Letter to a Pilot

by Uri Avnery

I have read the interview given by your commander, Major General Dan Halutz, and, like many others in Israel and abroad, I was shocked.

On July 23, one of your comrades (or perhaps you yourself?) dropped a one-ton bomb on a house in a dense residential neighborhood in Gaza. The aim was to execute, without trial, Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas activist. Apart from him, 16 neighbors, including 11 children, were killed. Tens of other men, women and children were wounded.

In school you certainly learned the words of the famous poem by Bialik, the national poet, "Even Satan has not invented the revenge of a little child." I assumed that you are torn by doubt after this act, that you look at your children and tell yourself: "Children are children. How are their children responsible for the situation?"

And here comes your commander and says that you have no pangs of conscience, none whatsoever. I don’t know whether he is telling the truth or slandering you.

The general says that he told you: "Your execution was perfect…You did exactly what you were told to do…You did not deviate one inch left or right…You have no problem."

Those who do have problems with this action and protest against it (like myself) are called by the general "bleeding hearts…a insignificant and vociferous minority…" He accuses us of "daring to use methods of mafia-style blackmail against fighters…treason is forbidden…a paragraph must be found in the law in order to put them to trial in Israel…(this) reminds me of dark time of the Jewish people, when a minority amongst us informed against other Jews." He also condemns "the obsession of some journalists…they are bored…so they jump…"

These extreme utterances do not testify to the mental tranquility of the general, who says that he has "a deep feeling of justice and morality." I would say that on the head of the general, the blue cap is burning.* Each word betrays hysteria.

* An allusion to the Jewish adage: "On the head of the thief, the hat is burning," meaning that his behavior discloses his guilt.

But the style must cause deep anxiety. The words would have sounded natural if uttered by a general in Argentina or Chile during the military dictatorship, or by a Turkish officer about to topple the civilian government. When an Israeli general uses such words against the media and civil society, a red light is turned on. The more so since he was not summarily dismissed but, on the contrary, publicly lauded. Israeli democracy is losing height.

But I do not want to speak with you about Dan Halutz, but about yourself.

Who are you? What are you?

One of the pilots explained to the interviewer, Vered Levy-Barzilai: "(That) is the uniqueness and the beauty of the world of the pilot. You sit up above, quietly, with your wide space. There are no noises, no booms, no shouts of people. You are totally focused on the target, you don’t have the dirt and the horror of the battlefield. You do your thing and head home."

Dan Halutz, too, describes his feelings thus: "If you really want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I will tell you: I feel a slight bump to the plane as a result of the bomb’s release. A second later it’s gone, and that’s all. That’s what I feel."

"That’s all." Down below horrible things happen, mutilated bodies fly in the air, wounded human beings writhe in pain, people buried under the debris utter their last groan, women scream over the bodies of their children, a scene of hell, not different from the scene of a suicide bombing – and "that’s all". A slight bump to the plane, and then home, to a warm shower and bed.

I must confess that it is hard for me to imagine this experience. I did my combat service in the infantry, I saw who I was shooting at and who was shooting at me; I could at any moment have been wounded (as I was) and killed. It is difficult for me to imagine the experience of a person up in the sky, sowing death and destruction without being in any danger himself.

Is this pilot – you! – afflicted by doubt? Does he sometimes torment himself? Does he ask himself if a certain action is permitted, moral, right? Or does he – you! – become a robot, a "professional" who is proud of his perfect control over the awesome machine-of-death entrusted to him and of the "exact" execution of his orders?

I know that not all pilots are robots. I still see before my eyes Colonel Yig’al Shohat reading from his paper, with a voice trembling with emotion, his historic appeal to his fellow-pilots and pupils in the Air Force to refuse manifestly illegal orders, such as precisely this action in Gaza. Shohat, a war-hero who was shot down over Egypt and whose leg was amputated by an Egyptian surgeon, is the exact opposite of Halutz.

You must decide – to be a human being like Shohat, sensitive to the suffering of others, or a robot like Halutz, who feels a slight bump while he kills dozens of human beings.

The Rules of War were born after the Thirty Years War, one of the most horrible in the annals of Europe, a holocaust in which a third of the German nation was wiped out and two thirds of Germany laid waste. The international conventions are based on the conviction that even in a hard war, when each side is fighting for existence, the commandments of human morality must be kept.

Don’t make it easy for yourself by adopting the primitive slogans of Halutz, who justifies everything by saying that Shehadeh was "evil incarnate", words which betray his ultra-rightist world-view. Shehadeh was not put on trial. None of his alleged acts were proven. He certainly believed that he was serving his people, as you believe that you are serving yours. But even if it were proven that he was a dangerous enemy, this does not justify in any way the killing of his neighbors. The argument that this wholesale killing prevented the killing of Jews is not valid. When the pilot released his bomb he knew for certain that he was killing many people, while Shehadeh’s ability to kill us was only an assumption. On the other hand, it was certain that this killing would lead to acts of revenge, and that much Jewish flood would flow because of it. Furthermore, there is a hell of a difference between a guerilla group and a mighty army acting on behalf of a state.

Under these circumstances, would you have told your commander: "I refuse to fulfill this order, because it is manifestly illegal?" Israeli law and human morality oblige you to do so. But Dan Halutz says: "Refusal to perform a sortie is not part of the rules of my game."

What about the rules of your game?

Uri Avnery has closely followed the career of Ariel Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.

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