Decrying “Brutal Operation Taking Place in Our Name”
HAVANA TIMES – As Israel pledges to continue the assault on Gaza for “as long as is required,” we are joined by two Israelis who have refused to serve in their country’s military reserves. On Tuesday, The Washington Post ran an open letter authored by Yael Even Or titled “We are Israeli reservists. We refuse to serve,” announcing that more than 50 former Israeli soldiers have signed a petition declaring their refusal to be part of the Israeli military reserves.”This petition, long in the making, has a special urgency because of the brutal military operation now taking place in our name,” Even Or writes.
An Israeli journalist and activist who evaluated candidates for the Israeli army’s recruitment department during her service, Even Or is now a graduate student in international affairs at The New School in New York City. She joins us to discuss the reservists’ letter. We are also joined from Tel Aviv by Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli captain and Air Force pilot, who in 2003 spearheaded a letter signed by 27 Israeli pilots who refused to participate in military operations against Palestinians.
AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to continue Israel’s military campaign against Gaza for, quote, “as long as is required.” However, not everyone within the Israeli military supports the ongoing attack on Palestinians, which has entered its 17th day. On Tuesday, The Washington Post ran a piece by Yael Even Or called “We are Israeli Reservists. We Refuse to Serve.” It notes over 50 former Israeli soldiers have signed a petition declaring their refusal to be part of the reserves. Yael Even Or writes, quote, “This petition, long in the making, has a special urgency because of the brutal military operation now taking place in our name. And although combat soldiers are generally the ones prosecuting today’s war, their work would not be possible without the many administrative roles in which most of us served. So if there is a reason to oppose combat operations in Gaza, there is also a reason to oppose the Israeli military apparatus as a whole. That is the message of this petition,” she wrote.
Well, for more, we’re joined by the author of that article, Yael Even Or. She is an Israeli journalist and activist who, during her service, evaluated candidates for the recruitment department of the Israeli army. She’s now a graduate student in international affairs at The New School.
And in Tel Aviv, we’re joined by Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli captain and Air Force pilot. He was one of the organizers of a 2003 letter signed by 27 Air Force pilots who refused to participate in Israeli military operations against Palestinians. Shapira has also signed on to the internal Israeli movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, known as BDS.
Yael Even Or and Yonatan Shapira, we thank you very much for being with us. I want to stay with you, Yonatan, in Tel Aviv, first. Talk about the climate right now in Tel Aviv and where you stand 10 years after you resisted attacking Palestinians as an Air Force pilot.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Hi, Amy. The line is not perfect, but I will try my best. Just before I answer your question, you asked me where do I stand. So, if the cameraman can make a little wider shot, I can just turn to the back and show you the center of Tel Aviv. You can look behind me. The camera guy is not happy about that, but you can see the headquarter of the Kirya just few meters from the biggest hospital in Tel Aviv, Ichilov. You can see all of them just behind me, just in this frame. Just next to it, you have the biggest tower in this side of Tel Aviv. It’s the HaShalom Towers, the Peace Tower. And I think, in some symbolic way, it tells the whole thing. We are here talking about how the Hamas surround themselves with children, using them as a shield. By now, it’s 160 children dead and around 730, 740 people, most of them civilians. And Israel is still using this argument that the Hamas surround themselves with children. And I want you just to look at this picture and tell me what you think. You can really see the tower with the antennas. This is the headquarter of the Kirya, the headquarter of the army, the Israeli army that is controlling Gaza, controlling the air, the sea, the area in the West Bank, in everywhere. And just few meters from there, you have Ichilov and you have basically the city center of Tel Aviv. So, I think it’s very important, especially for liberal Jews that are now protecting and helping Israeli propaganda machine.
Regarding where I am after 10, 11 years after refusing, I feel that it’s like the situation that you feel that you are walking on a path, and slowly everyone else, or almost everyone else, are disappearing far, far to the right of you. Today we are a minority of a minority of activists in Israel. Of course there are more and more people, but we are still a very, very small minority. We have people that are going to jail. I have a friend who is going to jail on Monday for refusing to enlist with the army. There are now a few people in jail.
But overall, overall, there is a disease in my country, and the disease is spreading very fast, and it’s called fascism and racism. Fascism and racism is now the biggest threat of the Jewish people in the Middle East. And I can just cry and shout and ask everyone that hear us now to join the BDS movement, to join the boycott, divestment and sanction movement, and to try to put enormous pressure on your leaders, wherever they are, that they, in turn, will help us here stop this massacre, stop this ongoing slaughter of innocent people. I have friends in Gaza now that yesterday called and told us that their house in Shejaiya was leveled. Now the only thing they have is the cellphone, and a family of nine people are hiding in the Shifa Hospital. This is a war crime. This is an ongoing slaughter of innocent people. And that’s the discussion. That’s what we have to talk about, how to stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me, Yonatan—
YONATAN SHAPIRA: I am getting very emotional, because I can even feel how—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Yael into this discussion.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yeah, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Yael Even Or, who has written this piece in The Washington Post. Can you talk about how you came to your decision, Yael?
