Israeli debate over soldiers’ duty deepens


NEW YORK — The recent refusal by 27 high-ranking Israeli Air Force officers to follow superiors’ orders that would involve attacking Palestinian civilians signifies a rebuke of the Israeli government’s policy of “targeted liquidations.” What makes the pilots’ decision particularly important is that their declaration of refusal was signed by one general, two colonels, nine lieutenant colonels, eight majors and seven captains. Their action not only underscores the illegality of Israeli government policies on this issue but also questions the “following orders” argument as a justification for a crime.

The Air Force pilots’ decision follows a similar action by 500 “refuseniks” among ground troops — who also refused to carry out military actions that would endanger the lives of innocent Palestinians.

Dozens of innocent bystanders have been killed by pilots’ air strikes and hundreds of others have been killed by Israeli Army attacks since the latest intifada began in September 2000. During the “extrajudicial” execution of senior Hamas leader, Sheik Salah Sehada on July 23 last year, 23 Palestinian women, children and elderly were killed, including two entire families.

The pilots’ decision has been met with widespread repudiation by the Israeli Army and government. Only nine of the signatories are currently on active duty. They were suspended by the Israeli armed forces chief, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, who says they will not be reinstated unless they recant in public.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the reasons behind the pilots’ refusal to fly over Palestinian territories are “more political than moral.”

Even if one considers the action political, it will be difficult for the Israeli government to ignore the patriotism and love of the Israeli pilots for their country. The most senior of the signatories is Maj. Gen. Yiftah Spector, a veteran Israeli pilot who participated in the 1973 Yom Kippur war — a living legend and a role model for many Israelis.

The pilots’ letter of refusal made their reasons and intentions clear. “We, veteran pilots and active pilots alike, who have served and who continue to serve the State of Israel for many weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral attack orders, of the type carried out by Israel in the territories.

“These actions are illegal and immoral and are the result of an extended occupation that is corrupting Israeli society as a whole. The continuation of the occupation is seriously harming the security of Israel and its moral integrity.

“We, who have been educated to love the state of Israel and to contribute to the Zionist endeavor, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers.”

Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam, of the National Religious Party, said the letter was a realization of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s vision of the disintegration of Israeli society.

Halutz, the armed forces chief, stated, “There is no corps and army more humane and moral than us.” He added that if the pilots believed that they had received an illegal order, they should have informed their commanders of it, instead of taking their position public in a letter.

The Israeli establishment has reacted quickly to the pilots’ rebellion. Ezer Weizman, former president of Israel, declared to Israel Army Radio: “They should all clear out with their tails between their legs. It is like a cancer: It will spread if not cut off.”

Longtime Israeli pacifist Uri Avnery said, “Yesterday’s heroes were turned overnight into enemies of the people.”

Human Rights Watch has strongly criticized the policy of “targeted liquidations.” In a letter to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Hanny Megally, HRW’s executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division, stated: “This is, in essence, a policy of killing without public accountability. The prime minister of Israel is effectively acting as prosecutor, judge and jury in a secret process where the death sentence can’t be appealed.”

The Israeli Army and government will probably be able to contain the protest erupting in their midst. What they won’t be able to contain is further discussion of the “following orders” or “due obedience” argument, which soldiers traditionally have used to defend themselves against criminal charges over illegal acts committed while they were just following the orders of their superiors.

The legal right to this excuse was used amply by Argentine military officers following that country’s “dirty war.” Recently the Argentine Congress annulled legislation granting that right. As the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals have held, it is a defense that will not stand up under international law as a justification for these types of crimes.