IAF Gaza strike.
Palestinian police officers removing a body from the ruins of an IAF Gaza strike. Photo by AFP
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"Who knows what happened on July 22, 2002?" Maj. T., an Israel Air Force navigator, asked the audience at Tel Aviv's BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture on December 19, 2010. They came for "The Limits of Obedience," part of a discussion series called "The Military in a Democratic State" and held in cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces Staff and Command School.

A paratroop commander, also a major, had already related dealing with a religiously observant soldier's refusal to obey orders during the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. (The officers' full names appeared in the invitation to the event. ) An older, higher-ranking officer who was with them interrupted occasionally. The audience consisted of about 50 teenagers studying in BINA's secular yeshiva in preparation for military service. They did not know what had happened on that date.

On July 22, 2002 an Israeli plane dropped a 1-ton bomb on a house in Gaza City in which Hamas military wing commander Salah Shehadeh was staying. Last month Maj. T. spoke about the moments before and during the bombing and about his discovery that civilians had also been killed. Haaretz has obtained a recording of his remarks. They appear below in translation, with light editing and skipping over words that were indecipherable due to poor audio quality. It constitutes the first open publication of testimony of a participant in the bombing that killed, in addition to Shehadeh and his aide, also 14 civilians, including eight children.

The operation was preceded by several days of on-base training and preparations.

"On the third night," T. related, "there was a siren, and we were allowed to take off. That was at 11 P.M. We take off from Hatzor. It takes two minutes to fly from Hatzor to Gaza. Two minutes after takeoff we're told 'Go wait over the sea.' That means west, far out, in the dark, so there's no noise. This guy [the target] can smell planes, hear planes and flee. We wait, and I tell myself: Cool, he's alone now, the guy's alone ...

"The base commander is dying to tell us who it was. [He] climbed the [plane's] ladder on the second night ... and told us, 'Do you want to know who it is?" [We said] 'Get off the plane, go away, we don't want to know ... ' because it doesn't mean anything. I neither knew nor understood who it was.

"We're waiting in the sea now, 50 minutes. My flight controller tells me over the radio, 'Permission to strike.' I said 'great' ... You've seen it in the movies, that's how it looks. We go east, west, hit, the house goes down, falls ... We don't see anything around, from that height you don't see much. I have a television screen where I see the target. I hit, using night vision, land and wait for the base commander. When I returned [he] told me, 'You know who that is?'

T. asks his audience: "Who knows who Salah Shehadeh is? Salah Shehadeh is the Hamas chief of staff. In 2002 there's Sheikh Yassin, he's the spiritual leader, and there's Salah Shehadeh, the military commander. [The base commander] told me it was Salah Shehadeh, and I said, Great. I have no idea who or what you're talking about. We made a good hit, 'alpha' in air force jargon, and that's it, we went to bed. The next day, actually the same day, we're told that the strike killed Salah, his wife, his daughter, his son and others ... That's the subject. And I fired ...

"A few days later, three guys came to the squadron. Three reservists. They said 'What did you do?' They heard from the media. 'You went, you killed, you murdered, ta-ta-ta,' they said. OK, we got it. The squadron commander called us all in and we talked. The squadron talked, maybe the first or second discussion of ethics I know of, in the squadron certainly, about the rest [the incidents, the subjects] I don't know. I think [there are discussions after such incidents]. They have them all the time. In the first (discussion ) we presented the incident from start to finish and we said ... [after all, they told me, permission to strike. Had I known there were 14 people with him ... what should I have done?"

Someone in the audience: "You should have done your job."

T.: "What am I?"

Someone in the audience: "You should have done your best, yes, because maybe at that stage you're already, on the one hand you must be full of adrenaline, you're already in the plane ... seconds before you strike. If you hesitate now it could make you itch more and kill more people."

T.: "I'm not sure I would have hit like that ... You were discussing lawful and unlawful commands, and we'll get to that. Had I had intelligence information that wasn't intentionally connected to me, it's not my job, I don't know, I don't have the big intelligence picture like someone else. Had I known there's an intelligence picture connected to things forbidden to me, I wouldn't have hit. It would have been wrong for me to hit."

Someone in the audience: "If you'd known there were 14 you wouldn't have hit?"

T.: "Had I known when I was in the air? The moment I take off, I become a war machine. Until I know, until the point when I know I'm doing something wrong. Something wrong is to kill ordinary people."

Someone in the audience. "Military Intelligence knew."

T.: "Forget Military Intelligence. I'm not investigating them. Maybe they knew, maybe not."

Someone in the audience: "That's a kind of withholding information."

T.: "It's not withholding information. There's a very clear separation here ... I only want you to look at my perspective as a pilot. I didn't know ... I knew there was somebody, I knew I'd been working on this for a long time, and now I'm striking in the most professional way possible."

