Red line, Green Line, black flag

Yigal Shochat

Dr. Yigal Shochat, a former fighter pilot and now a physician, calls on soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories and recommends that pilots refuse to bomb Palestinian cities.  Following are some remarks he made during a debate on war crimes and security in Israel.

This article appeared in the Sunday, January 27, 2021 issue of Ha'Aretz.

The truth is that I don't yet have a fully formed opinion on the subject of sweeping refusal to serve in the IDF.  I am in favor of the state, in favor of preserving its security, in favor of defending the state within its borders, and also in favor of the war against the terrorism—local and international—that threatens Israel.

On the other hand, though, I cannot abide the naturalness with which the occupation is continuing; the fact that one generation after another of soldiers is serving the occupation and that these soldiers are the ones who effectively give the successive governments the power to hold onto the territories and the settlements and to suppress the Palestinian population.  Therefore, I find myself on the horns of a large dilemma.  In the meantime, I have resolved it, for myself, by deciding that I am in favor of refusal to serve in the territories but not refusal to serve altogether.  I know that this is a somewhat hypocritical position, because sometimes the soldier who is posted at General Staff headquarters can do more injustice than a soldier at a roadblock.

Still, I think that refusing to serve in the occupied territories sends a sharper political and moral message.  It says that you are ready to guard your country and fight for it, but that you are not willing to suppress another people indefinitely, when the security benefit for Israel is negative.  In fact, serving in the occupied territories undermines the country's security while contributing to the security of the settlers.  On that subject, I think we have across-the-board agreement by now.

In the case of pilots—pilots of warplanes, helicopter pilots, pilots in general—it makes no sense to talk about refusing to serve across the 1967 Green Line.  Pilots do not serve at the place to which they are posted.  In effect, they have to decide anew every day, and sometimes every hour, which operations are moral and legal and which are not.  I am not naive: I am well aware that any pilot who will refuse to bomb Nablus or Ramallah once or twice will thereby bring his career to an end—and we are talking about a career.  To fly is a way of life and a profession.  It is never just the draft and reserve duty, which you do in order to get it over with and get back home in one piece.  So, in the case of pilots, I think we need to expand the concept of the "black flag."

[Shochat is referring to the phrase used by Judge Binyamin Halevy in 1958 in the trial of the members of the Border Police who on October 29, 1956, shot dead 43 civilians—men and women—from the Arab village of Kafr Qasem in Israel, who were returning home from the fields and were unaware that their village and others in the area had been placed under curfew ahead of the Sinai War, which began that day.  "A black flag flies over a flagrantly illegal order," Halevy stated.]

In my opinion, pilots need to examine closely the order they get, ask a lot of questions about the goal, and refuse to obey any order they consider immoral.  I am afraid that such questions do not occupy them, rather they compete among themselves over who will be assigned the next mission to liquidate someone in the center of Nablus, on the main street, or who will get to drop a bomb on a building in Ramallah.  They probably return to the squadron happy when they score a bull's-eye and are sorry, to some extent, if civilians are killed.  I remember this from my own experience.  People want to excel in what they do, and they want action.  That's why they are pilots in the first place.

I think that F-16 pilots should refuse to bomb Palestinian cities.  They have to think about what a bombing operation would be like in the city they live in.  Let's say that [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat were to decide to level the police station on Dizengoff Boulevard using a warplane.  (Let's say he had a warplane.)  If Arafat were to conclude that this is how he could convince [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to withdraw from the territories, would we accept a bombing operation in the center of the city as a legitimate military act?  After all, we call even an operation against an IDF outpost, like the one last week at Kerem Shalom, a "terrorist" attack.

I can imagine what it was like in Ramallah when an F-16 bombed the police station there.  I am not talking about the civilians who were killed there—cooks from Gaza, not troops.  I am talking about bombing a densely populated city.  I am talking about liquidating people on the main street, from a helicopter, with three passersby also killed.  It's impossible today to say that this was "collateral damage," that we didn't intend to kill civilians, because when a plane bombs a populated city, you take into account that civilians could get killed.  Even in precision bombing.  So I view this as the deliberate killing of civilians - a war crime.  We have seen in the past few months what smart bombs can do, both here and in Afghanistan.

I think that the goal is not important enough to pay that price, especially when we are confronting not an army but civilians.  And more especially when we are wrong.  Very wrong.  In my view, neither the larger goal of this fighting is legitimate—because the occupation is not legitimate—nor the small goal of destroying a police station in order to pressure Arafat into stopping the use of terrorism.  That, too, is not legitimate.

In 1996, I did not accept the legitimacy of "Operation Grapes of Wrath," where the purpose was to force Lebanese civilians to flee by bombing them, thereby pressuring the government in Beirut to take action against Hezbollah.  But it is not only pilots who are responsible for war crimes.  I think that, in the final analysis, the pilots may be less responsible than other soldiers.  I think that every driver of an army bulldozer has to refuse to obey an order to demolish homes with the aim of exposing an area for the convenience of the IDF.

I read this week what the head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Dov Tzadka, said about the authorizations he gives to demolish houses and groves, and how the army then goes hyperactive and levels the area he authorized twice.  By what right does he approve such an operation in the first place?  I am constantly dumbfounded at how these people get up every morning and go to work: after all, we're not talking about kids of draft age, this is a brigadier general.  What does he say to himself at the end of the day?  "Today I authorized the uprooting of 50 dunams [12.5 acres] of strawberry fields?"  What for?  To preserve the country's security?

