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Courage to Refuse > Press > Why we Refuse - Avihai Becker
Why we Refuse - Avihai Becker 29/09/2003
 
 

When you're sitting in the cockpit, the battlefield is a totally sterile concept. It's like a silent movie. The life going on somewhere far below - a whole world - doesn't affect you. I doubt whether a pilot ever stood as close as 500 meters to a place hit by one of the kind of bombs that he drops.

Reservist pilots Lieutenant Colonel Danny Sahaf, Lieutenant Colonel Giora Ben-Dov and Major Hagai Tamir have three things in common: All take exception to the moral positions expressed by the air force commander-in-chief; all are opposed to bombing civilian areas and all refused to bomb non-military targets in Lebanon.

 

Major (res.) Hagai Tamir, from Kibbutz Hazorea, was the outstanding pupil in his pilots' course, where his classmates included his friend Dan Halutz. Tamir eventually retired from the Israel Air Force (IAF) and became an architect and designer. Halutz meanwhile remained in the air force, where he continued to climb through the ranks until he was finally appointed commander-in-chief. Though they followed different paths, the two men maintained their friendship. When Halutz got his big appointment about two and a half years ago, Tamir threw a party in his honor at his Jaffa home.

 

The friendship endures, though it has become very strained in certain respects. Tamir considers Halutz a good friend because of their shared history and was sincerely happy about his promotion, but an ideological chasm has come to separate the two. This chasm grew even wider in the wake of statements Halutz made in an August 23 interview with this magazine. Halutz said that he had no qualms, either militarily or morally, with the deaths of civilians as a result of the assassination operation against Salah Shehadeh, that he slept well at night and that the only thing he feels when he releases a bomb is "a slight jarring of the airplane."

 

Tamir calls these words "brutal." "I can't accept the attitude that he presents, in which there are no moral barriers," says Tamir, who is sure that he'll have a face-to-face talk with his old friend sometime. "I'll tell him that there's no difference between the five children playing in the alleyway who were killed when a missile was fired - right on target - from a helicopter at a car in which an assassination target was riding and the six passengers on the No. 4 bus who were killed in the suicide bombing on Allenby Street. All are innocent victims. The fact that it was a mistake doesn't make the killing any less serious than if it were done intentionally."

 

Tamir is not the only one who takes exception to Halutz's remarks. At least two other senior reservist pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Danny Sahaf and Lieutenant Colonel Giora Ben-Dov, share his sentiments. Tamir, Sahaf and Ben-Dov have something else in common as well: During the Lebanon War, each one refused to bomb civilian targets. Sahaf and Ben-Dov even speak about this in a new book entitled, "From Beirut to Jenin," just published by Am Oved, in which editors Irit Gal and Ilana Hammerman have compiled affecting testimony from 14 soldiers (ranking from sergeant to lieutenant colonel) from various branches of the armed forces about their experiences in the Lebanon War. The editors and some of the subjects see a direct connection between the Lebanon War and the current war in the territories.

 

Sahaf's story is by far the best known: On the first day of the Lebanon War, he refused to obey an order to indiscriminately bomb civilian targets in Tyre, thus ensuring his place in air force legend and earning himself a mention in the Halutz interview. Ben-Dov's story was first publicized in "From Beirut to Jenin," while Tamir's story is being told here for the first time.

 

An inner voice said no

 

Hagai Tamir, 56, grew up on Kibbutz Hazorea, where he was such a gifted basketball player that he won a spot on the national youth team. When he first enlisted, he went to Sayeret Matkal, but before long he decided to go for his real dream - pilot school. He finished the course in June 1968. Tamir describes himself as belonging to the generation of "the lyric pilots," those who were raised on the traditions of European aviation. In contrast with the American philosophy, this tradition was characterized by planes that "made up for a lack of engine power with superb aerodynamics. They taught us to fly in an elegant manner and this really suited me, since I'd come to pilot training out of a love for flight. I wanted to feel like a bird. The whole idea of the plane as a war machine was much less appealing to me. The concept of a plane as a platform for weapons was foreign to me so I enjoyed the aerobatics much more than I did dropping ordnance. Even during my compulsory service as a young pilot, I didn't derive any pleasure from it."

