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A year and a half ago, a small group of Israelis decided to break a deeply entrenched taboo and bring up the subject of war crimes. Until then, it was self-evident that the IDF is "the most moral and humane army in the world", as the official mantra goes, and is therefore quite incapable of such things.
The Gush Shalom movement (to which I belong) called a public meeting in Tel-Aviv and invited a group of professors and public figures to discuss whether our army is committing such crimes. The star of the evening was Col. Yig’al Shohat, a war hero shot down over Egypt in the Yom Kippur war. His damaged leg had to be amputated by an Egyptian surgeon. Upon his return, he studied medicine and became a doctor himself.
In a voice trembling with emotion, he read out a personal appeal to his comrades, the Air Force pilots, calling on them to refuse orders over which "the black flag of illegality is waving" (a phrase coined by the military judge at the Kafr Kassem massacre trial in 1957). For example, orders to drop bombs on Palestinian residential neighborhoods for "targeted liquidations".
The speech aroused a strong echo, but the army command succeeded in "damage control". The Air Force commander, General Dan Halutz, perhaps the most extremist IDF officer except Chief-of-Staff Moshe Ya’alon, was asked what he feels when he releases a bomb over a Palestinian neighborhood and answered: "I feel a slight bump." He added that after such an attack he "sleeps very well."
It seemed as if Shohat’s call had evaporated into thin air–but not any more. The seed has matured slowly. This process accelerated after a pilot released a one-ton bomb over a residential neighborhood in Gaza in order to kill a Hamas leader, abruptly ending the lives of 17 bystanders, men, women and children. Many pilots were deeply troubled by this. Now the conscience of 27 of them has spoken out.
In Israeli mythology, combat pilots are the elite of the elite. Many of them are Kibbutz-boys, who were once considered the aristocracy of Israel. Ezer Weitzman, a former Air Force commander, once coined the phrase "The Best Boys for Flying" (and immediately added, in the typical macho style of the Force, "and the Best Girls for the Flyers".)
The pilots are bought up from an early age to believe that we are always right, and that our opponents are vile murderers. That the army commanders never make a mistake. That an order is an order, and theirs is not to reason why. That professionalism is the highest virtue. That problems have to be solved inside the Force. That one does not question the authority of the political leadership. There exists a whole mythology about the part played by the Force in the Israeli victories in all our wars: from the tiny Piper planes in 1948, the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and so forth.
The Air Force does not, of course, take in non-conformists. Candidates for flight training are scrutinized carefully. The force chooses solid, disciplined youngsters who can be relied on, both as to their character and their views, Zionists and the sons of Zionists.
Moreover, the Air Force is a clan, a sect whose members are ferociously loyal to the Force and to each other, There have never been public quarrels or signs of mutiny in the Air Force.
All this explains why the pilots struggled with themselves for so long, before they found in themselves the inner strength required for such an extraordinary, morally courageous act as publishing this appeal.
The 27 Air Force pilots informed their commander that from now on they would refuse to fulfil "immoral and illegal orders" that would cause the death of civilians. At the end of their statement, they criticized the occupation that is corrupting Israel and undermining its security.
The most senior officer among the signatories is Major General Yiftah Spector, who is also a living legend. He is the son of one of the "23 men in the boat", a group that was sent in World War II to demolish oil installations in Lebanon (at the time under Nazi-puppet Vichy French control) and never heard of again. Yiftah Spector was the instructor of many of the present commanders of the Air Force. Altogether, the statement was signed by one general, 2 colonels, 9 lieutenant colonels, 8 majors and 7 captains.
Such a thing is unprecedented in Israel. Because of the special standing of the Air Force, the refusal evoked a much louder echo than the refusal movement of the ground troops that seems to have leveled out, for the moment, at about 500 refuseniks.
The army establishment, the real government of Israel, sensed the danger and reacted as it had never reacted before. It started a wild campaign of defamation, incitement and character assassination. The heroes of yesterday were turned overnight into enemies of the people. All parts of the government–from ex-president Ezer Weitzman to the Attorney General (who already has his eye on a seat in the Supreme Court), from the Foreign Office to the politicians of the Labor and Meretz parties–were mobilized in order to crush the mutiny of the pilots.
The counter-attack was headed by the media. Never before did they expose their real face as on this occasion. All TV channels, all radio networks and all newspaper–without exception! – revealed themselves as servants and mouthpieces of the army command. The liberal Haaretz, too, devoted its front page to a ferocious attack on the pilots, without giving space to the other point of view.
It was impossible to switch on a TV set without encountering the Air Force commander, and after him a long line of establishment figures who, one after another, condemned the pilots. Army camps were opened to the cameras, loyal officers damned their comrades as "traitors" who had "stuck a knife in our backs". Except for one single interview on Channel 2, the "refusers" were not given any opportunity at all to explain their point of view or answer their detractors.
No doubt: the establishment is worried. Perhaps it may succeed in containing the protest this time and deterring other potential mutineers by spreading defamation, fear and punishment. But the message of the 27 has been written and nothing can change that.
With this sortie the flyers have served the State of Israel more than on any of the hundreds of others in the course of their army service. Some day Israel will recognize the huge debt it owes to the valiant 27.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.