The High and the Mighty

Vered Levy-Barzilai
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Vered Levy-Barzilai

When the media furor was at its peak - a few days after the liquidation of Hamas activist Saleh Shehadeh in the Gaza Strip on July 22, by means of a one-ton bomb that killed 15 civilians - Israel Air Force Commander Major General Dan Halutz met with the pilot who dropped the bomb and with the other pilots and air force personnel involved in the operation. "It's important for me that you know I stand behind you and in front of you 100 percent," Halutz told the men. "The criticism that is being voiced here and abroad has nothing to do with you. All the critics, all the bleeding hearts - let them criticize me: You have no problem."

The pilot, the person who pressed the button, according to Halutz, asked a few questions relating to the operational sphere. Other pilots and navigators talked about the nature of the mission. References were made to the unexpected killing of civilians, including children. There was discussion of the quality of the information they had when they set out on the mission, and the gap between that information and the actual situation on the ground. The group talked about the harsh reactions in the media, the attacks on the pilots of the IAF, such as private advertisements taken out by left-wingers under the heading "To the pilot who dropped the bomb: How do you sleep at night?" There were also direct threats to the pilots, who were described as "war criminals who are liable to find themselves sentenced to prison by the International Criminal Court at The Hague."

Halutz dismissed all such criticism. "Guys," he said, "you can sleep well at night. I also sleep well, by the way. You aren't the ones who choose the targets, and you were not the ones who chose the target in this particular case. You are not responsible for the contents of the target. Your execution was perfect. Superb. And I repeat again: There is no problem here that concerns you. You did exactly what you were instructed to do. You did not deviate from that by so much as a millimeter to the right or to the left. And anyone who has a problem with that is invited to see me."

`Negligible minority'

A month after the event, Halutz talks for the first time on the record about the event in his office at the Kirya - the defense establishment compound - in Tel Aviv. The preoccupation with the bombing raid, or more precisely, the criticism that arose in its wake, makes him furious. Articulate and not one to let his emotions get the better of him, he still makes a discernible effort to restrain his response - most of the time, successfully.

"What I said to the pilots then, I say again here. All those people who talked about a flagrantly illegal order and threatened to hand over the pilots to the court in The Hague have simply gone off the rails, in my opinion," he says. "Is this the public for which the Israel Defense Forces is fighting day in and day out? All those bleeding hearts who have the gall to use Mafioso methods of blackmail against fighters - I don't recall that they ever threatened to turn over one of the arch-terrorists, the terrorists who have killed many Israeli civilians, to The Hague. What I have to say about those people is that this is a democracy, where everyone can always express his opinion. But not to be a traitor."

Are you suggesting that members of the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) group who made those comments should be placed on trial for treason?

Halutz: "We have to find the right clause in the law and place them on trial in Israel. Yes. You wanted to talk to me about morality, and I say that a state that does not protect itself is acting immorally. A state that does not back up its fighters will not survive. Happily, the State of Israel does back up its fighters. This vocal but negligible minority brings to mind dark times in the history of the Jewish people, when a minority among us went and informed on another part of the nation. That must not happen again. Who would have believed that pilots of the air force would find their cars spray-painted with savage graffiti because of a mission they carried out."

Did you speak with the pilots whose cars were spray-painted?

"Yes. An agitated pilot came to see me. He asked himself, and me, whether this was a nightmare, a horrible dream that he was about to wake up from, or reality. The truth is that I didn't know what to tell him. We both sat there, stunned and hurt. The only thing I was able to say, finally, was that he shouldn't pay attention to marginal phenomena. To me, these people aren't even marginal. They are outside the margins of the State of Israel."

But you are not immune. What happened inside the air force because of the media's handling of the episode? What impact did it have on you?

"There is an impact. It's talked about. We are not cut off, we are not insensitive. I think it's important for them to know what `Hague' is and what it means."

Did you hold a conversation with pilots and navigators in a broader forum? Did you issue any special instruction or guideline after the event?

"No. I decided to wait for the final results of the debriefings at all levels. When I have all the conclusions, I will hold an orderly discussion with the forum of the commanders of air force bases. That will be soon. Everyone will make his comments and afterward will update his subordinates."

Will anything in the procedures, the decision-making process of the IAF or its operational performance change because of what happened?

"Definitely not. Nothing will change and there is no reason to change anything."

So the IAF just took the event in its stride? A month later, and nothing remains of the event?

"An event like that make us want more than ever to continue being the professionals we were and to present things as they are, like we always do. The event did raise questions about the scope of the understanding that exists among various bodies in relation to the reality we live in."

Something very much out of the ordinary occurred, involving IAF pilots at its center. The media dealt with it intensively and you drew flak from every quarter. Everyone was talking about it. Wouldn't it have been right to air the matter with all the pilots and navigators, and maybe even with the cadets?

"The subject is important, but I think it is equally important to know the right timing for holding this dialogue, and not to leap up right away and start talking nonsense."

What is the right timing, and what is the wrong timing?

"The wrong timing is what comes from the obsession of a few journalists. Some of them describe themselves as `content experts,' some of them are responsible for the nation's morality, and some of them are just plain bored and have nothing better to do just then, so they leap into the fray."