 

Tamir, who served with Dan Halutz in a squadron at Ramat David, says that the first time he realized that he didn't have what he calls the "joy of destruction" in him was in the summer of 1969, during the bombing of a part of the Jordan Valley under Jordanian control. The operation caused no casualties, but Tamir says it nevertheless left him with a bad taste. He later served as a pilot in the War of Attrition. Tamir felt that something changed when the air force acquired Phantom jets. "The air force adopted the American method and spirit. Flying per se became secondary. In a broader cultural context, the moral attitudes and moderate outlooks that characterized the earlier generations changed completely."

 

At the end of 1971, Tamir, who'd already gained a reputation as somewhat of an odd bird because he kept a monkey for a pet, was discharged after having switched to teaching pilots at the Hatzor base. In the reserves, he was assigned to the Super Mystere Squadron. He spent a long time traveling in Europe and when he returned ("with just the clothes on my back"), he earned a matriculation certificate and went to work as a plumber. When he was called up in the Yom Kippur War, he hitchhiked his way to the base, wearing beads around his neck and hair down to his shoulders.

 

During one sortie, when he'd been sent to lend assistance to paratroopers from Battalion 890 who'd become caught in the Chinese Farm area, two missiles were fired at him. He managed to dodge them, but the explosions caused the tail and engine of his plane to catch fire, the controls became inoperable and he was forced to eject. As he parachuted down, he was shot at by Egyptian ground forces. An Israeli tank picked him up soon after he landed.

 

He returned to the squadron and in the closing days of the war, he flew one of a quartet of planes that bombed the abandoned city of Suez, which had become a death trap for IDF forces. "We received an order to wipe out an entire street and we followed it to the letter. When we came back and, in the briefing, described what had taken place, the squadron commander, who hadn't been there when we took off, was surprised and demanded an explanation of where this strange order had come from. He was absolutely unwilling to consent to an operational order that did not cite defined targets, but just destruction for its own sake."

 

Contact cut off at Ein Hilweh

 

After the war, Tamir enrolled at the Technion to study architecture, which has been his field ever since. He specializes in preservation and has an understated style. He believes in integrating changes within the existing texture, as he calls it. "I had a professor who said that `The city is mankind's greatest invention.' I found the idea exasperating at first, but I've come to adopt it myself."

 

His perception of the Lebanon War derives from the same source. "To be fair, I must say that I felt a strong inner opposition to it even before I was called up. From the outset, I smelled the manipulation and the deceit at its base," he says. In a move of quiet protest, he reported last to his squadron. By then he was flying Skyhawks, and was sent on missions to bomb anti-aircraft positions and bridges in Lebanon.

 

At one debriefing session between sorties, he stunned the others present, whom he describes as "trigger-happy and gonzo for battle" when he said: "Who knows better than me, an architect, how hard it is to build a city? So at least, don't rejoice when you destroy houses. It takes a lot longer to build a city than it does to strike a target." His macho comrades laughed, but one who went on to become a base commander later told Tamir that his words really got to them.

 

"I got to know the subject not just as a planner," says Tamir. "At the time, I was still poor, a former kibbutznik without a penny to his name. I renovated our old apartment in the Ohel Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem all by myself, block by block. It cost me in sweat and toil and this is where my deep sense of identification comes from. What happened in Lebanon contradicted everything I'd been taught. I tend to believe that before then, we didn't accept targets that couldn't be identified as genuine military targets."

 

His uneasiness with bombing civilian targets kept growing. "One day, a pair of jets led by one of our best guys was sent to attack a convoy that we were told was being used by terrorists. They dropped the bombs as the vehicles were traveling on the main road of a village. It was obvious that because of this many innocent civilians were killed and wanton destruction was caused. The argument that we raised - not just me, there were at least three of us who said the same thing - was that if we would have delayed the attack for just a few minutes until the convoy had left the residential area, the unnecessary killing would have been avoided without detracting at all from the mission. The ensuing debate was very stormy and the squadron commander wisely allowed everyone to let off steam."

 

Such questions and doubts were soon put to the test during an air force operation at Ein Hilweh. "We flew in tandem above the place. The liaison officer who was with the ground forces informed me of the target, a large building on top of a hill. I looked at it and to the best of my judgment, the structure could have only been one of two things - a hospital or a school. I questioned the officer and asked why I was being given that target. His reply was that they were shooting from there. There were a thousand reasons why I didn't think I should bomb the building. I asked him if he knew what the building was. He said he didn't. I insisted that he find out. He got back to me with some vague answers."

