Israeli govt. denounces, threatens pilots who refuse murder missions

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Thu Sep 25 21:10:56 MDT 2003

Reuters    September 25, 2003

Israel reels at pilots' refusal to go on missions

By Jeffrey Heller

Jerusalem - Israel sharply criticized and grounded on Thursday a group
of air force pilots who refused to carry out missions against
Palestinian militants in which civilians could be killed.

"The pilots' mutiny" was how Israel's largest newspaper, Yedioth
Ahronoth, described their action as commentators speculated whether
other soldiers might follow suit in opposing the way the military
confronts a Palestinian uprising.

"Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, but it is unacceptable
that a group of military men interfere in such a issue, an issue
decided on by the political echelon after great deliberation," Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon told Israel TV.

The air force chief, Major-General Dan Halutz, said in a statement
that those in the group still in active service would be grounded and
given a chance to retract their statement or face dismissal from the
air force.

But much of the emotive debate touched off by a letter released by 27
veteran airmen -- only nine of whom are still called to active duty as
reservists -- largely veered away from the moral aspect of the deaths
of innocents.

It focused instead on the embarrassing blow dealt to an air force
which Israel regards as one of its proudest achievements and whether
members of what Israelis call a people's army can, in matters of
conscience, take a stand against official policy.

"We, who were taught to love Israel and contribute to the Zionist
enterprise, refuse to take part in attacks on civilian population
centers," the pilots wrote in a letter to Halutz.

It was the highest-profile act of defiance by members of the armed
forces since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when a tank brigade
commander resigned rather than invade Beirut, after saying he saw
children through his field glasses.

Norms have changed

Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been hardened by
violence that has included dozens of suicide bombings in Israeli
cities and air attacks on militants in which Palestinian civilians
have died.

Israel has a small active group of conscientious objectors, but their
campaign has been overshadowed by the daily bloodshed.

An F-15 pilot who signed the letter, identified only as Captain Alef,
told Israel's Channel Two television: "If dropping a bomb on a
seven-storey building only to find out 14 innocent civilians were
killed, of them nine children and two women, if that is not an illegal
order, then what is?" Israel drew international condemnation last year
when 16 civilians died after an F-16 warplane dropped a one-ton bomb
on a residential neighborhood in Gaza City to kill Salah Shehada, a
top commander in the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israeli decision-makers always
took possible civilian casualties into account.

"For example, we carry out the operation after 8 a.m., because
children will not be there, or use a much lighter bomb that does not
guarantee the mission will be successful but does ensure innocents
will not be hurt," Shalom told Israel Radio.

Shalom said the pilots appeared to have an alternative political
agenda, referring to their accusation that occupation in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip had "corrupted Israeli society."

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