Gideon Levy has written a searing piece at Haaretz that takes aim at Israeli Air Force Pilots for wielding incredible power against a defenceless people. His point is an obvious one and has been made a million times over but the asymmetry of air-power is particularly pronounced for the Israeli Air Force pilots flying their present missions over Gaza, he argues:
They have never seen an enemy plane coming toward them – the last aerial battle of the Israel Air Force took place before most of them were born. They never saw the whites of the eyes and the red blood of their victims from up close. They are heroes who are battling the weakest, most helpless people who have no air force and no aerial defense, barely even a kite.
It has become de rigueur to say that drones are the ultimate manifestation of asymmetrical war but Levy’s point is that piloted planes produce much the same relationship between bomber and bombed, targeteer and targeted as do ‘unmanned’ planes and their victims. But perhaps more interesting is his treatment of the revered social standing of pilots in Israel juxtaposed against the destruction that they help produce:
They are the most articulate, polished, brilliant and educated of soldiers. They study at the best universities during the course of their military service, come from the best homes, the most highly regarded high schools. For years they are trained for their job, in electronics and avionics, strategy and tactics, and of course flying. They are the very finest of Israeli youth, destined for greatness. They really are the very best, ‘bro: They are the ones who become pilots, the best pilots, and they are now perpetrating the worst, the cruelest, the most despicable deeds.
Inter-service and inter-unit rivalry means that almost every service or unit looks down on the others (in much the same way as anyone in the chain-of-command always think their own perspective is the best and most important). But in Israel, partly because it has compulsory military service (two years for women, three for men), the social hierarchy of some services and units is understood by the society at large. Fighter pilots, those who work in secret intelligence units, and the military lawyers unit (the Military Advocate General), for example, are some of the most revered units while artillery and infantry attract respect because of the danger that these brigades face. Those who do “non-combat” service in the IDF are colloquially referred to as ‘jobnicks’. I mention this as background to Levy’s broader point about the lofty heights of low deeds. While many Gazans are mourning the loss of their family members, some Israeli’s will be lauding the ‘precision’ and ‘ethics’ of the Israeli Air Force’s ‘most moral’ bombers. When Israeli’s stood and sat watching flashes of lights over Gaza at the weekend they were simultaneously applauding Israel’s naked power as well as the handiwork of those pilots above. But for each mission those pilots fly, as Derek Gregory has pointed out in relation to U.S. targeted killing and drone warfare (see here and here among many other posts and the full essay here) there are several others involved in planning and operationalising the ‘kill-chain’, so much so that focusing on pilots seems to miss the point that a whole apparatus of people and objects are needed to get pilots into the air and their bombs onto the ground.
Levy bemoans the lack of what Israeli’s call ‘refusniks’ in the current war:
There isn’t a single person like Yonatan Shapira or Iftach Spector [former ‘refusniks’] who will get up and ask: Is this the way? There isn’t a single person who will salvage their honor. Not a single one who will refuse to take part in this death squadron. Not a single one.
The reference is to a letter written and signed by 27 Israeli Air Force Pilots who refused to serve in the IAF bombing of Lebanon in 2002. But what Levy doesn’t call upon is the longer history of refusal to serve in the IDF (and IAF). Derek Gregory has explored this in fascinating detail over at geographicalimaginations and because of what is happening today I’d like to quote the letter of those courageous pilots in full. The translation is provided by Seruv which means ‘courage to refuse’, an organisation of Israeli’s who refuse to serve:
We, Air Force pilots who were raised on the values of Zionism, sacrifice, and contributing to the state of Israel, have always served on the front lines, and were always willing to carry out any mission to defend and strengthen the state of Israel.
We, veteran and active pilots alike, who have served and still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories.
We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. 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 the Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.
We who serve as active pilots – fighters, leaders, and instructors of the next generation of pilots — hereby declare that we shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force on every mission in defense of the State of Israel.”
The politics of refusal is a fascinating topic – PhD anyone? – and in the context of Israel it is important to remember that those who do refuse are shunned by society and often by their own families. I have several friends (whose names I won’t mention) who did prison service to avoid military service or who moved abroad and vowed never to return. Whatever effect these acts have on the broader militarism of Israeli society, they carry a huge symbolic weight and whenever one is accused of treachery and treason in Israel it is a sure sign that pacific politics hurts war politics. This, presumably, is why former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz deferred to the law in response to the above letter:
“A soldier has no right to refuse a legal order, and the IDF issues only legal orders,”
Deference to the law is an appeal to legitimacy while ignoring the political nature of their opposition. Their refusal may not have been legal under Israeli and IDF law, but this does not render it morally wrong.
I wouldn’t want to overplay the size and significance of those Israelis who are critical of Israeli militarism and Occupation, but it is important to acknowledge that they do exist – indeed, they may one day be our greatest hope, especially given Netenyahu’s resolve that ‘no international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power‘. Until the attitude of Israeli society changes in a radical way there will be no end to the bombing in sight.
In 2003 former IAF pilot Dan Halutz was asked what it felt like to drop bombs that had killed children in Gaza the year before. His response quickly became (in)famous in Israel and partly inspired the 27 ‘refusniks’ to write their letter of refusal:
How do I feel? Nothing. Just a light buffet on the wing, that’s all. I sleep well at night.
The quote is from Iftach Spector’s memoir ‘Loud and Clear‘ and is well worth the read. Perhaps the pilots over the skies of Gaza might look to figures like Spector, who refused to serve an air force he once cherished. It’s not only pilots who might refuse but also those 40,000 troops amassed on Gaza’s border. They too have a source of inspiration and I highly recommend the work being done by the Israeli group, Breaking the Silence. As it says on their website BtS is:
an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada  and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.
It’s important to note that these are former soldiers, many of whom have committed potential crimes and have come to regret their actions only when it is, in many ways, too late. Israeli’s (and I suspect others) have a name for this too: they call it ‘shooting and crying‘ and a number of recent films, including Waltz with Bashir (Valz im Bashir, Ari Folman) and Lebanon (Samuel Maoz) explore the theme of trauma and regret among Israeli troops (both focus on the Lebanon war of 1982). Still, these retrospective works and the current work being done by groups like Breaking the Silence and Seruv, are a far cry from Israeli teen’s taking ‘selfies’ with the caption “Arabs are not human, they’re beasts” (as documented recently by David Sheen at Storify and another PhD on gender, sexuality and war as Laleh Khalili pointed out), or Israeli’s who wear t-shirts of pregnant Palestinian women with text reading ‘one shot, two kills‘.
I simply don’t know what else to say…