Don't you think the questions that are asked by the media in the wake of the killing of 15 civilians, including 11 children, are legitimate moral issues in the public discourse?

"Someone once said that when the cannons roar, the muses are silent. When 609 Israelis are murdered in 23 months, it is up to the muses to adjust themselves to the place where silence will make us cross lines that we, as an enlightened society, do not want to cross."

So you are challenging the legitimacy of the reactions voiced by people who think that these lines have already been crossed?

"Fortunately, those lines are not determined by 10 or 100 people, but by the entire Israeli society. Everyone has the right to express himself, to ask questions. And in my opinion, it's important that this be done at the right time. I tell our people what I know and I feel fully confident that the State of Israel will never abandon any of its fighters to the mercies of one international court or another. I also think that if a Jewish Israeli citizen turns over a Jewish Israeli fighter to this or that judicial institution, he has to face the full severity of the law."

There were several direct references to you as a war criminal. How did you feel about that, and will you think twice before making a trip to Belgium?

"I am sorry to disappoint the Belgians, but of all places in the world, I never had the particular intention of going to their country. More seriously, though, we operate according to an extremely high moral code. And since that is what guides us, I don't think that there is any court to which we have to give an accounting. There is no such court. Personally, I have a deep feeling of justice and morality. And as for how I feel - I feel just fine, thank you. I really meant it when I told the pilots that I sleep very well."

Aerial drama

Halutz shows me a video documenting an aerial operation. The film shows what is happening as the mission unfolds through the eyes of the pilot. The situation: A helicopter gunship is flying over Judea and Samaria. Below it is an infantry force. The pilots received a report stating that a short time previously, two Palestinians opened fire at Israeli forces. The two figures in question are in the gun sights. The commander of the force below orders the pilots to shoot at them. The conversation that takes place between him and the pilots is clearly audible:

Pilot A: "Negative, there is no shooting going on now."

The infantry commander repeats the order: "Open fire."

Pilot A to Pilot B: "I don't think so. No one is shooting at us. No one is shooting at all. Look, it would be murder in cold blood."

The infantry officer is angry: "I am telling you that these are the guys who shot at us a few minutes ago. Shoot already."

The pilots refuse. One of them says to the other, "I think it stinks."

They call the head of the command post, who functions as a duty IAF commander. They report the situation and explain the dilemma. They wait for orders. The reply soon arrives: Do not execute. They are not shooting.

"That is just a tiny fraction of a very wide collection of events in which our people face dilemmas," Halutz says. "The dilemma faced by pilots in fighter planes is sometimes even more complex, because they can't see the enemy. The enemy is anonymous, a shape, or an enemy plane in which the person inside cannot be seen. Sometimes it is a house in which what is inside can't be seen, and you don't have the close and intimate battle contact of one eye that sees the other eye.

"The complexity of the dilemma is due to the fact that you don't have the technical ability to be the final judge. So in some cases you have to rely on an auxiliary opinion, on additional information, which may come from intelligence sources or elsewhere. There are also cases that are clear-cut. In a dogfight against an enemy plane, what you are fighting against is an enemy plane. The person who is in the cockpit of this rival plane is not relevant. It's the same when you see an enemy tank. The complex events are cases of prevention, when you are supposed to attack a specific person."

Such as the mission to liquidate Saleh Shehadeh, for example?


But this time, the opinion that is supposed to assist you made you fail?

"Made us fail? By what yardstick? Who are the people who claim that and who decided the criteria? I assert that everything that happened prior to the mission passes my moral test and is rooted very deeply in the `envelope.' After all, who and what are we talking about here: about a person who was the very archetype of the personification of evil. A dictionary that wants to define the term `terrorist' could just enter his name. He killed more than a few, more than a few dozen, members of the Jewish nation."

So that is the legitimization for the liquidation, but what about the innocent people who were killed?

"The result consists of two parts. First, a perfect positive result because we hit the person. The second result, for which we said we were sorry, is that uninvolved civilians were hurt."

Innocent civilians, don't you mean?

"I deliberately say `uninvolved civilians,' because we know for a fact that even the greatest terrorists are sometimes cloaked in a civilian guise."

But you will agree, of course, that at least the eight children and infants were innocent?

"Of course."

And they were killed because you acted on the basis of inaccurate intelligence information?

"The intelligence was very accurate. Sometimes, though, you have no control over all kinds of things that take place in a space that is hidden from view. In retrospect, it turned out that I simply did not have part of the information; it changed in the course of the mission."

And you do not regard this as an intelligence or other failure?

"No. The decision-making process was right, balanced, proper and cautious. The problem lay in the information, and the information changed. I reject all the criticism in regard to this operation - pre-, during and post. Within the parameters of my moral values, the fact that uninvolved civilians and innocent children were killed is very saddening. I am sorry for that. But it did not stem from a professional problem."

The decision to use a one-ton bomb was criticized. Wasn't the choice of that weapon a mistake?

