Air Force to Oust Refusenik Pilots

27 pilots send letter calling aerial activity in territories `illegal and immoral'

The Air Force is planning to dismiss from active service nine pilots who signed a letter refusing to take part in operations in the territories.

Altogether 27 reserve pilots signed the letter, details of which were published last week in Haaretz, but only nine of them still do active duty with the force.

The signatories, who sent the letter to Air Force Commander Dan Halutz, described aerial activity in the territories as "illegal and immoral."

Halutz told Haaretz last night he planned to treat the signatories "in the same way as the IDF has dealt with refuseniks until now. This method has proven itself." The nine pilots will be called to meetings with the heads of their bases in the coming days and if they do not retract their statement, they will be dismissed from active service.

The signatories to the letter wrote they would refuse to take part in aerial attacks on populated Palestinian areas in the territories.

"We, both veteran and active pilots, who have served and who still serve the state of Israel, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral orders to attack, of the type Israel carries out in the territories," the letter states. "We, for whom the IDF and the air force are an integral part of our being, refuse to continue to hit innocent civilians ... The continued occupation is critically harming the country's security" and moral fiber, it added.

Halutz has ordered an investigation into the legality of wearing pilots' flightsuits during interviews the pilots gave to Channel Two last night. Halutz said he believes the uniform can be worn only during reserve duty. If the interviews were given during reserve duty, the pilots had to get IDF permission, he noted. "Uniforms can not be used to put across a political message," he said. Halutz added that he personally was completely at one with the deployment of the air force in the territories, saying that a great deal of consideration was employed.

According to one military source, many of the signatories had stopped flying some 15 years ago because of their age. Only one flies an Apache of the type that takes part in targeted assassinations and one flies an F-16 fighter bomber, used sometimes for bombing targets in the territories. It is not clear if either of the two has actually been involved in activity in the territories.

Two others are pilots of Blackhawks, a transport plane, and another teaches cadets to fly an F-15.

"This is an attempt to inject new blood into a subject that is dead both from the public and media point of view - refusal. It is not clear why the pilots did not first speak to their commanders. Their behavior was not ethical," one senior source said last night.

Halutz last night sent a circular to senior air force commanders with details of the affair. "Most of the signatories have never participated in targeted assassinations in the territories. They are not active fighers or do not serve in squadrons which deal with that," he said.

Halutz noted that "no order had ever been issued to hit innocent people. Sometimes we took decisions that were not optimal because we wanted to avoid hurting innocent civilians."

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon described the affair as "a political statement made in army uniforms. This is in no way legitimate," he said.

The initiative for the letter was formulated over a period of about three months following the massive wounding of civilians during the aerial attack on Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh in Gaza in June of this year. The idea met with a great deal of soul-searching inside the IDF. Although the plans for the letter were reported on Friday in Haaretz, the signatories gave exclusive rights for interviews to Channel Two and Yedioth Ahronoth.

Halutz received the letter only at 6 P.M. yesterday, after the interview had been printed.

Captain Yonatan, speaking on behalf of the signatories, said last night: "We are all loyal citizens of the state of Israel. We have taken this step after deep thought and much soul-searching. As officers and pilots, we have been given the heavy responsibility of operating a most powerful war machine. As people who were educated with the moral code of the IDF and the state of Israel, we have decided to ... obey the order that obliges us not to carry out an order that is blatantly illegal."