The Scariest Unit in the Israeli Army Is Not an Elite Fighting Squad

James Robins 10-12 minutes

Palestinians carry the body of a World Central Kitchen employee who was killed with fellow aid workers in an Israeli airstrike on April 1. (YASSER QUDIHE/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s the International Law Department, which gives the army permission to kill 15 to 20 civilians per combatant death and pastes a veneer of properness over IDF operations.

It has long been true in political life, as the old saying goes, that the scandal is never what is illegal but what is allowed. Only now, six months into the Gazan nightmare, are we finally beginning to grasp the harsh contours of Israeli methods. What this picture reveals is not the saturnalia sometimes evoked in desperate protests against the war—a mirror of October 7, only in uniform—but a coldly vengeful abandoning of restraint, a super-technological dismemberment, piece by gory piece, of Palestinian existence. The worst examples puked up by history have not made their debut—there has been no carpet-bombing, no roaming death squads—but what can be seen is an array of techniques, each as deadly as the last, notable for how they can be excused and disguised as conforming to international law.

In this sense the most vital and fearsome unit in the Israeli army is not the jacked-up naval commandos of Shayetet 13 nor even the shady spooks of the intelligence corps, Unit 8200; it is the International Law Department of the Military Advocate General’s Corps. The department’s daily work is to paste a veneer of properness and decorum over Israel Defense Forces operations, and its responsibilities are the opposite of what they appear. Far from binding the army to a strict code, the department carefully molds the gaps through which a bomber pilot can fly with his murderous load. Instead of jailing killers and torturers, it defends them. The deceptiveness of its advice allows the top brass to swing contentedly in their swivel chairs at IDF headquarters and gives comfort to the common private, safe in the knowledge that unless he does something particularly stupid—like triple-strike a protected aid convoy—he will keep his job. The ILD’s sober advice permits Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Chief Yoav Gallant to believe they are not lying when they say on TV that their country does not deliberately kill civilians. Last, and most important, the ILD’s guidance permits Israel’s defenders in Britain, Germany, and the United States to prop themselves at the dais and give their banal reasons for why the slaughter will not stop.

Very early in the war, before the ground campaign began and when the bulk of destruction fell to the air force, it was the International Law Department that obliterated the principle of proportionality—the slightly foggy rule that says the value of a military action must be weighed against the potential for civilian harm. Usually this is formulated as a ratio: five innocents for one combatant, say. The IDF gave itself permission to use formulas of 15-to-1 or 20-to-1—even for the lowest-ranking members of Hamas. According to Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham’s thorough and terrifying reports in +972 magazine, the army relied on two “artificial intelligence” systems, Lavender and Gospel, to provide targeting data. Traditional methods—human labor, due diligence—were too slow to keep pace with the thirst for revenge; “just a few seconds” was all it took to “verify” a target, a check that often consisted of nothing more than noticing whether the victim was a man rather than a woman. As one of Abraham’s sources says of the International Law Department’s instructions: “They directly tell you: ‘You are allowed to kill [Hamas fighters] along with many civilians.’”

Like all such systems, Lavender and Gospel are neither “artificial” nor “intelligent.” They cannot think for themselves and only sort the information fed into them faster than a person could. Such machines inevitably spit out a mirror image of their masters, beliefs and prejudices intact. Lavender was “more likely to select civilians by mistake when its algorithms were applied to the general population,” Abraham reports. When “no uninvolved civilians” is the catchphrase of the entire military-political apparatus from the common private up to President Isaac Herzog, the machine believes it too.

Another machine, called “Where’s Daddy?” is designed to alert its operator when a potential target is at home. The real perversity of the system—more than its sick name —is in making a nonsense of Israel’s own propaganda claims that it is difficult to fight Hamas cleanly because it uses apartments, mosques, and hospitals as a shield. The army routinely bombs homes to target fighters because it is easier than finding them in the street. Just as routinely, there is a gap between when the system identifies a target at home and when the ordnance is dropped; the bombers do not always know for sure if the true target is struck but are certain of inevitable civilian deaths. Strikes on homes are usually done with “dumb bombs.” These munitions do not have precision equipment, their weight made up instead with extra explosive. When no place is safe, families shelter together. As a result, families are eradicated together. The International Law Department’s allowance of 20 or more civilians slain in exchange for the mere possibility of killing a single target disgusted enough officers that they blew the whistle on the technology and the mentality that made family annihilation a de facto common policy.

