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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace



The Washington Jewish Week
July 15, 2004
Moral act or prelude to anarchy? Israeli 'refuser' hopes his action leads to stronger IDF


By Aaron Leibel

Israeli pilot Yonatan Shapira believes his refusal to carry out bombing attacks in the West Bank and Gaza will bolster the Israel Defense Forces and democracy in the Jewish state.

"There is nothing that harms the army and democracy more than the occupation," says the former IDF helicopter pilot, who helped compose and signed a letter last October in which 27 pilots refused to serve in the territories. "If we could contribute to ending the occupation, that would lead to the strengthening of the army and democracy."

Israeli Embassy spokesperson Mark Regev disagrees. He argues that in Israel, civilian officials make policy and people doing military service are required to "do their lawful duty."

"When soldiers say 'no,' that's a prerequisite for anarchy."

Regev notes that many leaders from the Israeli left -- including figures in the Labor and Meretz parties -- who agree with the pilot about the corrosive effects of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have condemned soldiers who refuse to carry out orders.

Shapira, 32, was in Washington last week, on a trip sponsored by the Refuser Solidarity Network, a nonprofit seeking to support those refusing to serve in the territories and to bring the "refuser message" to the United States. There are some 1,300 Israeli refusers, according to RSN.

Graduating from a flight course in 1993, Shapira was a full-time rescue and assault helicopter pilot with the Israeli Air Force until 1999 when he was discharged and became a member of the reserves.

In the reserves, the Tel Aviv resident served as a pilot, operations leader and instructor.

He says he became distressed by Israel's policy of targeted assassinations, some of which he participated in.

But it was the July 2002 killing of Hamas leader Salah Shehada, in which 14 civilians were killed, that jolted him to take action.

"It was a shock to me because the army had killed children," Shapira said.

He says he was appalled when Israeli Air Force Commander General Dan Halutz said the attack was within his moral standards.

"He said pilots should sleep well at night, but I couldn't," Shapira says.

As a result, he began to speak to other pilots about the policy of targeted assassinations and found that he wasn't alone in his feelings.

Shapira says he discovered that some reserve pilots, who found those operations objectionable "found excuses not to take part in attacks, but didn't speak out [about their opposition]."

But he found others who were ready to join him in writing a letter of refusal.

In October 2003, he and others penned a letter, which read in part: "We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians.

"These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society.

"Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength."

When he heard about the letter, his squadron commander said he admired Shapira's courage.

But 10 days after the letter was sent, Shapira was called in for an interview with Halutz and, when he refused to recant, was dismissed from the Air Force.

Although he and the other pilots have become controversial figures within Israeli society, there have been no other repercussions from the letter for Shapira, a civilian pilot.

He notes that, as reservists, he and the other co-signers were permitted to engage in political activity when not called up.

As for their disobedience, he says, Israeli Air Force pilots are taught to refuse to carry out illegal or immoral orders.

Were the IDF to take them to court, Shapira suggests, it would have to deal with the legality of targeted killings.

 
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