Dear Israeli Fighter Pilot, Now That You Know You Might Kill Innocent Children, Will You Still Obey?

Palestinians pray next to the bodies of members of the same family who were killed overnight in an Israeli airstrike in Dir al-Balah, November 14, 2019.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

I know, it’s not what you wanted to happen. It’s not what you planned. Maybe it’s not what you thought would happen. It’s certainly not what you thought you would do when you wanted so badly to be a combat pilot.

The heroic scenarios that came to mind were not bombing a rickety shack and wiping out nine members of the al-Sawarka family. The killing of innocent children, as sweet and innocent as my own, and perhaps yours as well. That was not the plan.

Not that there weren’t warning signs. For years, the majority of the missions of the best army in the Middle East — the best in the world, they sometimes tell us — have not been heroic missions of survival, but rather ludicrous missions of occupation. The massive bombing of densely populated areas by our best men, serving in the most moral army in the world, has become routine, at least in the Gaza Strip.

Anyone who is still highly motivated to be a combat pilot, in light of all this, is driven by highly suspect motives, or perhaps more by hormones than by motivation. Still, I believe you: That wasn’t the plan. You’re not like that. Or at least you didn’t think you were.

Mistakes happen, it’s true, and mistakes with weapons are bound to be particularly tragic. You didn’t know: They told you it was a target. An Islamic Jihad site, perhaps. A high-value target? That’s a little hard to believe. We are once again speaking in heroic terms, which may have a place — an ugly, unpleasant place, far from ideal, but perhaps unavoidable — on a real battlefield, where tank or aerial battles full of blood and fire take place in the ancient history of the army in which you serve.

These terms, when imported into a reality of airstrikes on an enemy without an air force or anti-aircraft forces, is an absurd attempt to preserve the hormonal relevance of army service even in an arena of occupation and oppression. But still, a target, they told you. And you believed them. And obeyed. After all, it’s impossible to have an army without obedience.

True, mistakes will happen and there will always be intelligence gaps between the operational rank and every rank above it. But precisely for that reason, obedience — any obedience — is an amazing expression of trust. When you obey and inflict tremendous death in an area that is not transparent to you, you are expressing insane confidence in the system — in your commanders, in intelligence personnel, in the legal advisers. You’re saying to them, in effect: I’m not like that. I’m not a terrorist. And I’m in your hands: I’m relying on you not to turn me into a terrorist.

But you know that’s not true. Maybe you didn’t know. If you didn’t know, you were negligent in your reality testing even before the latest incident. But still, maybe you didn’t know that it’s impossible to trust them. But now you know. Because now it turns out, for example, that although the Israel Defense Forces receives guidance from legal advisers (when we have the opportunity maybe we’ll talk about their naivete), and the standards for approving an attack are relatively strict, that’s only at the stage of the original approval of the target, which may have taken place months before you were called on to bomb the target, without any obligation to update the information. (In what other context would a commander send you on a mission based on intelligence gathered several months earlier? And if you had a commander who does that, would you continue to trust them?). And the commander of Southern Command says “Such things can happen. We weren’t surprised by it, while on the other hand this was not a result that we wanted.”

He wasn’t surprised. Were you surprised? Furthermore, the head of Southern Command — one of the senior commanders you trust implicitly when you choose to drop a bomb — advises the inhabitants of Gaza: “If you know you are living near terror infrastructure, then leave the area when the escalation starts.” After all, Gazans have many options, and a wealth of resources and possibilities, and there’s nothing easier that obeying the advice of the outstanding commander (who thinks the failure to follow his advice justifies the deaths of innocent young children, and who is convinced that you will continue to trust him when the next order is issued).

And we haven’t even mentioned the defense officials who talk about “an operational requirement to exact a price in lives.”

So let’s say you didn’t know. You were trusting. But now you know. Brave men in comfortable offices thought that it wouldn’t be so terrible if those children died. Maybe it was even an operational requirement. And they thought that it wouldn’t be so terrible if the hands that spilled the blood were yours. Or perhaps the hands of your friends, next time. And you — that’s wasn’t your plan at all. But that’s what you did. That’s what you and your comrades are called on to do now, and will be called on soon to do again. Now you know. Will you still obey?

If so, at least it will end the hypocrisy. Because now it will be you.

David Enoch is a professor of law and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.