TEL AVIV (Sep. 25)
“The best to the IAF” is a time-honored slogan of the vaunted Israel Air Force.
“Hell no, we won’t go” is not.
So when 27 Israeli combat pilots sent a letter to the IAF’s chief saying they would refuse to carry out air strikes against terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the news was a bombshell for national morale.
“Pilot Mutiny” roared a front-page headline Thursday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
Only nine of the letter’s signatories are on active duty, and they quickly were suspended by the IAF’s chief, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, pending an investigation. They will not be reinstated unless they recant in public, Halutz said.
Halutz also ordered the grounding of those pilots who signed the letter and who serve as flight instructors.
“These are not the people who should educate the next generation of pilots,” Halutz said, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told an Israeli television station that he takes a grave view of the pilots’ actions.
“I hope all the necessary steps are taken, and quickly,” Sharon told Channel Two. “I am not ignoring their statements, but they should have been aired in the proper forums.”
He added, “I think that there is no military in world like” Israel’s, which “acts like this in terms of investing thought in preventing harm coming to innocents.”
Many commentators said that regardless of the validity of the pilots’ complaints, their decision to make the letter public — and the fact that two-thirds of the signatories are not even on active duty — showed that the move was primarily political.
Regardless of whether or not court-martial proceedings are initiated, the incident underscores an ongoing debate in Israel on the ethics — and efficacy — of Israel’s anti-terrorism policies.
In a letter sent to Halutz on Wednesday, the pilots said they were “opposed to executing attack orders that are illegal and immoral, of the kind the State of Israel carries out in the territories,” a reference to targeted strikes against leading terrorists in Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza.
In media photos, several of the pilots insisted on being photographed with their faces obscured, in accordance with military protocol.
“We, who were raised to love the State of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in air force assaults on civilian population centers” and “refuse to continue harming innocent civilians,” the letter said.
Israel began occasionally using air force planes and helicopters in anti-terror missions in the West Bank and Gaza after Palestinians launched their deadly uprising against Israel in September 2000. The operations include missile strikes against leaders of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigades.
The use of infantry forces generally is preferred in the West Bank, but in fenced-off Gaza, where ground forces cannot easily enter, the job often goes to the IAF.
For all their precision, the guided missiles fired by Apache and Cobra helicopters and F-15 fighter jets have caused dozens of bystander casualties in the densely populated streets of the coastal strip.
“The norm that we were taught was that we do not go to places where civilians are known to be present,” Ze’ev Rotem, a retired IAF navigator who was not part of the petition, told Israel Radio. “That norm has changed. Today, attacks take place on targets where there are civilians, including women and children, knowing there is a good chance they will die.”
An Israeli military spokesman responded, “Our forces strike when absolutely necessary and to protect innocent life. All efforts are made to avoid causing non-combatant casualties. The terrorists endanger fellow Palestinians by operating in populated areas.”
The IAF’s chief said Israel’s is the most moral and humane fighting corps and that the refusal to serve is an inappropriate form of protest. Halutz noted that the group of refusenik pilots constitutes only a tiny fraction of Israel’s thousands of pilots.
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said Thursday it would discuss the pilots’ letter next week. Meanwhile, another group of seven pilots wrote a letter rejecting the pilots’ refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The 27 pilots are not Israel’s first soldiers since the beginning of the intifada to declare themselves unwilling to serve in Palestinian-populated areas.
In January 2002, a group of 50 Israeli reservists signed a petition declaring their intention to refuse service in Palestinian-populated areas. That list since has grown to more than 500.
At least two-dozen Israelis have been sent to the stockade for refusing to serve in the military during the intifada.
But this week’s announcement was the first such action of this generation in the IAF, whose members are considered the elite of Israel’s armed forced and are widely revered by Israel’s public.
There are some older precedents of refusenik pilots, however.
Abie Natan, a bomber pilot from the 1948 War of Independence, was jailed for 40 days after he flew to Port Said, Egypt, for a private rapprochement following the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1989, Natan got a similar punishment for holding an unauthorized meeting with PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
Natan said his guilt over causing civilian casualties spurred him to seek peace.
During the 1982 Lebanon War, there also were several reported cases of IAF pilots returning to base without having dropped any bombs — a decision to disobey orders to bomb what the pilots thought were crowded areas.
Responding to this week’s protest, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom pointed to the letter’s complaint that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had “corrupted Israeli society” as proof that the pilots were motivated as much by politics as moral probity.
“They should all clear out with their tails between their legs,” fumed Ezer Weizman, former Israeli president and IAF chief, on Israel Army Radio. “It is like a cancer: It will spread if not cut off.”