I didn't have a choice

The senior officer: "To understand the considerations of the other side - he's in the air. He is not involved in the considerations. There are considerations, there's a mission commander who makes decisions. The mission commander knows the details, and if he doesn't then that's a mistake. It could be, by the way, that he knew the details and it was a conscious decision he made - that innocent people would be killed because the goal justified it."

Someone in the audience: "But then it wasn't out of choice."

The senior officer: "The pilot in the air doesn't know the considerations, and if permission to fire is given then he fires."

Someone in the audience: "But he has no choice."

The senior officer: "He has no choice. He had no choice, that's true."

T.: "I have no choice. My entire choice was before, in advance, on the ground. And in this mission the timing, the choice of the bomb, counting the fuzes ... how much damage the bomb would cause, etc. But in the air you have no [choice]. You have your professional considerations, but you can't permit yourself to go beyond that. I know about an incident, I think in [Operation] Peace for the Galilee, in Tyre, when there was a totally unlawful order that the pilot didn't carry out.

"After the number of fatalities became known] there was an ethics discussion. As a pilot I don't have the option of choice. I strike in Syria, I strike in Lebanon, and in Gaza I don't. I can't do that. In the territories no, in Iran yes - just an example. With every mission I am assigned I have to look in the mirror. That's true of everyone, in the air, on the sea, look in the mirror, and say, can I do this thing? ... If the guy who came and said ... would have thought before - if he can carry out the mission and what exactly happened there, he would create his own limit of obedience for this and other missions. I don't have the right to choose in real time: "Wait a minute, squadron commander, don't assign me to a strike in the territories, because I don't feel like it, I don't approve.' If I refuse to strike in the territories I can't strike in Syria or Lebanon or anywhere else.

"All the control and monitoring and advance planning, I'll do in advance. I can intervene in planning, that's something we'll get to in a minute. How did I feel? I felt my heart was totally with this mission. Because in light of these circumstances, my professional level or the final outcome I achieved was exactly what was expected of me and it was very good. There are the wider circles, to my great regret, that additional civilians were killed, and a relatively large number. That's the main event, for now, when they talk about ... targeted assassinations and ... the principle of proportionality. You look very carefully whether carrying out the mission that is before me has priority over harming civilians.

"Even after Operation Cast Lead, this incident is preoccupying people in Israel on the level of moral principles. It's an expression of the whole issue of 'How much can I affect the mission.' What is obedience? It seems very clear, to obey, we're in uniform, etc. ... Even a military system in a democratic state, even in the IDF, in certain places we can question the mission and the order, to reflect and to question in terms of controlling the mission, etc., as long as the mission is lawful. Let's stay within the bounds of lawful missions ... Where does one do that? Mainly in the early planning stages, it's always done, but in the early stage when we must think and not rush into the fire with your friends. We must insure the proper controls to limit harm to civilians, for example, as much as possible."

No sterile wars

Someone in the audience: "The intelligence unit must give you this intelligence information too, 'He's eating dinner with his family.' So is there a situation where you wouldn't carry out the decision? Is there a situation where you'd say, 'OK, he's eating dinner'?"

T.: "The decisions aren't made in the eye of the storm, inside a plane, but rather at a quiet desk and the like. The people who ... gave us the order, they are the people, and it's at the highest level of the State of Israel. They're the people who know whether it's worthwhile to strike, what the principle of proportionality and so on is at the time. My opinion was expressed at this stage. The moment I closed the hatch and became a fighter pilot carrying out the mission, now I'm going to carry out the mission and that's after the whole stage of talking, deliberating."

The senior officer elaborates: "That's why ... what happened, the moment he took off, it's not his responsibility, he must execute the mission as professionally as possible. Had there been a screw-up, a failure to hit the target, he would have been responsible. But making the decision was not his responsibility."

Voices from the audience: "What does it matter who's responsible?"

The senior officer: "You must understand the picture. The number of uninvolved people who are hurt, what we call innocent bystanders, in IDF operations in the past 10 years is tens ... hundreds of percentage points [below] those hurt [by U.S. forces] in Iraq or other places. Hundreds of percentage points, a difference of thousands of people. [The rate] of [collateral damage] by the IDF [is very low].

"There are no sterile wars," the senior officer continued. "It happens, we must do everything possible, and the IDF does, to limit that. You must realize that every such incident, and I am also talking about many, many strikes against people who are far less senior, and not only by manned aircraft, are approved on the level of Israel's prime minister. Unlike other places in the world where when a military commander is assigned a sector, he is very eager to succeed, he can do almost anything he wants. It doesn't reach such crazy levels. Mishaps happen, mistakes happen, and we try to limit them as much as possible."