 

In the end, Tamir did not release the bombs, reporting a "malfunction." Then he cut off contact. But it didn't change the outcome, since the pair of jets that followed went ahead and did what he'd refrained from doing. The building in question was levelled, but that wasn't the end of the episode. The incident was later investigated by the squadron; when questioned, Tamir explained that he would never bomb a school or a hospital.

 

A letter to Eli Geva

 

Shortly after the first cease-fire, Tamir prepared to leave for a break. His wife Yehudit was about to give birth (to their eldest son, Daniel). Before Tamir left for Jerusalem, the squadron received aerial photos of Beirut, on which several buildings were marked in yellow. "They're crazy," Tamir thought. When he saw on television the Phantoms dropping "smart bombs" on southern neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital, "it turned my guts inside out." He decided that he wasn't returning to the squadron.

 

Even before that, on July 30, 1982, he'd sent a letter of solidarity to Colonel Eli Geva, the armored brigade commander who'd asked to be relieved of his command saying that, for reasons of conscience, he could not take part in an attack on Beirut. Tamir wrote: "This is the third war that I have taken part in and, psychologically and morally, it has been the hardest. From my experience, I can attest that things were done in this war that were not done up to now. Targets were bombed that I have no doubt were not military targets. More troubling is the fact that not enough questions have been asked about what is going on, including by people whom I expected would behave differently. In light of all this, your ability to say `no' attests to personal integrity and moral strength worthy of profound appreciation."

 

While Geva's story caused a big stir, Tamir's case was enveloped in silence. His personal strike continued until February 1983, when the commission of inquiry regarding Sabra and Chatila published its report. Its unflinching conclusions, which led to the architect of the Lebanon War, Ariel Sharon, being disqualified from serving as defense minister, restored Tamir's faith in the army. He went back to being a pilot as if nothing had happened. In 1988, Tamir, then 42, was released from the ranks as part of a round of cutbacks the air force was compelled to make.

 

A gentlemen's agreement

 

"In the air force, as in many other areas of the army and the state, the threshold of restraint is becoming lower and lower. Americanization and technology have pushed humanistic concerns to the margins. When you're sitting in the cockpit, the battlefield is a totally sterile concept. It's like a silent movie. The life going on somewhere far below - a whole world - doesn't affect you. I doubt whether a pilot ever stood as close as 500 meters to a place hit by one of the kind of bombs that he drops. Apart from Danny Halutz and a few others of his generation that are still in the force, there aren't many pilots who have known a war like the War of Attrition or the Yom Kippur War, in which you also lose."

 

So says Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Giora Ben-Dov, architect and former air force pilot. Ben-Dov and Tamir did not consult with one another. They are acquainted only from afar, but without knowing it, they expressed identical views about the Lebanon War. Each used the same terminology to express their disagreement. And for both, their profession - architecture - played a decisive role in shaping their outlook.

 

Ben-Dov, 59, lives and works in Ein Hod. "I'm not one of those super-important types whose elaborate buildings make people gape in awe," he says. "I try my best to represent the building's user." Most of his clients are high-tech companies. Despite the state of the economy, he's currently busy with a number of projects: an information center for hikers in the Carmel area, a supermarket, a razor manufacturing plant in Nazareth, horse stables in Kerem Maharal and several private houses.

 

His home and office are next door to each other and surrounded by olive, fig and pomegranate trees. The Crusader fortress of Atlit is visible from the balcony. It was from this pastoral landscape that he set out 20 years ago as a reservist in the Lebanon War, the last war he took part in. "A direct line connects Beirut to Jenin" was the gist of what he wished to tell Irit Gal and Ilana Hammerman, editors of "From Beirut to Jenin." The book's title is taken from Ben-Dov, who sees a clear parallel between the days of Operation Peace for Galilee and Operation Defensive Shield.

 

"In the Kfir squadron at Ramat David, we had all kinds of pilots. There were right-wingers who were ready to bomb the Temple Mount and kibbutzniks who asked forgiveness before firing their weapons," says Ben-Dov. "It's important to note that the discussions about moral questions did not start with Lebanon. During the Six-Day War, we sat and talked about the missions we'd been given in the Sinai. I'm referring to the stage where we blocked the escape route for the retreating Egyptian soldiers, which was like abusing a corpse. There were also arguments during the War of Attrition, when Avihu Ben-Nun dropped a bomb on a school by mistake. This was a serious bunch. These people were not parrots or robots who close their eyes and ears, carry out the mission and shut up about it. The phenomenon of `shooting and crying' happened with us, too." Ben-Dov says that, at the time, he fell somewhere in the middle, with a slight leftward bent.

