The pilot who said no

Yonatan Shapira stood up for peace inside the Israeli Air Force

Robert Hirschfield | Jan/Feb 2006 issue

Many in Israel are still trying to make sense of Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli Black Hawk helicopter pilot who in September 2003 made public a “pilots’ letter of refusal” which he authored and 26 other pilots signed.

“We refuse to take part in attacks by the Air Force on civilian populations, and we refuse to harm innocent civilians. These acts are illegal and immoral, and the direct result of the ongoing occupation, which corrupts Israeli society.” This was too much for the pilots’ commanders in the Israeli military. Even though Shapira and his co-signers declared their intent to continue to serve on defensive missions, they were promptly dismissed from the Air Force.

Two events led Shapira to pen the letter. The first was at Itamar, an Israeli settlement near Nablus. A Palestinian terrorist infiltrated the settlement, killing and wounding many children. Shapira ferried the wounded children in his helicopter to a hospital near Tel Aviv. On the way in, he noticed a Jewish wedding below. “The wedding party was unaware of the wounded children right above them, of the battlefield just to east of them. Inside me, there was also unawareness.”

He began to rethink many things—including Israel’s use of targeted assassinations as a political tool. “In the beginning, I thought it was okay. But then it became a routine. First, it was a suicide bomber [who was assassinated]. Then it was a Hamas leader. Then a Hamas member, or a spokesperson. Then it was a mistake, and a whole family was killed.”

On the night of July 22, 2002, in what was no mistake, a one-ton bomb was dropped by an Israeli F-16 on the house of Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh in a crowded Gaza neighborhood. More than a dozen people were killed, including nine children. “The children were just like the children who died a few weeks earlier at Itamar. Only these children were Palestinians. For me it was as if that bomb was dropped inside my heart.”

Shapira is often asked what if Orthodox Jewish soldiers chose to do as he did and disobey orders to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza. Shapira replies. “I know the Ten Commandments. I know that one of the commandments is do not kill. I don’t know any commandment that says do not evacuate.”

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners magazine (August 2005),

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