Israeli Air Force pilot Yonatan Shapira calls himself a patriot. After 11 years as part of a elite helicopter unit, he though he had proved his commitment to his country. Yet since 2003, Shapira has more often referred to as a traitor, than a patriot.
That year Shapira was one of 27 Air Force pilots who signed a letter refusing to fly missions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially those that could harm innocent civilians.
Citing a rule in the Israeli military that says soldiers can refuse a mission if it is illegal or unjust, the pilots went public with their decision and were immediately discharged.
“We are willing to sacrifice our lives to stop a suicide bomber, but that has nothing to do with sending bombs and missiles into heavily populated Palestinian territories,” Shapira told a receptive crowd in Berkeley who had gathered at the Berkeley/Richmond Jewish Community Center on Sunday afternoon to hear his presentation.
Shapira, who is on a nation-wide tour, was brought to Berkeley by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a national Jewish organization dedicated to finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shapira is part of a growing number of Israelis who are refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Force. Many of them are now in jail because military service is mandatory in Israel.
According to Shapira, the breaking point came in July 2002. Late that month an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb in the Gaza Strip that killed the leader of Hamas. The bomb also killed 14 civilians, including nine children. The next day, Shapira said, he remembered reading an article that quoted an Air Force commander urging the Air Force pilots to sleep well at night because the mission was “perfectly executed.”
Shapira said he was shocked by the statement and realized that the Air Force too often was provoking violence instead of preventing it. Although he only flew rescue missions, Shapira decided he had to speak up.
“To me it was clear that we were not flying missions to protect our country, it was revenge,” Shapira said. “Of course if you hit someone with a one ton bomb in the most crowded area in the world you will kill innocents.”
At first Shapira thought he was alone. Then he approached other pilots, almost all of whom said they felt the same way. Many refused to sign the letter, however, even though they supported the idea. Those that did sign, appeared with Shapira to publicly announce the intent.
Today Shapira works as a civilian helicopter pilot. He had two contracts broken by companies that found out about his refusal to serve. Shapira said he has also run into considerable opposition on his speaking tour, but invites people to question his decision.
He wanted to come to the United States, he said, because he thinks the country is also responsible for provoking violence through its blind support for Israel. All his criticism, he said, is because he loves his country and wants to find a just solution.
“As a rescue pilot,” he said, “I feel this is the most important rescue mission I can take upon myself.”