The Pilot Who Said No

Many in Israel are still trying to make sense of Yonatan Shapira,

Many in Israel are still trying to make sense of Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli Black Hawk helicopter pilot who in September 2003 made public "the pilots’ letter" of refusal, which he authored and 26 other pilots signed.

"We refuse to take part in attacks by the Air Force on civilian populations, and we refuse to harm innocent civilians. These acts are illegal and immoral, and the direct result of the ongoing occupation, which corrupts Israeli society."

This break with patriotic vocation was too much for their superiors. Even though they declared their intent to continue to serve on defensive missions, Shapira and his co-signers were promptly dismissed from the Air Force.

A cradle Zionist - a believer, as he put it, in "the one-sided history lessons, the laundering of words" - Shapira could never quite rid himself of doubt about Israel’s military adventures outside its borders. He was opposed to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, but his opposition took the form of demonstrating and voting for the left. Bending to the sanctity of the command, he continued to fly commandos into the Occupied Territories.

"It took me a while to realize that I had responsibility for what those commandos were doing there. They weren’t picking flowers."

It was not until the second intifada, with its cycle of Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli counterattacks, that Shapira’s discontent moved into a new phase. Two events changed everything. The first was at Itamar, an Israeli settlement near Nablus. A Palestinian terrorist infiltrated the settlement, killing and wounding many children. Shapira ferried the wounded children in his helicopter to a hospital near Tel Aviv. On the way in, he noticed a Jewish wedding below. People were eating and dancing; the wedding canopy was fluttering innocently on the ground, a level below the blood of the children. "The wedding party was unaware of the wounded children right above them, of the battlefield just to east of them. Inside me, there was also unawareness."

He began to rethink many things - including Israel’s use of targeted assassinations. "In the beginning, I thought it was okay. I was filled with anger at the suicide bombers who blew up restaurants and buses. But then it became a routine. First, it was a suicide bomber. Then it was a Hamas leader. Then a Hamas member, or a spokesperson. Then it was a mistake, and a whole family was killed."

LATE ON THE NIGHT of July 22, 2002, in what was no mistake, a one-ton bomb was dropped by an Israeli F-16 on the house of Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh in a crowded Gaza neighborhood. More than a dozen people were killed, including Shehadeh. Nine of the dead were children.

"The children were just like the children who died a few weeks earlier at Itamar. Only these children were Palestinians. For me it was as if that bomb was dropped inside my heart." Shapira labeled the bombing a revenge killing, a war crime.

He gets asked: What if Orthodox Jewish soldiers choose to do as you do, and on moral grounds disobey orders to evacuate settlers? Shapira smiles. "My favorite question. I tell people, ‘I know the Ten Commandments. I know that one of the commandments is, Do not kill. I don’t know any commandment that says, Do not evacuate. Or, Do not move people from here to there.’"

He continues, "Our refusal, the refusal of soldiers to serve in the Occupied Territories, is based on our belief in human values, in human dignity. The aim of the other side, in refusing to obey orders, is to prevent the end of the crime. The occupation is a long, ongoing crime."

Robert Hirschfield was a New York-based writer with a focus on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, particularly the role of Israeli refusers and Palestinian nonviolent activists, when this article appeared.

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