Demons in the Skies of the Gaza Strip

The world's best air force is amusing itself by creating fear in a helpless and terrified civilian population.

This word does not appear in the Hebrew dictionary, but an old-new weapon from the sophisticated arsenal directed against the Palestinian people has again suddenly emerged. While not deadly, it is fiendish: the sonic boom.

The world's best air force is amusing itself by creating fear in a helpless and terrified civilian population. Twenty-nine such booms were sounded during a period of four days in September, and this practice was repeated again recently, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, which jointly submitted a High Court petition on this matter. If there is such a thing as an unequivocal case of collective punishment, then this is it.

Parents in Gaza speak about the fears their children have suffered in recent weeks, the nightmares and bed-wetting. Husbands tell about pregnant women who have experienced panic attacks. The windowpanes in homes shatter one after another. Here is a scoop: Palestinians can also be "trauma victims."

These booms, whose only purpose is to sow fear among innocent civilians, have been added to the artillery shells pounding the Gaza Strip and the daily barrage of liquidation missiles, which indiscriminately kill armed militants and innocent people. The fact that the air force is employing this weapon mainly late at night, or early in the morning, when masses of pupils are making their way to school, only makes its wickedness more conspicuous. Israel may have disengaged from Gaza, but its air force has not.

It is true, the liquidations and shelling are much worse. But the thinking behind the use of sonic booms is no less chilling: Israel has stuck with its old and bad policy that believes in "searing the consciousness" of the entire population so that it will pressure perpetrators of terrorist acts to stop their activity. The end result is generally the opposite; the cruel means of collective punishment serves to encourage terror more than prevent it.

But the method's ineffectiveness is not its only disadvantage. An air force that orders its pilots to generate a large noise only to sow fear among civilians is an air force with a moral flaw. While a pilot who fires a missile at a busy street, or drops a bomb on an apartment house, can still, barely, find some dubious justification for his action, what goes through the mind of a young pilot who sets out on a mission whose only aim is mass, indiscriminate intimidation? Does he envision the children who awaken in fear because of him? Does he consider the nightmares that plague them? Can he imagine his little brothers awakening in alarm in the middle of the night at the sound of the boom? Does he recall the panic that struck many homes in the Sharon area last week after a series of mysterious booms? Does he know that the commander of the air force in 2001 issued an explicit directive to avoid crossing the sound barrier on flights over populated areas in Israel due to "the tension this phenomenon creates among the residents," as reported in Issue 139 of the Air Force Journal? A complete squadron was grounded then because of a series of booms. The air force commander who forbade his troops from generating this noise is today the chief of staff and is ordering them to sound these booms.

The Palestinians are not the first victims of this method. In 1969, two Phantoms were sent to sow fear in the skies of Cairo. A year later, Phantoms from the Patishim ("Hammers") squadron did this in the skies of Damascus. This is how a bully demonstrates his strength. Over the years, we also used this method in the skies of Lebanon. But our enemies have never known the type of wholesale booms like those of recent weeks in Gaza. Anyone who has never awakened in a house full of children and infants at the sound of this thunder cannot understand how frightening it is. I once heard a boom like this over the Jenin refugee camp, and I was unable to breathe for a moment. And it is particularly frightening during periods of tension: When missiles are fired upon the streets of Gaza every day, nerves are shaky in any case.

Such is life in "liberated" Gaza: The conditions of incarceration are even more difficult than before the disengagement. There is a complete blockade in effect that includes the sick, students, workers, everyone; and there are the daily liquidations and sonic booms. True, Qassam rockets also are very frightening, but does one cruel method justify another? Do the booms prevent the Qassams? Or are they only intended to provoke and punish a population whose majority already opposes the Qassams?

The High Court now faces another opportunity to express its view on the system of collective punishment Israel employs against the Palestinians. One fears that the justices will again evade their responsibility this time. After all, they are still weighing, for years, the question of the legality of the liquidations.