Israel Defense Forces Col. Bentzi Gruber is a battle-hardened vice commander of a tank division who has spent more than 30 years in service.
Yet to this day he is still troubled by the accidental killing of an elderly woman by troops under his command.
“It was 25 years ago,” Gruber told a crowd of about 150 at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison. “I can still remember her husband holding her and crying.”
At an Oct. 26 program cosponsored by RPRY and the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park, Gruber said it is important to avoid “collateral damage” for both ethical reasons and for the psychological toll it takes on troops.
As a reservist, Gruber commands the 20,000-member Division 252 and recently participated in Operation Protective Edge, this summer’s military action in Gaza. He is also founder of Ethics in the Field, designed to shatter myths about the IDF’s counter-terrorism tactics and highlight its extensive efforts to reduce civilian casualties.
Gruber frequently lectures throughout the world, including on college campuses and high schools and to cadets at West Point.
In 1981, he also established the nonprofit Chesed in the Field to instill in IDF soldiers values of community, social responsibility, and morality. Participants engage with children with special needs or take part in holiday parties with hospital patients.
Through videos and accounts of his own experiences, Gruber laid out a picture of the split-second decisions that must be made in deciding whether there is a terrorist threat that must be dealt with immediately, or whether to back off so as not to harm innocent Palestinians.
“We hear many times about how Israel is killing babies,” said Gruber. “We hear these stories that they think we are Nazis.”
However, Israel has one of most ethical fighting forces in the world, he said, dropping leaflets 48 hours before entering an area to warn civilians to leave. Twenty hours before, villagers are called while another unit sends text messages.
“We are the only army in the world that warns our enemies we are coming,” said Gruber. During this summer’s combat in Gaza, he said, “We delayed a 4,000-man unit that was set to attack because people didn’t leave their houses.”
In some cases during Operation Protective Edge, civilians were encouraged by Gazan leaders to go to the roofs of their houses instead of leaving. In those cases, the IDF would fire a small ordnance in the corner — called “knocking on the roof” — to warn they meant business.
In a scenario in which militants hide in hospitals and schools and use children as human shields, Gruber said, “typically our soldiers have eight seconds to figure out what’s happening and decide whether to shoot,” whether force is necessary to complete the mission and if so, how much.
Gruber said soldiers must assess whether force can be used without harming innocents, including women and children.
“If you have a doubt, no doubt you don’t shoot,” he said. “You have to know this 15-year-old is really your enemy.”
There are also grey areas complicating the situation. “What if you have a car with a terrorist, but inside that car there are also four kids?” he asked. “If you hit the terrorist you know you will kill the kids.”
On the Palestinian side, Gruber said, “collateral damage is a treasure,” bringing them international sympathy.
“You know when I talk to U.S. soldiers they tell me when they enter a village in Afghanistan, people run out of town,” said Gruber. “When we come they run out in the street. We are the best show in town. If I would use my tank in these narrow streets I would kill 10 children. So I send in snipers, and [the Gazan militants] try to grab a kid to run across the street. They grab a kid because they know we won’t shoot.”
With combatants hiding in hospitals and schools, holding the line on civilian casualties is a constant battle for IDF soldiers. But they struggle to reduce civilian casualties also because, Gruber said, a soldier never forgets killing an innocent person, especially a child.
“When you come back from the battlefield you do not leave anything there,” he said. “You bring it back with you.”