What were Israeli F-16s doing at controversial flyover?

The obvious explanation is “interests.” On March 29, 2018, the Defense Ministry announced that Croatia had agreed to buy 12 Barak jets and to make those planes the mainstay of its air force.

August 16, 2018 23:09
What were Israeli F-16s doing at controversial flyover?

An Israeli F16 fighter jet takes off during a joint international aerial training exercise hosted by Israel and dubbed "Blue Flag 2017" at Ovda military air base in southern Israel November 8, 2017. Picture taken November 8, 2017. (REUTERS/Amir Cohen). (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

It’s not a common occurrence for the Israel Air Force to participate in a flyover abroad. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it has only happened twice. The first such event took place about 15 years ago and was by far the more famous and has been a great source of inspiration to many Jews all over the world. The second, on the other hand, which took place just last week, was quite controversial, and has aroused serious questions about contemporary Israeli foreign policy.

The first took place on September 4, 2003, at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Three Israeli Air Force F-15 jets flew over the entrance to Birkenau, the railroad tracks leading to the gas chambers where “selections” were carried out, the gas chambers and crematoria. Simultaneously on the ground, Israeli officers read the names of 19 Jews deported from the Drancy transit camp near Paris, who arrived in Auschwitz exactly 60 years before the flyover, and were murdered upon arrival.

The commander of the operation, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, transmitted the following message from the cockpit to the ceremony below: “We pilots of the Israeli Air Force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel.”

Although the flyover subsequently elicited some harsh criticism from critics who considered it a meaningless show of bravado – which gave the false impression that an Israeli air force, had it existed, could have prevented Auschwitz – that was not the case for most Israelis and many Diaspora Jews. The flight made an indelible impression on them, as they viewed it as an iconic event which encapsulated six decades of Jewish history, from the unprecedented tragedy of Jewish impotence during the Holocaust to the impressive strength of the IDF, and especially its renowned air force.

This was especially true for the four IAF commanders who had a role in the flyover, all of whom were the top commanders of the IAF at some point. Ido Nechushtan commanded the simultaneous memorial ceremony on the ground, Dan Halutz approved the flyover, and Eliezer Shkedy publicized the photograph. In other words, this was no marginal or private, personal initiative. It was, as Ari Shavit described in an article in Haaretz to mark the flyover’s tenth anniversary, “a core event orchestrated by the center of the defense establishment.”

The same can certainly not be said about the most recent IAF flyover, which took place this past August 5 in Croatia of all places. Three Israeli F-16 jets flew there to participate in a salute to mark the 23rd anniversary of “Operation Storm,” an event which to this day remains highly controversial, and is viewed in diametrically opposed ways on opposite sides of the Serb-Croat divide.

The facts are as follows: Operation Storm was the last major battle of what the Croatians refer to as their “War of Independence.” From August 4-7, the Croatian Army regained control of about 4,000 square miles of territory (18.4% of the land it claimed), and the Bosnians secured control of Western Bosnia. The figures of Serb civilians murdered are disputed (the Croats claim 214, while the Serbs contend that the number murdered or missing was 1,192).

But there is no doubt that nearly the entire Serb population of some 150,000 to 200,000 civilians was expelled, and various crimes were committed against those who remained in their homes. As of November 2012, 2,380 persons had been convicted by Croatian courts for crimes committed during Operation Storm.

NONE OF these facts help us understand why Israeli jets would participate in such an event. If anything, just the opposite. Why would Israel participate in a Croatian celebration, which marks a traumatic event for Serbia?

If we take into account the history of the Holocaust, it was the Croatian Ustasha who murdered half of their country’s Jews, and sent an additional quarter to be murdered in Auschwitz, all without any German participation, whereas the Jews of Serbia were killed primarily by the Nazis. The Croatians to this day, moreover, have had enormous difficulty dealing with the legacy of the Ustasha, who are still considered heroes by a significant segment of the population. In fact, during his recent visit to the infamous Croatian concentration camp of Jasenovac, President Reuvan Rivlin cautioned that Israel’s bilateral relations with Croatia would be influenced by that country’s ability to honestly face its past.

Having said that, the truth is that despite the past, we enjoy very good relations with both countries. So why take sides all of a sudden, after we judiciously refrained from doing so throughout the Balkan wars of the ‘90s? And in fact, until this year, not a single foreign country had ever participated in any of the events held each year to mark Operation Storm. What prompted this step which seems so illogical?

Attempts by journalists to elicit an answer from Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman or from IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot were unsuccessful. The only response came from the IDF spokesperson, who responded as follows: “In the framework of the cooperation between the Israeli Air Force and the Croatian Air Force, three F-16 Barak jets and one transport plane participated in the flyover.

This event is part of the military cooperation between the countries, which includes sharing information, joint exercises and training. Israel and Serbia have a friendly and close relationship, and Israel considers her [Serbia], as she does Croatia, a true friend.”

To add insult to injury, however, there were also quotes like that from Brig.-Gen. Mishel Ben-Baruch (ret.) who was quoted in the Croatian media as saying: “It is an honor for us to participate in marking the 23rd anniversary of Operation Storm.”

The obvious explanation is “interests.” On March 29, 2018, the Defense Ministry announced that Croatia had agreed to buy 12 Barak jets and to make those planes the mainstay of its air force. The cost of the deal is close to half a billion dollars, and it will most likely be signed by both governments in the near future.

There was no opposition of any sort, but no one had any idea that the purchase of the jets would include participation in a very problematic flyover. Probably the best way to summarize this shameful episode, is the way it was described by Pazit Ravina of Makor Rishon, the only Hebrew-language journalist who devoted considerable space to this shameful episode: “So it’s true that the people working at the [Defense Ministry’s] Division for Military Exports are neither diplomats nor historians, and in the IDF and the defense establishment no one wrote a doctorate on the history of World War II. Nonetheless, it was sufficient to do a search on Operation Storm on Google to obtain a preliminary insight into the historical and political context of the operation. Nothing else was needed to understand that when the Croatians suggested participation in the flyover, it was an attempt to obtain historical, military and political legitimacy that they could never have possibly achieved in any other way. And the Israeli defense establishment, who are known the world over for their military and intelligence capabilities, swallowed the poison bait hook, line and sinker.”

The writer is chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book with Ruta Vanagaite is Ma’sa im ha-Oyev (Yediot Sefarim, 2018), which deals with Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes.

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