I saw that this Brigadier General Tzadka is now worried that he may end up at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, because he knows full well what he did.  But how can you both know and do?  I think that to demolish civilian homes only because they are obstructing someone's field of vision constitutes a flagrantly immoral military act.  I am not a legal expert and so I don't know what is legal and what isn't, but I assume that this is illegal as well as immoral.  I know that the question of when the black flag flies over an order is a wholly personal one.  One can't wait for the court to declare a certain operation flagrantly illegal, nor should one wait, because then it becomes a retroactive matter, as in the case of Ehud Yatom [who, according to the High Court of Justice, took part in the killing of two captured terrorists at the order of the head of the Shin Bet security service in 1984].

There are some people who never see a black flag, not even when it involves the murder of an Arab who is bound.  There are people who only see a black flag when they get old, like me, because when I was a young pilot, I wasn't selective.  I did what I was told to do.  I am in favor of a broader use of the concept of the black flag, which means to refuse to obey an order that in your personal opinion is flagrantly illegal.  But I know that draft-age soldiers, and even people in the career army, will not make much use of it.  When you're inside, you see things differently.

I think also that to stand at a roadblock and make a selection as to who will be allowed to proceed to a hospital or to a maternity ward and who will not, is also flagrantly illegal.  Therefore, I think that every soldier who is assigned to serve at a roadblock should refuse the order and instead go to prison.  If only the legality of the selection process at roadblocks were examined in court.  I think that those who refuse to serve in the territories should not make do with going to jail; they should try to reach civil courts so that these things will be reviewed and given publicity.  Let them go all the way to the High Court of Justice with their refusal.  Those who go to jail quietly do not exert an influence.

It is out of the question to allow the army to set up roadblocks at every corner that prevent people from going about their lives, going to work, going to the doctor, and to accept this as though it is a divine decree.  That constitutes collective punishment of civilians, which is illegal according to the Geneva Convention.  I think that it's a shame that so few people refuse to serve in the territories, but I can't really complain, because I didn't do it either when I should have done it.

Nearly 20 years ago, I paid a visit to the late Prof.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  He asked me then—this was in 1983—how it was possible that there weren't 500 officers who would refuse to serve in the territories.  He said that in his opinion, if there were 500 officers like that, the occupation would end immediately.  I think he was right.  Soon we will not be able to refer to an "occupation," because being present on the ground for so many years creates a new situation.

People who served in the territories in their compulsory service return as reservists, and their children are also stationed in the same places.  The new generation doesn't even know the Palestinians because of the lengthy closure, and to them, the territories are like Lebanon.  Apartheid against the Palestinians is practiced by one generation to the next.  And not only by the settlers - by all of us.  If there are no terrorist attacks, we don't even remember that the Palestinians exist.

I don't know whether every operation I took part in when I was an active fighter pilot was legal or moral.  Probably not.  Today, friends from that period who bombed targets with me complain to me that I remembered too late to be a bleeding heart and that it's no big deal to talk about refusal to obey orders when I am no longer involved and I will not be the one to go to jail.  They say that as long as my promotion in the army was at stake I said nothing, but now that I have nothing to lose I am suddenly a hero.  That is all true.  I reached political and moral maturity very late.

But I can also say, roughly, that I always bombed military targets.  When I bombed civilian neighborhoods, it was during a full-scale war, when planes and tanks and soldiers from both sides were locked in combat, and it was far from sure who would win.  In general, in the wars in which I took part, our feeling was that Israel was in an inferior position and that we were fighting for our lives and our home, literally.  As to the territories, as to this military struggle against the Palestinians, I simply don't see armies facing off and I don't see a war.  In fact, I don't even know which side of the fence I'm on, because I am certainly not on the side of the settlers.  What I see is an occupied population that has a few hundred rifles and mortars, which is trying to expel us, while we refuse to go because we have invested a few cents in unnecessary settlements.

I am aware of the arguments against refusal.  First of all, they say that in a democracy, it is the role of the elected political level to decide what constitutes a legitimate goal and what does not.  I reject that.  Precisely in a democracy, it is the right and the duty of every citizen to oppose illegitimate warfare.  In totalitarian regimes, people who refuse to serve are shot, while here they are only sent to prison briefly.  It is in a democracy that you have the option of not following the herd.

The second argument is that we need more humanists at the roadblocks in order to ease things for the Palestinians and that we must not leave the army to the nut cases on the right.  I also deny the importance that is attributed to individual soldiers at a roadblock, because in the course of time, they all become insensitive to suffering.  I think that the individual soldier carries the greatest weight when he refuses to serve.

The third argument is that if everyone were to decide which orders to obey, the time will come when the settlers will refuse to evacuate the settlements.  To that I say: That's fine with me.  For my part, the settlers can refuse to evacuate the settlements and we will do it for them.  I, for example, would refuse to demolish the home of a Palestinian with a bulldozer, and at the same time, some soldier-settler would refuse to evacuate a settler family.  That's fine with me.  The important thing is for soldiers to retain their humanity and realize that they are confronting dilemmas.

In my opinion, all the IDF's operations in the territories are approaching the red line of the black flag.  I cannot judge what is legal and what constitutes a war crime.  At a time when the Americans kill 7,000 people in an attempt to find one person, it is difficult to talk about morality in war.  Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, following the Oslo accord, we have begun to treat it as a state even though it is not.  That makes it easier for us to attack it with weapons, such as planes and tanks, that are intended for use against armies in war.  My feeling is that we have crossed a line, and I am afraid that the day is not far off when we will bomb the Arabs in Israel the way we opened fire on them in the demonstrations of October 2000.

The day is not far off when the Israel Air Force will bomb Umm al-Fahm, in the same way that Saddam Hussein bombed his Kurdish citizens.  I don't know if the air force pilots will refuse to obey such an order.  There will be someone to persuade them that the operation is logical and essential, that the bombs are smart, that the only targets are city hall and the Islamic movement, and not innocent people.  I don't see any great difference between that and bombing Ramallah.