged—mostly Ashkenazi—middle class, more than civilians and other soldiers. However, the 1980s brought about a growing sensitivity to casualties in Israel, as in other Western societies, causing the state to gradually shift its approach. It began putting at risk more soldiers drawn from lower classes (such as Mizrahi and religious communities, and, later, immigrants from the former Soviet Union), who increasingly staffed the combat units.

With elites more reluctant to be sacrificed, and society more sensitive to casualties generally, Israel’s strategy changed further: The military became willing to risk civilian lives while protecting soldiers. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 under pressure from antiwar movements such as Four Mothers, a group founded by middle-class mothers of soldiers, was an example: The withdrawal occurred despite the threat seemingly posed to the civilian communities in the Galilee. So powerful was this urge to protect soldiers that later, in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the government and the military were unwilling to launch a ground incursion to clear out Hezbollah rocket launchers that targeted Israeli civilians—because it would put soldiers at too much risk.

Boxed in by conflicting duties to the two groups it wanted most urgently to protect—Israeli civilians and soldiers—the state turned to another option, the use of excessive lethality in conflict. This provides protection to Israeli civilians and soldiers but may claim more civilian casualties from the other side. As the Gaza offensive of 2009 (Operation Cast Lead) demonstrated, Israel began to place Gazan civilians at the bottom of the death hierarchy, shifting more risk away from soldiers and Israeli civilians.

Most recently, in 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel confronted a genuine dilemma (setting aside whether one accepts, as I do not, the wisdom of initiating this operation). Even if Israel’s missile-blocking defense system, Iron Dome, provided protection, the government could not subject civilians to a prolonged threat and to the disruption of daily life. Aerial attacks, though effective, did not produce the expected effect of driving Hamas to beg for a ceasefire. Some might have interpreted the next step to be a massive ground operation aimed at taking operational control over strategic areas in Gaza to stop the smuggling of weapons into the strip. But a ground operation would have meant endangering reservists—an intolerable risk, especially on the eve of elections.

Three years after Operation Cast Lead, Israel could no longer shift the risk to the Gazan noncombatants—that is, it could not reduce the soldiers’ exposure to danger by using a liberal fire policy that could potentially claim more Gazan civilian casualties. The international community has grown more vocal in its opposition to ground operations, and Israel more sensitive to a changing post-revolution Egypt. No less important, Israel learned to exercise some caution after the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report accused it (along with Hamas) of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.

In sum, Israel could not, and cannot, easily resolve the inherent tension in its death hierarchy. Iron Dome partly eases the dilemma by mitigating the risk to large civilian communities, but this is only a short-term solution. As in the past—at the end of the second Lebanon war, for instance—the dilemma could be resolved only by opting for an informal ceasefire agreement with Hamas. In hindsight, it is reasonable to conclude that, restricted by its priorities, Israel gained no real advantage by resorting to the use of force.

In the likely event of another round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Israel will be left with only two options. One is to find ways to cooperate with Hamas, in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of future hostilities. Another is to further emulate the Powell Doctrine, which says that force should be used only as a last resort if there is a clear risk to national security. Such a determination should legitimize (externally and internally) the use of overwhelming force that risks soldiers and/or should justify shifting the risk to enemy noncombatants. As this option is less probable, one long-term legacy of Operation Pillar of Defense may be that Israel will be restrained from using force in future conflicts.


Yagil Levy, associate professor of sociology at the Open University of Israel, is the author of six books, most recently, Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy.

One thought on “Yagil Levy: Israel’s New Hierarchy of Death

  1. alexmaller says:

    This is an ugly article clearly intended to denigrate Israel through disinformation. One example: with the establishment of the state the majority of the population was ashkenazi, later the proportions chaged and this was reflected in every aspect of Israel’s life, including defence.Using this change as implied discrimination is to be condemned. Or: “Israel began to place Gazan civilians at the bottom of the death hierarchy.” This assertion sounds horrible in the eyes of the American public opinion. The truth is that the Islamic terror organizations use civil pupulation as human shields. Any response to their provocations will affect the civil populatioin. It is the responsability of the islamists, to the extent they care, for the damaged their actions cause. To assert that it was the intent of Israel to harm civilians is absolutely preposterous, just the opposite. The whole article is conceived to present Israel as weak, defenceless and obligated to accept foreign dictats. The Israeli left lacking local support tryes to get its case promoted via the American left-leaning jewish groups such as JStreet. We should not accept this dishonest game. Let the Israelis decide what is best for them.

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