YAEL EVEN OR: Yes. First, I should say that the timing and the platform have been chosen because of the urgency of this matter and our call to the Israeli government to stop the attack on Gaza. But as we mentioned in the letter, it was—we planned it for a very long time. For me personally, it started when I decided that I don’t want to go to my reserve duty, and that was after the attack on Gaza in 2008. But I realized that in my position in my unit, I don’t have to really refuse. I mean, there’s no—I mean, political refusal, you can only do in public means; there is no category for it for the army. So I couldn’t find—so I found my way out by not taking the army’s phone calls, saying I’m in school. I moved here to do my master’s degree, so since I’m here, they can’t call me. But I never stated the reasons for which I decided to not go to the army. And I found other people—at the moment, 56 people—who felt the same and decided that they want to state—that they want to issue a statement talking about why they’re not going to the army, even if they found a way out or an exemption with other means. And the decision to publish it now was because of the operation, but we are trying to talk in the letter, as you can see, about things that are broader than just the current operation, or not talk about the occupation in the narrow sense of it.
AMY GOODMAN: So why don’t you talk about that? Expand what it is you explained in this letter.
YAEL EVEN OR: So, I think one of the main things is probably a sense, a lot of us sense, of kind of detachment or disconnect between soldiers’ actions and their violent consequences, as for people who sit in offices in the city center of Tel Aviv—Yonatan just mentioned the Kirya—and don’t really—and it’s really difficult to grasp the meaning of what you do when you just sit on the computer. I think even when it comes to refusal, the discourse and discussion is usually about what is happening in the Occupied Territories and encounters with Palestinians, which is really, really important to talk about, but it also leaves a whole area that is not widely spoken. And it’s our job in administrative role in the intelligence and equipment units, so we wanted to talk about that.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a video that was posted by the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, that they say showcases some of the work its members do to keep Israeli civilians safe. Let’s go to a clip.
NOY EISEN: Since our country is surrounded by enemies, we have to be always prepared. One day you can live a normal day, and the day after you can experience a bomb or rockets. My name is Noy Eisen, and my job is emergency situation instructor. I feel very proud to do this, and I feel so satisfied from the fact that I actually help people to save their lives. This is very important.
AMY GOODMAN: Yael Even Or, your response to that video?
YAEL EVEN OR: I mean, I think it’s definitely part of what we were trying to talk about, the idea of teacher soldiers and soldiers going to school and for kids in a very early age to meet soldiers. This is part of the militarization we are trying to talk about. Having uniforms and weapon and teachers in uniforms is something that is so normal in Israel that it creates the idea that all of us are part of this thing, a part of the army. And I think this limits our thought in regards to what can be done, or in longer—if we’re talking longer terms, real transitional justice in the area.
AMY GOODMAN: Yonatan Shapira in Tel Aviv, when you resisted in 2003, refused as an Air Force pilot, as a captain, to attack Palestinians, what were the consequences of that move? You’re part of the elite group of Air Force pilots, your family; you come from a family of pilots.
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Well, first, luckily, I was flying rescue helicopters, and I flew soldiers, but I felt that my responsibility is nevertheless as big as the pilots who are attacking and throwing those bombs. The reaction was that, of course, the military dismissed us and, of course, said that it’s wrong, but we had about one-fifth of the Israeli society, in a poll that was conducted by the Israeli National Radio, supporting our initiative. One-fifth, in those days, mean one million Israelis were sympathetic to the concern that we raised about the morality of these actions.
I think the interesting thing about what happen now is what you hear is all the time how amazing and morally we act. Yesterday I listened to the army news, and the discussion was how pilots and soldiers are complaining that there are so many limitations they have to abide and follow because of the threat of harming civilians. So the whole discourse is how good we are and how we are willing to sacrifice and endanger ourself in order to be careful and not to kill civilians while doing this crazy massacre that, by the way, is much, much more intense. If you look at the mass of casualties and dead people in those days, it’s much faster than even in Cast Lead.
What the army actually did with us is, after 10 days that we got time to think about it and to meet our immediate commanders in the bases, we were invited to an interview with the commander of the army, and then if we said that we are not withdrawing our signature, we do not regret, we were dismissed from the Air Force. And we got a letter of dismissal saying that—like, the first thing they mentioned in this like sort of legal letter was that we filmed ourself and we interviewed with a uniform without permission. They had really difficult time to bring us to court, for example, because—and we actually wanted that. I sat in front of the commander of the Air Force, and I said, “Well, I feel totally complete and whole with everything that we did, and I’m happy to be even sent to jail if you can prove and show in court that we refused legal orders. We think that all these orders are illegal and immoral. And even by the laws of the Israeli army, you must disobey to an order that is illegal, immoral and is going to harm civilian and innocent people.” Of course, the army, the Air Force chose not to open any court case against us, because it would just serve us and give us a platform to raise more and more of these issues within the public, the Israeli public, debate.