 

He was born on Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim and grew up in Haifa. He completed pilot training in 1963 and served until the end of 1967. "Unlike some of the crazy types there, I was pretty much of a conformist in the air force. For good reason, the British used to say that to be a pilot, you don't have to be crazy, but it helps." As a pilot, he worked his way up to flying the Super Mystere. During the Six-Day War, he was with the first wave of jets that attacked early on the southern front. He was one of four jets that bombed the Egyptian airfield and destroyed 30 MiGs. He says there was a feeling of euphoria when they returned from the mission.

 

Later in the war, he piloted one of eight jets that attacked Damar in eastern Syria, in a battle where air force statisticians figured that the chances of being hit were close to 38 percent. "One plane did fall, but the pilot, who parachuted into Lebanon, was immediately returned to Israel," Ben-Dov recalls. "In the hour and a half of waiting when the mission was postponed, I experienced the most fear I've ever felt." He declined to reenlist for regular service to undergo training to fly Mirage jets, which at the time was considered a very tantalizing incentive. He was much more interested in studying architecture at the Technion.

 

In the Yom Kippur War, the pictures were bleak: "Two out of four planes from my squadron fell during the first mission." By the time the Lebanon War came, he had a new outlook on it all: "Age, education, family - all of this leads you to have a richer and more complex view of things. If, god forbid, you hit children, you immediately have troubling thoughts about your own children." Then there's the architect's point of view as well. "A city is not just buildings. In the deeper sense, it's the product of a civilization. People were not born with cities around them. People came and grew up and made laws about how to live together and how not to live together, how to build and how not to build. When you attack a city, there's a lot more to it than the narrow military aspect. The damage is not just physical. It's an attack on the spirit, on a cultural phenomenon.

 

"In Lebanon, just like what's happening now in the territories, we adopted the term `war' as a way of cleansing our consciences and justifying the fact that we were using excessive force and that all was permitted without any restraints, in order to morally whitewash deeds that to my mind and to that of many others were wrong.

 

"This is also the reason that I think the philosophy expressed in the press by the air force commander is wrong. I expect greater depth and modesty from a person in his position. He cannot hide behind technological screens when he sends a pilot to Gaza to drop a one-ton bomb to assassinate Salah Shehadeh. It's quite possible that the children who were killed along with the Hamas figure were the kids of the workers who built his home in Yavneh."

 

After a Phantom pilot dispatched a bomb aimed at the basement of a 14-story building, causing it to collapse not only on the militant cell hiding there but on all of the 250 tenants, Ben-Dov decided not to participate in any more bombings within the city of Beirut. "A pilot has a privilege that no other soldier has - to come to his commanding officer and tell him that he does not want to or cannot go out on a mission. He cannot be forced. And if the commanding officer gives the order anyway, he knows that the pilot is going to toss it aside, or into the sea, or that he'll report a technical malfunction." Ben-Dov went to his squadron commander, Danny Sahaf, and said: "I can't see myself planning cities and also destroying them. Let me strike just the anti-aircraft batteries or something around the city." The commander and his subordinate reached a kind of gentlemen's agreement. Danny Sahaf says he can't recall a specific agreement, but that given the circumstances, it sounds like something he would have done.

 

Danny's story

 

Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Danny Sahaf is now a First Officer with El Al. He is 53 and lives in Zichron Yaakov, not far from Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael where he grew up. He retired from the air force in 1990. A highlight of his service in the air force was his involvement in the July 7, 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. "I was head of the department in charge of planning deep strikes. I was involved in the project for a year and a half. I'm the one whose name was never mentioned in the credits."

 

However, in the Lebanon War, which began exactly a year later, Sahaf was involved in an incident that made him a legend in the air force. He was the commander of a Kfir squadron whose mission was to aid the ground forces. On the first day of battle, in the early afternoon, he was ordered to establish contact with an infantry battalion that, due to a navigational error, had got into trouble on the eastern outskirts of Tyre and was sustaining heavy losses. The force's communications officer described the situation to him and reported the losses. Sahaf, who was the squadron leader, asked him: "What do you want me to attack? What is the target?"

