Jerusalem, Sept. 25 (Reuters): Israel sharply criticised and grounded today a group of air force pilots who refused to carry out missions against Palestinian militants in which civilians could be killed.
“The pilots’ mutiny” was how Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, described their action as commentators speculated whether other soldiers might follow suit in opposing the way the military confronts a Palestinian uprising.
“Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, but it is unacceptable that a group of military men interfere in such a issue, an issue decided on by the political echelon after great deliberation,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israel TV.
The air force chief, Major-General Dan Halutz, said in a statement that those in the group still in active service would be grounded and given a chance to retract their statement or face dismissal from the air force.
But much of the emotive debate touched off by a letter released by 27 veteran airmen — only nine of whom are still called to active duty as reservists — largely veered away from the moral aspect of the deaths of innocents.
It focused instead on the embarrassing blow dealt to an air force which Israel regards as one of its proudest achievements and whether members of what Israelis call a people’s army can, in matters of conscience, take a stand against official policy.
“We, who were taught to love Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in attacks on civilian population centres,” the pilots wrote in a letter to Halutz.
It was the highest-profile act of defiance by members of the armed forces since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when a tank brigade commander resigned rather than invade Beirut after saying he saw children through his field glasses.
Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been hardened by violence that has included dozens of suicide bombings in Israeli cities and air attacks on militants in which Palestinian civilians have died.
Israel has a small active group of conscientious objectors, but their campaign has been overshadowed by the daily bloodshed.
An F-15 pilot who signed the letter, identified only as Captain Alef, told Israel’s Channel Two television: “If dropping a bomb on a seven-storey building only to find out 14 innocent civilians were killed, of them nine children and two women, if that is not an illegal order, then what is'”
Israel drew international condemnation last year when 16 civilians died after an F-16 warplane dropped a one-tonne bomb on a residential neighbourhood in Gaza City to kill Salah Shehada, a top commander in the militant Islamic group Hamas.
Foreign minister Silvan Shalom said Israeli decision-makers always took possible civilian casualties into account.
“For example, we carry out the operation after 8 am, because children will not be there, or use a much lighter bomb that does not guarantee the mission will be successful but does ensure innocents will not be hurt,” Shalom told Israel Radio.
Shalom said the pilots appeared to have an alternative political agenda, referring to their accusation that occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had “corrupted Israeli society”.
In Gaza, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat urged Israel to work with Palestinians towards a lasting peace in holiday greetings dismissed by Israel as propaganda.
Arafat made the comments in a message sent to Israeli President Moshe Katsav ahead of the Jewish New Year, which starts on sundown on Friday.
“On this occasion, we pray to God to enable us to work together honestly to build the basis for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace and to achieve the historic reconciliation aspired to by our two neighbouring Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” Arafat said in the message.
Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, called the message “part of the normal propaganda behaviour of Yasser Arafat” and said Israel “cannot believe one word which comes out of the mouth of this man”.