Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2005, pages 18, 49

Special Report

Yonatan Shapira: Israel’s Pilot Refusenik

By Robert Hirschfield

Israeli refusenik Yonatan Shapira (courtesy Refuser Solidarity Network).

“MY ENGLISH is very basic,” Yonatan Shapira told the Manhattan crowd at a Brit Tzedek V’ Shalom (Jewish Alliance For Justice & Peace) conference (see p. 65), “but I want to say that a year and a half ago I learned how to say ”˜no.’”

In September of 2003, 27 Israeli pilots signed the Pilots Letter, refusing to fly missions over the occupied territories. Shapira, author of the letter and one of its signers, was an officer in the Black Hawk helicopter squadron who had flown hundreds of missions over the territories as a rescue pilot in his 11 years in the Israeli air force.

After a career of being a good pilot, and the son of a good pilot, he said he was finally able to see through “the one-sided history lessons, the laundering of words,” and came to realize that occupation meant subjugation, that the targeted assassinations of Hamas and other Palestinian activists left many innocent civilians inexcusably dead.

“In July of 2002,” Shapira recalled, “an F-16 took off from the center of Israel and killed Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas commander with blood on his hands. They dropped a one-ton bomb on his house in Gaza, killing 14 people, nine of them children. It was a war crime. You cannot fight terrorists with terrorist means.”

The Pilots Letter caused an uproar in Israel. Many called the signatories traitors. Some, Shapira is happy to say, told him and his co-signers that it was the first time in years they felt hope. Amos Oz and a group of Israeli writers in the peace camp publicly announced their support for the pilots.

The Pilots Letter led to the dismissal of its signers from the air force. Shapira was brought before air force commander General Halutz.

“In the discussion of my dismissal,” he said, “I asked Gen. Dan Halutz if he would allow the firing of missiles from an Apache helicopter on a car carrying wanted men, if it were traveling in the streets of Tel Aviv, in the knowledge that the action would hurt innocent civilians who happened to be passing at the time.”

Refusing to respond to Shapira’s ethical question, the general instead answered from the standpoint of moral relativism. Jewish actions must be evaluated from the perspective of Jewish superiority to the Arab, he said, moral and otherwise.

At an alternative Independence Day torchlighting ceremony in April 2004, Shapira addressed his “good friends” in the air force with the following words: “Think about what you are going to tell your children in another 20 years, not what people will say about you today. Don’t be in self-denial to the human being that you are, and to the ongoing process of your heart closing down. Use the huge power of a single small word: No.”

During Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, 2,000 Israeli peace activists, many of them reservists, signed the Yesh Gvul (“There Is A Limit”) petition refusing to be “occupiers and oppressors” of another country. While there were no signatures of pilots on the petition, there was one documented case of an Israeli pilot who, when ordered to attack the city of Tyre, opted to drop his bombs in the Mediterranean. The Pilots Letter was an unprecedented act by members of a revered Israeli elite.

Since becoming a high-profile dissenter, Shapira has been giving talks not only in Israel, but in Europe and the U.S.

After an interview on Israeli TV, the interviewer informed Shapira that a poll had been conducted among viewers.

“Most viewers do not agree with you,” the interviewer said.

“Most of the world does agree with us,” Shapira replied.

His new path has also taken him into the Palestinian community, Shapira said.

“For me, it’s very important to speak with Palestinians,” he explained. “Sometimes they ask me tough questions, but that is encouraging. When we are talking, some Palestinians tell me that they thought Israelis and Jews were just Sharon types. The only young Israelis they know (Shapira is in his early 30s) they see coming into their homes in the middle of the night to take away their father or brother. They never met an Israeli who is willing to sit in jail for not serving in the army. It gives them hope.”

A question he inevitably is asked is why the government has not prosecuted him and the other pilot refuseniks. By contrast, Yesh Gvul resisters consistently have been jailed for disobeying military orders.

Shapira believes the reason is simple. Prosecuting the pilots would be playing into their hands: a trial would give them the attention they want.

“The only way they can charge us in court and send us to jail is to prove that the orders we said were illegal were legal,” he noted. “And there is no way they can justify, even in an Israeli court, that dropping bombs and missiles in civilian areas is a legal act.”

These days, friends in Tel Aviv advise Shapira to relax: “Peace is just around the corner,” they say. “You did your part.”

His take on the present situation is less sanguine. “I think that the real disengagement that is going on now in Israel is the disengagement of people from the reality they live in. At the same time Sharon and Abu Mazen were shaking hands, people were having to evacuate their homes and fields for the building of the wall and the enlarging of settlements. So we must not stop doing what we are doing. Now, because there is hope, the pressure must be greater than ever. If you support Sharon,” he stated, “this support must come with pressure.”

He invited the Jews at the Brit Tzedek conference to love Israel with “tough love.”

“The role of the Jewish community in the States is essential to our future,” Shapira maintained. “The whole political situation in Israel depends on the American government. As a Jew, as a lover of Israel, you must stand up and criticize the government of Israel. No one can call you an anti-Semite. It is your job to be a non-insane Jew. And once the Jewish community changes its attitude toward Israel, maybe that will influence the American government’s attitude toward the 51st star in the flag. Because if the American leadership wanted us to end the occupation 30 years ago, they could have done it.”

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based free-lance journalist who is writing a series of articles on the Israeli refusenik movement.