Another common practice is the use of a “combat zone” or “kill zone”—a deadly radius around an army unit’s dug-in position. Anything or anyone entering this zone is shot or shelled. No signposts or banners mark the outer rim, and there is no forewarning of the kind the IDF boasted about during the war’s earlier air campaign. No one truly knows how many innocents have been slaughtered in these zones; the picture is distorted by the army’s method of classifying slain civilian men as “terrorists” in after-action reports, and few soldiers are willing or able to check if the details are true. One of the rare clues as to how troops operate in these zones is found in the case of the three Israeli hostages—shirtless, speaking Hebrew, waving a white flag—who wandered unknowingly into a zone and were killed on sight. The army’s own investigation revealed that the last to die was shot by a soldier who disobeyed a direct “cease fire” order from a superior. Some units, it seems, make up their own rules. Volunteer surgeons and nurses working in the few remaining functional hospitals report a “steady stream” of children trolleyed onto wards (or straight to the morgue) with single wounds to the head and torso, often from high-caliber ammunition. They too have been shot while clutching white cloths—evidence of sharpshooters, who, by definition, work alone and far from the shackles of good conduct.

When a three-car World Central Kitchen convoy laden with food aid set out from a warehouse in Deir Al Balah on April 1, its volunteer workers went by the reasonable belief that Israeli soldiers would not “go rogue.” They did not survive long enough to mourn the futility of such an assumption. The trucks were clearly marked, and the aid team had cleared its route with the army beforehand and gained a promise they would be safe. And still the convoy was struck three different times along a 1.5-mile stretch of coastal road—all because the drone operators claimed to suspect someone with them might be armed, a person they knew never left the warehouse. Though commanders sacked the soldiers responsible, the habit of firing at anything judged to be suspicious—on a whim, on a hunch, without any kind of rubber stamp—appears to be encultured in the army, a smug belief that even if soldiers break the strictest rules, they will not face a consequence. This was true of the general who dynamited Israa University without higher approval—approval that would have been given if he asked.

It is something of a cliché to say that the nonenforcement of the law leads inevitably to impunity; punish every crime equally or, in time, no crime will be punishable. In the Israeli case, this axiom is undeniable. In 2017, the brave human rights group B’Tselem was warning against the brutal policing and settlement of the occupied West Bank, a persistent pattern of violence driven in part by the unwillingness of military police and the courts to punish transgression of the code Israel swears it lives and dies by. It would lead, B’Tselem insisted, to more brutality more often. The army’s most murderous actions, even then,

were justified based on a formalistic adherence to [international humanitarian law] and to an expansive interpretation of these rules, to the point where they are drained of all meaning and substance. This conduct, which has caused thousands of casualties, has been largely ignored by the military law enforcement system. In most cases, no investigation is opened at all; in the rare cases that are investigated, no further action is taken. Other than a handful of cases, usually involving low-ranking soldiers, no one has been put on trial.

Now, in more extreme circumstances than the West Bank seven years ago, the ILD’s rules of engagement are thinner than a communion wafer and as pliable as a plastic bag. The rules have, by their permissiveness, transformed every soul in Gaza into a viable target, a potential victim, and the land itself into a free-fire zone. And every day John Kirby, U.S. national security spokesman, will appear coolly before their mutilated faces and swear some variation on the common theme: “To date,” Kirby said on April 2, we “have not found any incidents where the Israelis have violated international humanitarian law.”

One of the few beautiful qualities of law is its capacity to run both ways: It guards the potential victim from harm as well as potential perpetrators from debasing themselves. Every time the Israeli army and the whole political edifice that supports it permits an atrocity, it coarsens itself, makes itself a prisoner of its own cruelty. Cease now, before there is nothing left to salvage.