Opinion |

Israeli Pilots Must Refuse to Fly Expelled Asylum Seekers Toward Their Deaths

Will any of them stand up and say no, not us, not in this country of refugees? Will the pilots’ union leave aside their wage struggles for a moment and conduct a battle of conscience for a change?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv wait for work, Nov 30, 2017
Asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv wait for work, Nov 30, 2017Credit: Majd Guzni
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

In the next few weeks the first planes will set out. Some of the passengers are liable to be journeying toward their deaths. Some will be on journeys to prison, to torture camps, to humiliations and tribulations, to hunger and disease; trips to darkness. Rwanda and Uganda aren’t really eager for the Eritreans and Sudanese whom the State of Israel plans to deport.

After the Knesset this week passed the law enabling the deportation of asylum seekers, the state announced it plans to implement the agreements with those countries. We’re talking about people we’ve known, human beings like us, who washed dishes in our restaurants, swept our streets and renovated our homes; who were invisible to us as they stood in the slave markets at the roadsides. Most of them suffered terrible torture en route to Israel, and will now be sent back to their fate, under one of the most abhorrent, disgraceful laws ever passed by the Knesset. This crime will be legal.

Now will come the moment of truth for those who must implement the law. Most will do their work willingly, even enthusiastically. After all, they are defending the country. The hunters will track down, the police will arrest, the jailers will jail, the bureaucrats will stamp their approval and the drivers will drive. Eyewitnesses will look away, while some will cheer the executors on. One doubts whether any of them will stop for a moment to contemplate their actions. One doubts whether anyone will think about what they’ll tell their children in the evening about their day’s work. Will there be a policeman who’ll refuse an order? A clerk in the Population Authority who will not sign? A restaurateur who will hide his cook in his home? Very doubtful.

And then the deportees, bound hand and foot, will arrive at the plane’s gangway. They will climb up haltingly; some will be dragged. Some will scream, others will be dumbfounded as they make their way to the back of the plane, where they will remain bound until they reach their destination. I once witnessed such a deportation; the deportee yelled like a wounded animal the whole way. It is safe to assume that this time they will also be put on commercial flights with a stop en route to the promised land, Rwanda or Uganda, the dream of every asylum seeker. In the front rows will be the usual passengers, sipping Bloody Marys and napping.

Will the pilots in the cockpit ask whom they are carrying, why and to where? Chances are those pilots will be Israeli. Or will they once again play it safe and obedient, not knowing anything and not wanting to know; just following instructions, small cogs in the machine. Pilots in Germany, of all places, have presented them with an enormous challenge: This year no less than 222 deportations from Germany were prevented because the pilots refused to fly Afghan asylum-seekers back to their homeland. In one case, 40 German pilots even accompanied the deportees to the plane as an act of protest. Some refused for reasons of conscience; others hid behind the claim that transporting deportees is unsafe. Lufthansa supported this impressive pilot rebellion.

Now let’s see our best of the bunch at El Al, Arkia and Israir, veterans of the Israel Air Force, the destruction in Gaza and the flattening of Dahieh. Will any of them stand up and say no, not us, not in this country of refugees? Will the pilots’ union leave aside their wage struggles for a moment and conduct a battle of conscience for a change? Will they call on foreign pilots to refuse to fly the deportees out of Israel?

This is a test for the pilots. More than any of the fitness tests they undergo, this will prove if they are worthy of the halo above their heads; if they are really the best pilots in the world. Will there be any human beings among them? Will they be backed up by their management and tell the state, “We will fly anyone, but not to his death?” Will El Al pilots prove that their carrier is really “the most like home in the world,” even for those who fled to Israel for their lives?

Are there any pilots here who are truly among the best of the bunch?

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