IAF F15 fighters over Auschwitz BIG.
(photo credit: IAF Spokesman)
On September 4, 2003, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel served as the lead pilot in one of
the Israel Air Force’s most memorable missions – a flight over the Auschwitz
death camp in Poland.
Under the agreement with the Polish government, the
IAF F-15s were supposed to fly high above Auschwitz, and way out of
The day of the flight though, Eshel convened the other pilots and
announced that they were going to fly below the clouds so they could be seen by
the IDF officers who would be holding a ceremony along the train tracks
“We listened to the Polish for 800 years,” Eshel was quoted as
telling the other pilots at the time. “Today, we don’t have to listen
The picture of the three F- 15s over Auschwitz – a
demonstration of Israel’s might and independence – can be found in hundreds of IDF offices these
Most of the pictures were given out personally by Maj.- Gen. (res.)
Elazar Shkedy, the former IAF commander who stepped down in 2008. Shkedy wrote
on all of them: “To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on
That message resonates even louder today as Israel faces a
daunting dilemma – to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, or to embark on
possibly one of the most difficult military operations in its history and try to
bomb its nuclear facilities.
Contrary to some media reports over the past
month, the opinions of Eshel and his main contender Maj.-Gen. Yohanan
Locker on Iran were irrelevant in the debate over who should be appointed the
next IAF commander. Whether they view Iran as an existential threat or not is
not something that played a role in deciding who would be tapped for the
What is important, though, is what Eshel thinks about the viability
of such a strike and whether it can succeed. One former IAF commander recently
recalled the internal military and political debates ahead of Israel’s 1981
bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
“The commander of the IAF is
key in this case,” the former officer recalled. “The IAF chief needs to believe
it can be done, then he needs to convince the chief of staff and then the two of
them need to go to the defense minister and prime minister and convince them as
While this might have been the situation in the late 1970s, the
current debate over Iran has been going on for years and is well documented. The
consensus within the Israeli defense establishment is that the IDF has the
ability to knock out Iran’s key facilities, and as a result, set back the
program by a number of years.
Nevertheless, without Eshel saying it is
possible, it is difficult to imagine how such a strike could be carried out.
This does not mean that Eshel needs to believe it is the right thing to do. Just
that it can be done.
If, for example, Eshel did not believe such a strike
is possible, it is difficult to imagine Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreeing to
his appointment. On the other hand, Eshel’s assessment of the extent of damage a
strike against Iran could cause will also play a critical role when the
government convenes to debate a strike against Iran in the future. It will need
to decide if the risk is worth the gain.
Eshel will be taking over an air
force that is believed to be preparing for a strike against Iran, and is
believed to be ready for the wide variety of challenges it could face in the
Nevertheless, Eshel will be taking over the IAF at a time
when Israel’s enemies are doing everything they can to obtain capabilities aimed
at undermining Israel’s aerial superiority and qualitative military edge in the
Syria has invested billions of dollars in recent years in
purchasing the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and the IAF
currently operates under the assumption that some of these systems have already
been transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the
Gaza Strip have also obtained sophisticated shoulder-to-air missile systems and
the IAF also believes that in a future conflict it will not be able to rely on
GPS-guided munitions, since Israel’s enemies will likely have the ability to jam
Eshel’s term as IAF commander will be marked by the way Israel
deals with Iran, but his challenges will not end in Tehran.
East is in the throes of a historic upheaval and from April, Eshel will, once
again, be Israel’s lead pilot.
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