 

"To my astonishment, he replied: `Hit anything you want.' I told him that I couldn't do that, that I was asking for a defined target. His response was: `There's an order from the highest level to wipe the city off the face of the earth. You can hit whatever you want.' I persisted in questioning him, but he said the same thing two or three times. This is where my insistence on not attacking an undefined target in an urban area sprang from. It sounded to me like an order that has a `black flag' waving over it.

 

"At that point, I saw a tall, isolated building that seemed like it could possibly serve as an observation point or as a source of fire on our forces. I described the target to him. His response was, `Affirmative, attack it.' I still had the feeling that he wasn't really sure which building I was talking about, but because of the terrible pressure he put on us, we started in to attack. We came down on this building - to this day I don't know what it was, and despite the favorable conditions for an attack, all four of us missed. I have to say that I tried to hit the target, but maybe not hard enough," he says, suppressing a smile.

 

He felt a tremendous sense of relief when the target was missed. "Looking back, I'm convinced that even this little bit wasn't necessary. It would have been more correct to get out of there without attacking at all. If I had hit it, it would have weighed on my conscience until today, since from the start that particular building did not have to be a target."

 

The back-and-forth between Sahaf and the officer on the ground was recorded on a tape recorder that Sahaf had with him. When he landed at Ramat David, he brought it to the base commander Herzl Budinger (who later became the air force commander-in-chief), played it for him and waited to hear his response. "In wake of the incident the air force issued instructions the next day saying that if you're given an objective for attack by the force operating in the field, and that objective is located in a residential area and there is some uncertainty about it, the attack should not be carried out automatically. One should contact the air force control system, report to it and await confirmation. To me, this is the most important thing that happened beyond the particular decision I made as the squadron leader."

 

Sahaf was later invited to a symposium at the military command college about what occurred at Tyre. "All the commanding officers who'd been operating in the sector at the time were there. When I told my story, and played the tape for them, it was totally new to them. The air force had not made the details of the incident known and it had never been investigated. It's still a mystery to me why and by what right the liaison officer said what he did."

 

Some of the other speakers at the symposium harshly criticized Sahaf for the way he acted, asking how he could have taken upon himself the responsibility not to carry out an order. "The leader is the chief of staff in the field. The judgments and responsibilities are his alone," he replied. "I have no idea if this was a private initiative or if the order really came down from the highest ranks," Sahaf says today. "Another squadron leader who was younger or simply had a different personality, may well have obeyed the order directly. On the other hand, I don't think I'm all that unique."

 

Paratroop Battalion 450 was the force that was trapped then in Tyre. It had seven killed, wounded and missing men. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Uri Geiger, was abducted and his body was later discovered and found to have severe stab wounds. "Even though indiscriminate strikes are not operationally effective, if I were convinced that the force would be saved if I dropped an ordnance, I'd do it even it at the cost of civilian lives. That's the nature of war. Of course, if they'd pointed out a certain building as the source of the threat and as an objective for attack, I wouldn't get into a negotiation with the ground forces. I'd attack."

 

Sahaf's story became legend in the air force as a supreme example of combat morality, a value that is drummed into soldiers. But Sahaf, who was an active combat pilot until 1997, does not accept this portrayal and the attendant glory. The lesson he wishes to emphasize is that one must use common sense in battle. "A pilot must first and foremost be a thinking person who simultaneously takes professional and ethical considerations into account. The same goes for air force commander," he remarks.

 

"I cannot at all condone Danny Halutz's statement about hardly feeling anything when the bomb is released. He talks about a pilot as if he's a computer. A pilot has to want very much to succeed in his mission. The cries of joy in the cockpit after striking a target come from the satisfaction involved. This moment is what it's all about. But along with the satisfaction, he must constantly be aware of what he is doing to himself and others, especially that he is involved in killing. For a long time, I was a regular guest at education programs at flight school. I was asked to present the `moral' side. Opposite me on the panel sat Shlomo Baum, one of the heroes of the 101st, who presented views that were the antithesis of mine. As far as I know, the workshop that took place following our riveting confrontation was the only place in the air force where considerations of what is permitted and what is forbidden were discussed. I'm not demanding that my criteria be adopted. I can't say for certain that I'm right. But I do expect Major General Dan Halutz to encourage independent thinking and personal responsibility and not automatic, unthinking compliance."

 


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