AMY GOODMAN: Yael, is there an Israeli conscientious objector status?
YAEL EVEN OR: By law, you mean? Or—not that I know of. I mean, you can find your way out through pacifism. It’s very rare. But I think, mostly, if you want to declare yourself as one, you have to do it just by publicly. The army avoids giving these kind of statuses and categories, from obvious reasons.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you find the other reservists to join you in this? Fifty people have signed on. And is this an ongoing list?
YAEL EVEN OR: Fifty-six, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Fifty-six.
YAEL EVEN OR: Yeah, and some more joined. Well, I reached out to friends and people that I knew from my political circles, that I knew that were in the army once, and I also knew that they didn’t—they couldn’t find a way to refuse yet or to oppose or take responsibility for the action they committed in the past, since they weren’t combat soldiers, so they didn’t have the path to go to Breaking the Silence, for example, or they couldn’t refuse as pilots or high-rank officers. So, we just wanted to create a new category that could include all of us from—and also by saying that we all participated. And, of course, there are different degrees of maybe responsibility, but we all should take it.
AMY GOODMAN: And the issues that are raised by Benjamin Netanyahu, among them, well, it’s Hamas that is terrorist, that is firing thousands of rockets, terrorizing the people of Israel?
YAEL EVEN OR: You want me to respond to this argument? Well, this is my family and friends there that are definitely suffering from the rockets, and their life are in risk. But I also—this escalation, if that’s the right term, started not with that, so I don’t think that was the reason to start this operation, to start the operation in the West Bank before that. So I do think there’s a way, for example, by accepting the Hamas terms for a ceasefire, to stop the fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: Which are?
YAEL EVEN OR: Well, one of the—
AMY GOODMAN: The key point you feel that is critical?
YAEL EVEN OR: Yeah, well, to remove the siege, obviously.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “obviously,” most people in the United States—
YAEL EVEN OR: Yeah, sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: —don’t know what the siege is, what you’re referring to.
YAEL EVEN OR: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Most people, based on the media, see Israel under siege, because of the thousands of rockets, but they don’t know what you mean when you say Gaza is under siege.
YAEL EVEN OR: Yeah. I really don’t want to dismiss what the people in Israel are experiencing right now. I think it’s a bad time for Palestinians and Israelis, too. And obviously, my family is there, and my friends. But I think one of our main points also was that it seems very easy to go to a military solution, to a military attack, instead of trying to solve things by political means. I mean, it’s not even—it seems like it’s not even being discussed. And that’s how we feel right now. The rockets started after some political efforts were being dismissed very easily by the Israeli government.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you, Yonatan, you are right there in Tel Aviv. This issue of the siege, that I asked Yael about, for an American audience, it is not explained very much what it means for Gaza to be under siege for these years. Can you explain technically what that means?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Technically, Gaza is the biggest open-air prison. People inside cannot go in and out. They can find their way through tunnels sometime, but most of the population is locked there as prisoners. Israel control the air. Israel control the sea and the land. And the little strip that Egypt controls is basically coordinated with Israel and the United States to keep this a cage with those 1.8 million people. I, myself, tried, with different groups and a flotilla, to sail to Gaza and to break symbolically the blockade, but we were stopped by the Israeli occupation forces, claiming that we are dangerous because maybe we are bringing a weapon. So, just it’s so ridiculous to see now. You know, they stopped us from bringing the weapon, and I don’t think that Hamas had any problem to bring a weapon in. Maybe even in some paradoxical way it helps Netanyahu and his guys, these missiles, because I’m here in Tel Aviv, and I have a 10-month-old baby, and I have to hug her and go to the shelter when the missiles are falling, but it’s really nothing compared to what people in Gaza are experiencing. And I have family in Sderot, next to Gaza, and I have even relatives who are in Gaza as soldiers.
And I think that if I have to give one allegory to this whole thing, and this need of Israel and me, myself, of self-protection—legitimate thing, by the way; I want to be safe, I don’t want anyone to bomb me and to kill me and my baby—I would imagine it as gang rape. And forgive me for using this hard language, but when you have a group of people raping someone, and this person that is being raped starting to scratch, the first thing you want to do in order to stop the scratches is to stop the rape. And what Israel, official Israel, is trying to do is to continue the rape and deal with the scratches. And I say, stop the rape, stop the occupation, stop the apartheid, stop this inhumane ghettoization of Palestinians, and then—then—we can start talking, and we can reach peace agreements and all these beautiful words that now don’t mean anything for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Yonatan Shapira, I want to thank you for being with us, former Israeli captain, Air Force pilot, one of the organizers of the 2003 letter signed by 27 Air Force pilots who refused to participate in Israeli military operations against Palestinians. And I want to thank you, Yael Even Or, who has signed onto, is spearheading a letter of army reservists. She wrote in The Washington Post, “We are Israeli reservists. We refuse to serve.” She is currently a graduate student at The New School. Fifty-six people so far have signed onto that letter. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Ukraine. Stay with us.