israel pilots strike against air strike

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    Reluctant Israeli pilots draw condemnation

    Associated Press

    POSTED AT 10:52 AM

    Jerusalem Ñ A group of Israeli reserve air force pilots drew condemnation Thursday for refusing to carry out air strikes in Palestinian areas, but their unprecedented protest set off an emotional debate on the ethics of the assassination of extremists.

    Pilots are held in the highest regard in Israel and their views carry considerable weight, since their skill and audacity are seen as key to the country's survival.

    Several hundred Israelis have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza in recent years, and there have been protests such as last weekend's Tel Aviv rally in which several thousand called for ending the occupation of the areas. But Israelis generally support the military's actions as needed to curb terror attacks, and no major anti-war movement has emerged.

    Wednesday's signed declaration condemning the air strikes shook the nation and raised new questions about the limits of protest in the military.

    The Israeli Air Force commander, Major-General Dan Halutz, said the signatories will be punished Ñ possibly jailed Ñ and accused them of playing politics rather than grappling with genuine moral dilemmas.

    The group of 27 is informally led by Brigadier-General Yiftah Spector, a highly decorated retired pilot who, according to Israeli media reports, participated in the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

    Nine of the pilots are still on active duty.

    In their petition, the pilots said air strikes on crowded Palestinian areas are "illegal and immoral." They also condemned Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, saying it corrupts Israeli society.

    In the past three years of fighting, Israeli pilots have carried out hundreds of air strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, targeting Palestinian police installations and weapons workshops of extremists.

    The most controversial of the air strikes involve targeted killings, in which helicopters Ñ and sometimes warplanes Ñ fire rockets and bombs at cars and homes of Palestinians.

    In the past three years, Palestinian medical officials said, about 140 wanted men have been killed in raids, although that figure includes those killed resisting arrest. More than 100 bystanders have also died, according to the medical officials.

    The Israeli public, traumatized by a Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign that has killed hundreds of civilians since September 2000, largely supports the army's tough measures, including the "targeted killings," widely referred to in Hebrew as "liquidations."

    The rebel pilots were lambasted Thursday in commentary in newspapers and radio talk shows. Critics accused the pilots of being immature, naive or having a secret political agenda.

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying the protest was a "grave matter" and would be dealt with swiftly. Former Israeli president Ezer Weizman, who commanded the air force in the 1960s, said the pilots' stance was immoral and belittled their apparent idealism as a "holier-than-thou attitude."

    Veteran journalist Dan Margalit wrote in a front-page commentary in the Maariv daily that the pilots abused their exalted standing.

    "If their idea is accepted, [Sheik] Ahmed Yassin and his compatriots in the Hamas leadership will be able to plan the next murder of Jewish children on a Jerusalem bus without interference," Mr. Margalit wrote in a reference to a mid-August terrorist bombing by Hamas that killed 23 bus passengers, six of them children.

    In response to that bombing, Israel accelerated its attacks, killing 13 Hamas members and six bystanders in nearly a dozen air strikes in Gaza City. Sheik Yassin, the Hamas founder and spiritual leader, survived such an attack earlier this month.

    The letter of protest marked the first time pilots have come out openly against air-force policy. In the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, some pilots expressed reservations about bombing cities and refugee camps but did not go public.

    Gen. Halutz played down the importance of the protest, saying the pilots were only a handful among thousands.

    "Refusal shouldn't be an issue in our army, especially not if we didn't ask these people to do anything immoral or illegal as they said in the letter," Gen. Halutz said.

    Some warned, however, that the protest could spread because of growing unease in the armed forces over military strikes that have failed to stop terror attacks.

    "Today, in light of pointless military operations ... people are beginning to ask questions," military commentator Alex Fishman wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "And these (the pilots) are the very best people we have. We can ground them, and we can lock them up, but we cannot ignore the questions they ask."

    Colonel Uri Dromi, another air force reservist, added that "when the time comes, say, to remove settlers from their homes, other people in the army or in the air force will say they don't want to obey these orders in the same way.

    "So once you start this, there is an erosion of the rule of law here of the whole democratic elements of the regime, and this is the end of the democratic structure in Israel."

    Yediot said dozens of Apache helicopter pilots, who carry out the bulk of the air strikes, have met with their wing commander to express their concerns. One participant said he was not convinced of the justice of his missions, Yediot said, and others complained that they were given bad intelligence that could endanger civilians.

    The pilots who signed the statement could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Lieutenant-Colonel Zeev Rotem, a retired combat navigator speaking on their behalf, said the norms of the air force have changed in recent years.

    "Today, we attack places where there are civilians, women and children, with the prior knowledge that ... there is a great chance they will be killed," Col. Rotem told Israel Radio. The protest, he said, is a desperate attempt "to make the army, the government and the citizens ... stop this crazy cycle that has hijacked this country."

    A watershed, for some pilots, apparently was last year's attack on Salah Shehadeh, leader of the Hamas military wing. A one-tonne bomb killed Mr. Shehadeh, an assistant and also 14 civilians, nine of them children.

    Gen. Halutz said at the time that he felt the bombing was morally correct.

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