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Israel Shaken As Pilots Protest Bombing Palestinian Civilians

by Peter Hirschberg

Israeli "Warning" Injures 100, Kills 2
(IPS) JERUSALEM-- "Only the best become pilots," they said in Israel in the early years of the state. Today, that still holds; only a few pass a gruelling battery of tests to become pilots. Even fewer complete the course, and those who do often move on to key positions.

But now some of "the best" are rebelling. A group of 27 pilots, some retired and some still doing active reserve duty, have sent a letter to the chief of the air force declaring their opposition to bombing missions in Palestinian cities.

"We, veteran pilots and active pilots alike, who have served and who continue to serve the State of Israel for many weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral attack orders -- in civilian population centers," they said in a letter made public.

The group was referring to Israel's policy of targeting Palestinian militants, whom the army often refers to as "ticking bombs." Along with militants, civilians have also been killed in these strikes, which began a few months after the Intifada erupted in September 2000.

In one assault last year, Israel dropped a one-tonne bomb on a home in Gaza to assassinate a top Hamas militant. He was killed. So were 16 civilians, nine of them children.

"As people who were educated with the moral code of the Israeli defense forces and the state of Israel, we have decided to...obey the order that obliges us not to carry out an order that is blatantly illegal," said one of the group of 27, identified only as Captain Yonatan.

Pilots inhabit the inner sanctum of the Israeli establishment, and form the Jewish state's most critical line of defense. The letter has therefore sent shock waves through the military and political leadership, and has sparked public uproar.

The pilots ventured beyond questioning the morality of hitting "innocent civilians" to the core issue that divides Israeli society -- the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "The continued occupation," they said, "is critically harming the country's security and its moral fibre."

Government and military leaders have attacked the group, saying the letter subverts the military, and gives Israel's enemies precious ammunition with which to attack it publicly. Other pilots have accused the group of "exploiting their wings" to get a political message across.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the letter had nothing to do with morality: "In my eyes, to prevent a terror attack in which dozens of women and children would be killed -- that's moral," he said.

Air Force Chief Dan Halutz, who grounded the nine pilots in the group who are still flying, accused the pilots of "sticking a knife in the back" of their comrades. No order, he insisted, had ever been issued to hit innocent people. "Sometimes we took decisions that were not optimal because we wanted to avoid hurting innocent civilians," he said.

But Halutz and other senior government figures focused most of their energies on trying to portray the group as inconsequential and marginal. "Most of the signatories have never participated in targeted assassinations in the territories," the air chief said. "They are not active fighters, and do not serve in squadrons which deal with that. We must keep things in proportion -- we are talking about only 27 out of thousands of pilots."

But the strenuous effort being made to dismiss the group as an aberration is evidence of the disquiet they have sown. "The best indicator of how influential this letter is, is the desperate attempt by the country's leadership to emphasize its marginality," Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem told IPS.

It will not be easy to ignore someone with the reputation of Yiftach Spector, the most senior of the signatories. Spector, a highly esteemed fighter pilot, flew in the bombing sorties that led to Israel's swift victory in the 1967 war. He also participated in the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Israelis today view both missions as having been of existential importance.

"This is a voice coming up from the very heart of the Israeli establishment saying that moral limits have to be set on the use of force," says Ezrahi. "The message to the leadership is that they are crossing red lines."

Former Israeli president and one-time air force commander Ezer Weizman condemned the letter, but recognized its potency. He likened the call to refuse orders to a "cancer" that had to be cut out "immediately, before it spreads.."

Some soldiers, most of them reservists, have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the course of the Intifada. The numbers, however, have never been large.

More than 18 months ago, a group of 50 soldiers and officers, calling themselves "Courage to Refuse" signed a declaration of refusal to serve in the territories. Since then, more than 500 soldiers have signed the declaration.. But the group has not succeeded in provoking public debate on army actions in the territories, or on the occupation.

It is still too early to measure the full impact of the pilots' letter and whether it will influence public discourse. Other pilots have already begun signing counter petitions.

Even on the Israeli left, which supports an end to the occupation, refusal to serve has never won broad support. Many left-wingers argue that refusal to do military service in the territories would legitimize those on the right who might then refuse to carry out orders to dismantle settlements in the West Bank if a peace agreement is reached.

The pilots' call raises again the argument that former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin offered when he went down the path of the Oslo peace agreements, says Ezrahi.

Rabin, he says, feared that "the occupation would spread demoralization in the ranks of the army, leaving it unable to face external threats. What are pilots supposed to do when they come back from an assassination mission and sit down in front of the TV, and see the pictures of (Palestinian) first-aid people evacuating dead children from the area they've just hit?"

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Albion Monitor October 1, 2003 (

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