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The License to Kill

Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit is considered Israel’s leading expert on the laws of warfare

Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit is considered Israel’s leading expert on the laws of warfare. Mandelblit was appointed as attorney general in 2016 after a long career in the Military Advocate General Corps, part of which he served in Gaza.


AS far back as the pre-Oslo era in the 1980s, when Israel fully controlled Gaza, he served as the military prosecutor for the Southern Command. Later, in the ’90s, he served as a judge on the military court of the Gaza region.

Mandelblit climbed every rung on the career ladder in the IDF legal hierarchy. Over his 20 years of service, he filled the roles of deputy chief military prosecutor, deputy president of the military court of the Southern Command and the ground forces, head of the chief military defense, and, finally, military advocate general.

Officials in the Justice Ministry (which opened a special operations room a day after Simchas Torah to provide a legal umbrella to war operations) testify that Mandelblit is the go-to expert for his successor as attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, on complex legal issues related to the war. In an extensive conversation with Mishpacha, Mandelblit sheds new light on Israel’s warfare legal strategy, which is a battle front of its own.

“One incident has been etched into my heart for 33 years,” Mandelblit says. “I was a judge in Gaza from 1989 to 1990, during which time I handled hundreds of murder cases. One case I remember in particular is the horrific lynching of Sargeant Amnon Pomerantz Hy”d in central Gaza. One of the rioters brought before the court was a 15-year-old boy who ‘explained’ his motives as follows: ‘The soldier I murdered wasn’t a human being. Everyone knows that the Jews are descended from monkeys and pigs, they’re sons of the devil. So I didn’t murder a person, because Jews are not people.’ ”


You’re known for choosing your words carefully, with a view to legal implications. There’s a spirited debate about whether Hamas can be equated to the Nazis. Do you except that ideological comparison?

“Yes, absolutely. No people other than the Jews have undergone massacres on this scale. But it’s not just about the numbers. It’s the dehumanization, the denial of the Jewish People’s humanity. For example, in Hitler’s satanic racial hierarchy, Gypsies were at the bottom, with blacks and Slavs slightly higher up. The Jews weren’t included in the hierarchy at all because the Nazis didn’t even see them as people, and Hamas is the only movement keeping this ideology alive. When that’s the motivation, when that’s the ideology, and it’s wedded to certain military capabilities, the only option left to us is to destroy those capabilities and root out Hamas. We have no choice.”

From day one, US president Joe Biden has supported Israel’s aim of crushing Hamas. At the same time, the president has repeatedly stated that Israel must comply with the laws of warfare. But is it even possible to cut off the head of the Hamas snake in full compliance with international law?

“That’s absolutely possible.” [The former attorney general replied without a hint of hesitation.] “And this is where legal experts come in. Our job is not to tie our soldiers’ hands, but to untie them and allow them to fight in a smart way. It’s important to understand that international law acknowledges the right of armies to win wars, within certain boundaries. In order to achieve our aims without interruption, we have to work within the rules. This is what President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and other friends of Israel are really saying: ‘You have to work within this framework, as a military objective in itself, because if you don’t abide by these rules, you won’t be able to continue fighting long term.’ ”

If you avoided watching any footage of the horrors of October 7, you did your mental health a favor. How does international law view terrorists who carried out so horrific a massacre?

“First of all, we have to understand that these are not soldiers but war criminals who perpetrated horrific atrocities. We, on the other hand, are simply killing our enemies. This is entirely legitimate according to the laws of warfare, and we shouldn’t be stopping but continuing in full force. You’re allowed to kill any enemy soldier or combatant as a first resource.

“This isn’t a policing mission like arresting robbers. We intend to defeat Hamas and kill every single one of its members, and that’s a legitimate aim that has its place in the laws of warfare. That’s how you fight, by simply killing your enemy.”

Before we wrap up, let’s wind back to the incident you opened with. You described sentencing a Gazan youth who saw Jews as “sons of the devil.” When you talk about the legitimacy of killing terrorists, this leads to the question of how you avoid civilian casualties. How do you distinguish between a civilian population, part of which participated in the incursion, looting, and massacre in Envelope communities, and Hamas itself? Are there even “uninvolved” people in Gaza?

“Anyone who participated in the massacre, even a civilian, must be treated as a terrorist. As for ‘civilians’ who joined the incursion and massacre, international law considers them to have lost their immunity, and they’re viewed as combatants for all intents and purposes, for the duration of the war.”

As a legal expert defending Israel, how do you respond to those who compare Israel’s evacuation orders for civilians in northern Gaza to expulsion or transfer — essentially, ethnic cleansing?

“That’s exactly what I had in mind when I said that abiding by the laws of warfare serves us not only ethically but even militarily. This [evacuation order] isn’t about ethnic cleansing but about protecting the civilian population. We’re telling civilians in Gaza to go south for their own safety, and this is not only our right under international law, but our duty.”

Is there any risk that IDF commanders will be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague at the end of the war?

“There’s always a risk. After all, there’s an investigation pending as we speak, in addition to remarks made by the prosecutor about current events. I don’t recommend worrying about this, we have to be professional. This is an asymmetric war in which one side abides by the laws of warfare while the other intentionally violates them. We can’t get distracted and get dragged into their home court, because victory will be achieved militarily, through full compliance with the laws of warfare. That’s in our interest.”


In this war, the IDF was given the “license to kill,” with temporary pauses for release of the hostages. History will judge whether the cease-fires were in violation of the Israeli public’s mandate to the emergency government to crush Hamas.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)

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