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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
July 14, 2004
Israeli 'Refuser' Speaks out in Washington
By Beth R. Alexander
Washington, DC, Jul. 14 (UPI) -- Jonathan Shapira, a leading helicopter pilot in the Israeli army was dismissed from service and branded a near traitor by his government after refusing to obey orders.
Shapira, until recently a respected senior officer in the Israeli army's elite "Black Hawk" helicopter squadron, was cashiered from the army after publicly condemning his government's policy of targeted assassinations meant to contain Palestinian militants.
Last week Shapira, 35, came to Washington, bringing what began as an internal debate in the Israeli army and highlighting it in the American consciousness. During a three-day visit, Shapira met with government officials, international organizations and student groups in an attempt to publicize the Refuser Movement in Israel and seek U.S. support.
After provoking outrage among the highest ranks of the Israeli army and having met with fierce rebuke by state officials, including former President Ezer Weizman who views Shapira as "immoral," Shapira was not expecting a warm reception from American Jewish organizations.
"We're going to speak very fast before they kick us out," he said half-jokingly.
The Refuser Movement started in October 2003, when Shapira drafted and issued the "Pilot's Letter" signed by 28 Israeli Air Force pilots, one-third active reservists, two-thirds veterans.
This declaration, published in Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, states the pilots' refusal to participate in attacks on Palestinian territory, claiming these actions are "illegal and immoral," and "a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society."
Shapira, born and raised in a strongly patriotic home, traced his family's martial history. His father was a squadron commander and fought in all of Israel's wars, including the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur (October) War. Both his brothers fought in commando units, and both put their names to the contentious Pilot's Letter. From 1991, after the first intifada and during the years of the Oslo Peace negotiations, the young Shapira served as an elite pilot and commander of forces for more than seven years. He led dangerous missions inside Lebanon, including rescue operations.
The current intifada, or uprising, began at the end of September 2000.
In 2001 he became a reservist pilot, spending two days a week on active duty while attending college, where he studied music and composition.
Shapira immediately accepted his commander's invitation to return to full-time active duty.
"It was impossible for me as a fighter in the Air Force not to be able to fly missions at the time of battle," he said.
"I was used to participating in every kind of operation and every defense of my country."
After a year of overseas training in Alabama, he returned to the Israeli Air Force as a captain and operations leader of an elite commando unit.
He spoke nostalgically of the time he spent serving his country and as a leader who was always at the forefront of rescue operations. Even now he seems unable to divorce himself fully from a strong sense of commitment to his people.
"I still have this instinct when something happens and I know there a lot of injured people, to call my squadron and ask them if I need to come," he told United Press International.
Although Shapira now refuses to fly, he is still closely bound emotionally to the Black Hawk squadron. His words convey a certain reverence and awe for what he described as "an enormous and fabulous machine."
In 2002, after a period of heavy suicide bomb attacks and mounting death tolls of Israeli civilians, the army adopted a policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders. Shapira, although not personally commanded to attack the suspected militants, disagreed with this policy.
The turning point and loss of faith came for Shapira on the night of July 23, 2002, when the Israeli Air Force bombed the Gaza City house of Hamas military commander Salah Shehade, killing him and 14 others, including his wife and three of his children.
Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that in the two years prior to his death, Shehade was directly responsible for initiating and directing many attacks in which dozens of Israeli citizens were killed and hundreds wounded. The ministry also states that Shehade was behind the financing of laboratories for the production of Kassam rockets and was personally involved in the purchase and manufacture of arms.
"This bomb killed something deep in my belief in the system," Shapira said. The pilot's parents did not initially support the ideology of the Refuser Movement that their son spearheaded. It was not until later on that they gave him their backing.
For all the refuseniks' claims of the injustice and immorality of some Israeli army actions, many others defend those measures.
Helen Friedman, president of Americans for a Safe Israel, said the Israeli Defense Force is "incredibly moral, disciplined and ethical in all its behavior, more so than any other army in the world and sometimes to its own detriment."
This "refusenik" phenomenon is not unprecedented in Israel. The original Israeli Refuser group, Yesh Gvul, was formed in 1982, when some pilots expressed reservations about Israel's campaign in Lebanon. However, this is the first time that pilots have come out openly against Air Force policy and have actively campaigned for international support.
In an already sober and somewhat uncertain atmosphere following last week's decision by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations' call on Israel to dismantle the disputed West Bank security barrier, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referred to this current show of refusenik dissent within his own establishment as "a grave matter."
Yet the Israeli government has little cause for concern, according to the view of Jonathan Friedman, who served as a voluntary reservist in the IDF between 1996 and 2001 and now is Executive Director of the Center for Executive Strategy in Washington. He estimated that 99.9 percent of the military supports the government's policies.
According to an article published Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, there are only about 500 refusers in an army that numbers hundreds of thousands.
Brig. Gen. Gershon HaCohen, speaking to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on April 29, estimated that "the percentage of those who ideologically refuse to obey orders is so low that many commanders have no such soldiers in their units.
"People in America and in Israel understand today that peace is something that comes only if society is ready to fight to keep it, to defend it," he said.
Many have made light of the issue, shrugging off the refuser movement as peripheral to Israeli society and by no means an indication of Israeli attitudes as a whole. "It is foolish to make issues out of such nonsense," Helen Friedman said.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said by using the name "refuseniks," the dissenting soldiers are trying to cloak themselves with the legitimacy of the Jews of the Soviet Union. The term "refusenik" was applied originally after the 1967 Six-Day War to ethnic Jews to whom the government of the former Soviet Union denied permission to emigrate to Israel. It has since taken on pejorative connotations in Israel when applied to soldiers who level criticism at the government and the military.
"They are a handful of people asking Israelis to commit an illegal act," he told UPI.
According to Israel Embassy spokesman Mark Regev, such actions disrupt the democratic process. "It's not for every soldier to decide what's right to do," he told UPI. "That's not democracy; that's anarchy."