"No. Professionally, and in retrospect, too, it was the most correct decision. I have no problem with all kinds of people and journalists asking these questions, but I am in favor of letting the professionals give the answers: For a half-ton bomb to achieve the effect we wanted, we would have had to drop two of them, because of the calculations of the chance that one of them would miss altogether. That was a decisive consideration. So the operation decision was correct. As for the intelligence information that changed - anyone who waits for 100 percent certainty in every case will probably never act. The attempt to look for guilty people here is shameful. I do not see anything resembling the moral level of the soldiers of the IDF anywhere else in the world."

What do you say to the comments of the prime minister and the defense minister, who said that if they had known about the presence of this number of civilians and children in the building, they would not have authorized the mission?

"As expected, there was backing from the political level, which was repeated more than once. And I don't give much weight to what is attributed in this or that quotation."

If you had known in advance that there were 15 or 17 people in the building, including children, would you still have ordered the bombing to go ahead?

"I am not willing to answer a question like that, and certainly not to cite numbers. I am ready to discuss the question of principle: Is there a situation in which it is legitimate to strike at a terrorist when you know that the operation will exact a price in the form of casualties among civilians and uninvolved people?"

And what is your reply?

"I have no doubt about it. The reply is positive. Against a person who has perpetrated, or who is known for certain to have a plan for what is called mega-terrorism, my reply is categorical: yes. How many people? I don't know. I will be able to give that answer at the moment of truth. Let's go back, to the suicide bombing in the Park Hotel in Netanya on the eve of Passover. Let's say we would have known about this terrorist in advance and would have trapped him in his house - would it have been legitimate to strike at him even if there were other people there? My answer is yes. How many people? I don't know and I am not ready to state a number. I repeat again that I am very sorry about innocent children who are killed. But anyone who sets out to murder children in Israel has to take into account that children are liable to be killed in his surroundings.

"And to those who jump up and judge us, I say: I feel that I am the moral compass and conscience of the nation of Israel no less and perhaps even more than those who purport to be that. Because on the basis of what criteria, exactly, do they have the temerity to point an accusing finger at me? The criteria of which army? The French? The German? The Russian? The Syrian? The Chinese? The American? OK, let's examine them one by one and place ourselves in a test of moral armies. I can give you hundreds and thousands of examples. There is no more moral army than the IDF."

Create chaos

It's a story that has become a legend. One of those stories that is known to everyone in the IAF. During Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 (otherwise known as the Lebanon War), an Israeli armored force found itself in distress in the city of Tyre. Intense exchanges of fire ensued, casualties mounted, the situation got worse. Air force planes flew overhead.

The senior ground forces commander in the area issued an order to the planes: Come down on the city. The message was clear: bomb and pound the place indiscriminately to create a chaotic situation that will make it possible for us to get out of this mess, to pull back, rescue our soldiers and regroup. A pilot replied: There is no such command in the IAF. The senior officer reiterated: Come down on the city. The pilot insisted: I am not familiar with any such order. He refused to perform the mission. Give me a specific target, he told the tank commander. When he was given the name and location of a particular road junction, he dropped a payload.

Twenty years on, the commander of the IAF praises the pilot's decision: "I back him completely. There is no such thing in the air force. The targets are defined to within a few meters. Our lexicon doesn't contain orders like `come down on a city' or `wipe out a village' - things like that."

So what you are saying is that the IAF allows its pilots a latitude of moral judgment at the moment of truth?

"Absolutely. It not only allows that, it educates them like that."

If so, can a pilot ask to be relieved of a mission on grounds of conscience?

"He can. But that is not part of the rules of our game."

But can he or can't he?

"In the pre-operation stage, every pilot and every navigator can say whatever he thinks is right and whatever he thinks is not right. If he thinks he has been given an unworthy order, he is invited - in order to be persuaded - to go all the way up to me and even to the chief of staff."

And if after all that he still doesn't accept the order?

"Then he can get up and leave the squadron."

So we have located the line of the moral freedom that is allowed?

"Fine. What is the difference between that and refusal to serve? I don't accept the one or the other. Refusal to perform a sortie is not part of the rules of my game. If a pilot is out alone and has no one to consult with, and he sees something that he thinks deviates from the rules, he has the right to make a decision based on his moral values and criteria. He will be accountable for his decision afterward. The scope of his judgment relies on the training he ceived, his experience, his knowledge. In the final analysis, the pilot is the commander of the air force in the field. And he will also be called on to explain what he did."

What do you say to the call by reserve pilot Yigal Shohat to pilots not to bomb targets in the territories?

"Pilots are not all of one piece; they are not all cast from the same mould. Yigal has the right to say what he thinks. As far as I am concerned, urging refusal is crossing red lines. I hope Yigal forgives me. He is one of my teachers. I flew with him in the same squadron when he was wounded at the Suez Canal. But a long time has passed since then. And something happened to him. Things change. I don't want to judge him or what he said. I am stating my opinion here."

Would I be right in saying that skeptical pilots will be better off keeping their doubts to themselves?

"Absolutely not. I will always prefer thinking people who analyze things and reach a conclusion to those who function like robots. Skepticism does not contradict being focused and being purposeful."

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