The Man Who Didn’t Walk By

This story ranges from the skies over Palestine to a sewer in Montpelier, Vermont.

Part 1.

The man who “didn’t walk by” is Yonatan Shapira, until recently pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter and captain in the elite Israeli Air Force. I met Yonatan not many days ago when he came to speak in my town, Montpelier, Vermont, about a major turning point in his life

Yonatan is a lover of his country, a composer, and a handler of extraordinary machines. He was dismissed from Israel’s air force in 2003 because he refused to take part in aerial attacks in areas of the Occupied Territories of Palestine where there exist large concentrations of civilians liable to become “collateral damage.” In Yonatan’s view, such attacks are both illegal and immoral because of the near-inevitability of their killing innocent civilians. In support of his position, Yonatan cites the authority of the Israeli army’s own code of ethical behavior, and the fact that, (by a recent reckoning) of 2,289 Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces in the current Intifada, less than a quarter (550) were bearing arms or were fighters.

At the same time, Yonatan has declared himself absolutely ready to fight in the defense of Israel proper. He is not a pacifist, though I think his conscience and his understanding of the complex character of modern warfare may bring him to that position, too.

* * *

Yonatan was shocked into his refusal to obey orders by two occurrences, among others.

One was the action of a fellow Israeli pilot who fired a 1-ton bomb from his F16 fighter jet, as ordered, at a house in Al-Deredg, where a suspected Palestinian terrorist was staying. Yonatan identifies Al Deredg as one of the most crowded districts of Gaza, and indeed of the world. Besides the targeted Palestinian, 13 local people were killed in that attack: 2 men, 2 women, and 9 children, one of whom was 2 years old. 160 other people were wounded in the explosion. A 1-ton bomb, Yonatan calculates, has approximately 100 times the explosive power of the type of lethal belts worn by Palestinian suicide bombers. In proportion to the US population and the fatalities of the original 9/11 disaster, now an icon and classic measure of terrorist devastation, the fatalities of that single attack on tiny Gaza (population 1,200,000) were greater by 10% than the fatalities in America’s own 9/11.

Nor was the bombing of Al-Deredg unique in the scale of its impact on civilian life. Yonatan has cited the casualties resulting from 7 other targeted assassinations conducted in Palestine by the Israel Defense Forces, where, along with the 7 targeted individuals, 44 bystanders were killed. Taking Palestine’s overall population at 3,500,000 and that of the US at 290 million, those 44 bystander deaths would represent, in proportion to the US population, another one and a-third 9/11’s.

As a volunteer in Selah, a group that assists victims of Palestinian terror, Yonatan has first-hand knowledge of the appalling effects of the multiple 9/11-scale attacks that Israel has tself experienced, at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. He was nevertheless — or consequently — appalled by the action in Al-Deredg of his fellow pilot. He considered the means used in the attack , a 1-ton bomb, and its goal, the assassination of one man, to be wildly disproportionate to the attack’s predictable collateral effects, and a violation of the rules of engagement concerning which all Israeli soldiers are instructed. Those rules, as Yonatan has understood them, include the obligation to refuse to obey orders that are clearly illegal and immoral.

The other occurrence Yonatan cited, that pushed him to become a refuser, came out of a disturbing exchange he had with the commander of the Israeli Air Force, General Dan Halutz, concerning his refusal to serve on missions in the Occupied Territories. In Yonatan’s words:

“In the discussion of my dismissal, I asked General Halutz if he would allow the firing of missiles from an Apache helicopter on a car carrying wanted men, if it were travelling in the streets of Tel Aviv, in the knowledge that that action would hurt innocent civilians who happened to be passing at the time. In answer, the general gave me his list of relative values of people, as he sees it, from the Jewish person who is superior down to the blood of an Arab which is inferior. As simple as that.”

As simple as that.

Yonatan is convinced that actions like those of his fellow-pilot and attitudes like those of his commanding general are destroying Israel from within, whatever their effect on Palestine.

* * *

Superficially, Yonatan conforms to a stereotype of a career military officer, air force style. He’s tall and lithe, dresses trimly, and wears his hair closely clipped. He’s good-looking, in a high Mediterranean way, and young.

He departs from the military stereotype in other respects. There’s nothing of the eagle in his bearing. He’s unassuming, and in conversation and argument, he’s almost humble in his appeal to his interlocutor’s reason and understanding. He listens and speaks with the innate respect and the close attention of a scholar pursuing an investigation, or a navigator studying a chart.

* * *

Part 2.

This section of the story of the man who didn’t walk by took place following a public address Yonatan gave at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Montpelier, Vermont towards the end of a recent speaking tour in the Northeast.

The meeting in the small synagogue had been crowded, and feelings in the audience ran high. Of the ten or dozen people who rose to speak and raise questions after Yonatan’s half hour address, the majority were critical of his position ­ some of them bitterly so. Their composite position devolved on the conviction that the extreme actions Israel takes against the Palestinians are justified by Israel’s need to defend itself against the steady menace of Palestinian suicide bombers and against what they conceive to be a sea of hostile Arab neighbors surrounding it.

