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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Chapter Activities

Chicago, IL

The Palestine Chronicle

Up Close and Personal: Israeli Refuser Pilot on US Tour
By Sonia Nettnin
March 18, 2005

"From his aerial view, Shapira flew over Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugee camps. While the helicopters blades spun, he looked below..."

Chicago, IL (PC) - On the final day of his U.S. tour, Israeli Air Force Pilot Yonatan Shapira spoke about his refusal to continue serving in the Occupied Territories.

Shapira is a former senior officer of the Israeli Defense Forces Black Hawk helicopter squadron, where he served for eleven years. In October 2003, Shapira authored and signed along with 26 other Israeli Air Force pilots the refusenik Pilots Letter.

The opening declaration reads: We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians.

The pilots also explained that they object to perform illegal and immoral commands, such as aerial attacks on civilian populations.

Like most kids in Israel, I wanted to be a pilot, Shapira said. Everything we are doing comes from a place of love for our country, he says with a gentle voice.

The KAM Isaiah Israel congregation and chapel visitors listened intently.

'Awareness'

Growing up in an air force family, Shapira lived on air force bases throughout Israel. His father was a squadron commander who gave his son a Zionist education. Shapira received training for the Black Hawk Squadron in the U.S.

From his aerial view, Shapira flew over Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugee camps. While the helicopters blades spun, he looked below. He saw the suffering on the Palestinian side. Shapira describes it as a process of awareness.

When he was in school, Shapira learned about freedom, justice and equality. Yet, Israeli actions toward Palestinians, Shapira indicated, contradicted what he was taught by his family and in school. The blood worth of the Jewish is the same as Palestinians, he added.

In July 2002, Shapira was on standby. In an Israeli settlement near Nablus, a suicide bomber blew himself up. During his suicide, he entered a Jewish familys house and destroyed their lives. In the rescue operation, Shapira flew the familys wounded children to a hospital in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. His helicopter was full of blood.

While he was flying, Shapira noticed a huppah, the canopy for a Jewish wedding ceremony. Although the flight was eight minutes, he thought the child victims in his helicopter might die. Yet, the people celebrating below him had no awareness for this reality, even though they lived a few kilometers away.

At present, Shapira volunteers as an instructor for The Israel Crisis Management Center Sela. According to the organizations web site, Sela is a volunteer organization founded in order to help new immigrants and their families during times of crisis.

Assassination Policy

Shapira said that Israels targeted assassination policy is a unthreatening name for bombs and missiles dropped on innocent families. He explained that a one-ton bomb is 2,000 pounds, more than one hundred suicide bombers together. When one of these bombs drops in heavily populated areas, more than 50 per cent who die will be innocent civilians.

The blood of Palestinians is equal to the blood of the Jewish, he said. Im not willing to kill innocent civilians.

On July 22, 2002, an Israeli Air Force plane dropped a one-ton bomb on a residential building in the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City. The target, Hamas Sheik Salah Shehadeh, was killed. Shapira shared the death toll from the bombing: 14 innocents killed, most of them children and babies. He did not convey the number of surviving victims. For a few seconds, Shapira was silent. His listeners, still.

Although Shapira was not involved in the bombing, he expressed how he felt about it. I felt like they were throwing a bomb inside my heart. When he said the last, few words, the cadence of his voice fell.

When children are in danger, men use their bare hands and carry them to safety. Yet, in the crimes against Israelis and Palestinians that Shapira described, they use their fingers to pull the triggers of detonation and their thumbs to push the red buttons of devastation.

Back at the squadron, his air force commander said the mission was executed perfectly and that they should sleep well at night.

The former Israeli air force commander who made the alleged comment is IDFs Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen Dan Halutz. Because of the alleged comment, Yesh Gvul, The Public Committee Against Torture, writers, poets, academics, and pilots questioned Halutzs moral standards for the leadership position, in a series of petitions filed with Israels High Court of Justice. The organizations demanded that the HCJ suspend him from this position until a criminal investigation is carried out to determine whether he is guilty of a war crime for the July 2002 Gaza City bombing.

Halutz submitted a letter to the HCJ about the alleged comment. The organizations responded: Halutz does not believe in the sanctity of the life of Palestinian civilians in a press release issued 12/28/04.

The IDF Chief of Staff is in charge of the Gaza Strip Pullout, which has a deadline of July 20, 2005.

Responsibility

This circle of violence, I have to take responsibility for my part, Shapira said.

After he returned to the squadron, he and his family would participate in demonstrations against the occupation.

Throughout these pivotal experiences, Shapira felt anger and disappointment toward the army for not giving people any hope for peace. He said violence creates hate and suffering, so he felt compelled to do something about it. Within the military family, pilots agreed with Shapira, so they organized the composition of the letter. Retired generals and commanders verbalized their agreement with the potential, refuser pilots. Other pilots knew about the letter and expressed their support.

The Pilots Letter further explained that their actions in the Occupied Territories dealt a moral blow to Israel and corrupted Israeli society. The refuser pilots wrote that they will defend their country for the Israeli Defense Forces, but not for the Israeli Occupation Forces.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, his commander interviewed him. Shapira told his commanding officer to charge him, not just discharge him. You taught me to refuse through the pilots letter of obedience, he said. Pilots are under obligation to refuse illegal and immoral commands.

The IDF discharged and dismissed all of the refuser pilots from the air force.

Within the military family, no one who knew about the impending letter reported it. As a result, Israeli Authorities felt threatened by this silence.

Afterward, some members of the media called the pilots and told them they did the right thing.

I think we are the most self-loving Jews for Israel, he said. When you are against the occupation.

'Most Important Mission'

The refuser pilots dedicate their lives to explaining their decision. They feel the reform movement needs to apply pressure. Shapira said the enterprise of the settlements is an illegal issue. He believes the reform movement should come from outside of Israel also, which is why he launched an eleven-city U.S. tour.

I am really hopeful things will change, he said. This is our only chance.

Shapira explained that he and the other pilots talked with U.S. Congressman about their decision. The Members of Congress expressed that when they vote, they have to check with The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.

When the public first learned of the Pilots Letter, some people called the refuser pilots traitors. However, writers, academics, artists, and filmmakers of Israels cultural elite expressed their support for the refuseniks.

If we contribute to this change in reality, then its the most important mission weve ever taken.

-Brit Tzedek vShalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace and the Refuser Solidarity Network sponsored Shapiras U.S. tour.

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