Following the meeting, the audience spilled out into the synagogue parking lot where, in the lingering daylight of a midsummer evening, the discussion continued. After a quarter of an hour of this, when I heard a red-faced elderly woman, standing on a stairway one step above Yonatan, berate him as a traitor to his country and an enemy of the Jewish people altogether, I thought that Yonatan needed a break. We were expected at a nearby restaurant where a table had been set for us and half a dozen friends. Yonatan said to the woman, as I drew him away, that he was sorry in his heart that she felt that way.

* * *

A few minutes later, as Yonatan and I approached the restaurant, we heard a young woman who was standing at the curb gasp out, “Oh my God!” On her way to her car just then, she had let a bunch of keys drop down into a sewer grate, where they disappeared from sight. She stood helplessly at the curb, her face flushed with surprise and helpless misery. Diners on a balcony situated in front of the restaurant looked down at the drama, in mid-bite.

Yonatan took an immediate interest in the case. The woman’s unspoken appeal was to the anonymous world, but Yonatan considered himself personally summoned. I followed his lead, in comradeship. As the woman looked on, we both kneeled down at the edge of the sewer to see if the keys were visible below. Peering through the grate, we could make out that the sewer’s bottom, six feet below us, was covered with water; how deep, we couldn’t tell. We hooked our fingers into the grate and tugged, to lift it off. It was as immovable as if fixed in cement.

The woman’s case looked hopeless to me. And friends and dinner were waiting. I suggested to the woman that she call the police; that she could get help from the city maintenance people the next day; that she leave a note of explanation on her car, which happened to be parked illegally; that she call home for someone to pick her up. I was hungry, and worn out from the stress of the meeting. I wanted Someone Else to take care of the stranded woman.

While I spoke all this good advice to the woman, Yonatan had disappeared, momentarily. With good instinct, he had gone to an alley-way beside the restaurant, where he found a substantial length of flexible bell wire. But of what use, I wondered, could that floppy, thin wire be, in retrieving a heavy bunch of keys from an unknown depth of sewer water, six feet or more beyond our reach?

Another contribution came along that minute, from a friend, Deborah Stoleroff, who had been eating dinner at a table on the outdoor balcony. She handed us an old-fashioned wire hanger that she had located. This is, incidentally, the Deborah who for a year has been turning out a weekly newsletter, “What’s a Citizen To Do?”, that lists local community activities connected with stopping the war in Iraq.

As Yonatan fingered the bell wire, experimentally, and I unbent the wire hanger, a small crowd began to gather, including the amiable restaurant manager. The distraught woman’s problem was dramatically apparent: “keys” and “sewer” are ideas that, brought together, represent an archetypal dread strong enough to provoke everyone’s sympathy and engage their ingenuity — Yonatan’s most of all, as matters were developing.

Now we needed something both rigid and with a long reach, to combine with our two kinds of wire. I asked the restaurant manager if he could lay his hands on a pole, and in a minute he produced one … not long enough to reach the water’s surface, but capable of taking us almost there.

Yonatan took full command, without words, and by common consent. He bent the stiff coat hanger into the shape of a long L with a short foot, and using the bell wire which was as good as common cord for this purpose, he bound the upper part of the “L” to the shank of the pole, thereby adding a foot to the pole’s reach.

We were in business. Yonatan and I knelt on opposite sides of the sewer. He slipped the pole through the grate, and we peered into the dim depths of the sewer as he began trawling for the cluster of keys … which were attached, fortunately, to a small chain. As we peered down and our eyes became accustomed to the gloom below, we found that we could faintly make out the sewer’s bottom. The water there stood in fact only a few inches deep, and was clear. Our pole/coat-hanger combination, it turned out, was long enough to scrape the sewer’s floor.

While Yonatan fished, in the murky light of the sewer’s bottom, I went from door to door hunting for a flashlight. For Yonatan, the want of light down below wasn’t, in any case, an absolute obstacle. At the meeting, earlier, he had spoken about his experience of making night-time landings without benefit of lights, when he feared his helicopter might be fired on.

Before I could locate a flashlight, I heard someone call out, “He’s got it!”

Yonatan, wonderfully, had hooked the keys. Returning from across the street, I saw him draw the pole up, carefully, carefully, and, reaching his fingers through the grate, pluck the chain loaded with keys off the improvised hook at the end of his rig.

With perfect timing, a waiter came out of the restaurant with a supply of paper napkins. Yonatan dried the keys off and returned them to their owner.

There was standing applause from the diners on the balcony and from the handful of people who had gathered on the sidewalk to watch the little drama. The woman, dazed with relief, thanked Yonatan simply for restoring her keys, and he disappeared inside the restaurant to wash up for dinner.

The woman was herself ready to leave now, with the take-out bundle she had picked up from the restaurant. I lingered a minute to tell her who the tall man with the foreign accent and princely manner was, in the wide world, and gave her my phone number in case she might have some further word to say to him. Dazed as she was by the events of the quarter of an hour, she seemed not to understand what I blurted out about Israel and Palestine and a soldier’s refusal to perform bad acts.

I haven’t yet heard from her. My fellow Vermonters are courteous, but separate and shy in the presence of strangers and their strange acts.

JULES RABIN lives in Marshfield, Vermont. He can be reached at: