Air Force pilots waited for the last second for their protest - leaders

Protesting Pilot: "This is only done when there is no other choice. I wish it would be possible to reach an agreement without the Air Force."

 ISRAELI FIGHTER pilots are extremely vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes under international criminal law. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
ISRAELI FIGHTER pilots are extremely vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes under international criminal law.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

Israeli Air Force pilots are sad and understand that their act of protest could cause damage, but according to them, they had no choice.

"This is not a political decision," they said. "This is a war on the founding values and principles of the state." 

The monologues you will read here belong to senior fighter pilots from the large group that announced on Friday that they have stopped volunteering. The protest is not being done wholeheartedly. They would rather fly now and attack Iran than take this course of action. They prayed they wouldn't have to come to this moment. They were hoping someone would jump into that stormy water for them. They waited until the last moment.

"We feel as if we were launched, like in a war," one of the pilots, a reserve lt.-col., who led hundreds of combat and bombing sorties for more than 30 years, told Maariv. "Israel is like a train that travels on a track, it has two tracks - the Jewish and the democratic. Any change in any such a track that is not widely agreed upon, will derail us. Don't be fooled, even if they try to move something from the Jewish character of the country, we will react in the same way.

"If tomorrow Merav Michaeli becomes prime minister and tries to reduce the number of synagogues or cancel kashrut training in the IDF, it will be taken just as seriously. There is only one democratic Jewish state in the world. Only in it are we willing to live. Only in it are we willing to raise children and grandchildren. We are doing it for their sake. For our children and our grandchildren. It sounds like pathos, but it is real.”

 IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a visit to the Tel Nof Air Force base in central Israel on July 19, 2023 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a visit to the Tel Nof Air Force base in central Israel on July 19, 2023 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

"Today I had a very long conversation with [Education Minister and former fighter pilot] Yoav Kisch," another senior pilot said. "I told him 'Yoav, look what you are doing.' He told me 'listen, you want to leave, leave, even if hundreds of pilots leave, we will build a new air force.' I told him 'Yoav, what are you saying, do you understand the meaning of what you said here? You know what it is to train pilots. You know how much time and effort it takes.'

"He told me yes, he understands. Maybe it will take time, but it will be a better Air Force with more disciplined pilots. In the long run, we will only benefit. Then I suddenly realized and got a chill. This is the worst. It's a full-on dictatorship. He wants disciplined pilots. And what will happen if they receive a clearly illegal order?"

Maariv asked him how much the protestors deliberated before making the final decision.

"We hesitated, we delayed the decision, we vowed to exhaust all the options and time in the world, we prayed that someone would come and do it and redeem us. We are not calling on the government to stop the legislation. For our part, let there be legislation. It is completely legitimate. We are calling on the government to legislate with broad consensus.

"We are calling on the government to legislate with broad consensus."

Protesting pilot

"When you change the rules of the game, you change the nature of the country. whatever is written in the contract, you can do but by consensus. After a public debate. No In the dark, not in a blitz. And for us, what we did now is like a practice in the Yom Kippur War. It's called 'closing the gates'. When the enemy attacks you by surprise, what you need is to jump quickly and defend the homeland. That's how we feel."

Why did you wait until the last minute? Maariv asked. Now Netanyahu is already at the top of the tree, if he folds he will be defeated. Wouldn't it have been smarter to put the threat on the table sooner?

"We don't want to defeat anyone. We don't want to start a fight. On the contrary. We are not political actors, we don't know politics, we know how to fly and fight. But we know that bad things happen when good people stay silent. We felt that this is it, enough, you can't be silent anymore, it's not possible not to do the right thing.

"Why now? We preferred to wait until the 99th minute. Maybe the Histadrut or the doctors or the demonstrations or the Americans or someone will be able to bring about the change. Maybe the parties will reach an agreement or a compromise. Maybe we are wrong. We don't have a monopoly on anything. History will judge [us]. And again, all we are interested in is a broad consensus.

"It is clear to us that we are causing damage to society, to the army, to many things. But it is even more clear to us that the damage we are causing is thousands of times smaller than the damage that will be caused to the Zionist dream if such legislation is passed unilaterally. We are not insubordinate and we are not political.

"We have served all governments. I have served at least six prime ministers. It never occurred to us to refuse for a political reason. But this is not politics now. Changing the country's operating system is not a political decision. This is a war on the founding values and principles of the state."

What needs to happen for you to return to volunteer service for the reserves?

"Not much. We need to return to negotiations. There are those among us who said that the legislation should be stopped. I'm telling you more than that. For my part, there can be legislation next week provided that an agreement is reached. That the leaders agree. Any outline that is agreed upon will be good.

"But the main thing is that it be agreed upon. You cannot change the character of the country unilaterally. Let's resume talking. At that moment we will salute. We all have children here. We are fighting for them. We want them to live in a democratic country, just like us. We do not want to leave here, as many others have done. We are not going anywhere. We also do not want to trample any group. It's not interesting. It is forbidden to trample and there is no 'victory' here. There are game rules here that change only together. You will discover leadership. Without the D-9".

Tell me about the path you have taken so far?

"It was a long process. There were many who wanted to announce a long time ago. We held them back. We also delayed the announcement from the operational headquarters until yesterday. We kept everyone at bay. Until the last moment, we prayed that it would be spared from us. It was clear to us that this would be a terrible moment for all of us. We did not want to run away from responsibility, but we understand the consequences and our influence, and the power potential that we have.

"Power can be a corrupting thing. We were careful with it. The guys from Brothers in Arms begged for help. After all, there are so many units that must make similar decisions. We told everyone, 'Friends, be patient'. This is only done when there is no other choice. I wish it would be possible to reach an agreement without the Air Force. It is good for all of us. We were hoping for a miracle."

"This is only done when there is no other choice. I wish it would be possible to reach an agreement without the Air Force."

Protesting Pilot

What is going on all this time between you and the Air Force commander?

"[Air Force Chief] Tomer is an amazing man. We have endless love and respect for him. He, for his part, is honest with us. He is loyal to the hierarchy and the command and the political rank but he maintains decency and we appreciate that. We tried not to surprise him. To keep him in the picture. In the end, we are all brothers. You need to know the corps to understand the relationships.

"Obviously, there are differences of opinion. It is clear that the commander of the air force opposes our move and will have to take measures. But just so you know, I sent him a message today. 'Dear Brother, difficult days, but despite everything, I love and appreciate you. Shabbat Shalom, friend and commander.' He answered me, 'It's mutual. I love you.' And yes, it is clear to us that we are not in the same place, but in the end, we are all sitting on the same branch."

 US LT.-GEN. and CENTCOM Air Force Chief Alexus Grynkewich (right) and IAF Chief Maj.-Gen.Tomer Bar.  (credit: US CENTCOM)
US LT.-GEN. and CENTCOM Air Force Chief Alexus Grynkewich (right) and IAF Chief Maj.-Gen.Tomer Bar. (credit: US CENTCOM)

Do you understand that you are targets now? Planning an answer? Will you do an interview?

"It was clear to us that it would happen. We live here and we know it. Yesterday, that repulsive video about the pilots and the ground forces came out. No, it was not what made us publish the letter. It was clear to us that we were in the crosshairs. We hear ministers insulting us, condemning us to hell, all these cuties. But it did not play a role in the decision.

"What is more, people have to take into account that it could lead to violence. I heard about a desire to erase Huwara, but it is not clear to me if they want any pilot taken down as well. It's strange to me that they don't understand that you shouldn't talk like that."

Are you going to actively participate in the protest?

"I don't think so. Eyal Naveh wants us to talk in Kaplan. We don't want to. I don't think we should be interviewed either. We are pilots, not speakers or orators. We are not interested in publicity. We do want people to understand what motivated us to take action.

"Think for a moment. Let's say, I, at the age of 18, volunteered for Sayeret Matkal, I even wanted to be an infantryman. I became a pilot. You serve 12 years permanently, then decades in the reserves. You go on hundreds of sorties with tons of explosive material. Why are you actually doing all this for thirty years? So that your children will have a Jewish and democratic state. This is not obvious. We are brought up to be thrown into the defense of our country at any given moment. At short notice. Until today, it was about external threats. Today the threat is internal. It is no less dangerous.

"And no, I don't see politicians as an enemy. I see division, discord, and incitement as enemies. I consider the extermination of our common race unilaterally, an enemy. So what will the 30 years in the reserves do for us now? When the country becomes a place where our children will not be able to live? So we are now fulfilling our duty. It's just like a reserve. It is indeed a reverse move, but the meaning is the same."

And what about the elections? The people had their say, etc.?

"We don't have any problem with the elections. It's not related. We don't need new elections and we don't need to topple governments. If you ask me, an emergency government is an essential matter. Without the extremists. Bibi prime minister, who will serve until the end of the term. The main thing is that the legislation continues with negotiations."

"We don't need new elections and we don't need to topple governments."

Protesting Pilot

Did you try to get to Gantz and Lapid? Convince them to join Netanyahu?

"The truth is that I tried. Others tried. We didn't succeed. Even today we tried. The main thing is that neither side should feel defeated."

Some people think this government is dangerous, even without the legislation.

"Could be. Look, it's not that there aren't thoughts. In the last operation in Gaza, we were sitting in a pergola, every now and then a couple took off, and a couple came back. You sit like that for long hours and talk, and wait your turn.

"Suddenly someone, a navigator about 30 years old, in permanent service, asked a strange question. 'Say,' he asked, 'who even now approves the goals and defines the goals and the armament?' Everyone looked at each other. I told him to wait, I went to Google and searched for the members of the cabinet. I got to Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Goldknopf, Miri Regev. I read the names. We looked at each other. Could it be that we are entering Gaza, dropping a ton of bombs in the most densely populated place in the world, on the orders of these people?

"And you know what? Yes. It could be. This is what the voter chose. In the end, we trust our commanders. I admit that it's scary, but that's how it is. And I tell you that there has never been such a conversation within the Air Force, during a military operation or about trust at the political level.

"This is what the voter chose. In the end, we trust our commanders. I admit that it's scary, but that's how it is."

Protesting Pilot

"It's a crisis of trust that has never been here. People in uniforms who suddenly say wait a minute, what's going on here, we go to our commanders and they reassure us. They say everything is fine, we are here, everything is according to the principles and orders and we will not allow anything illegal or improper to happen.

"We ask - 'and after you're replaced and you're not here?' After all, we look around and see what happens to people who insist on respecting the law. For Chief Ami Ashad, for example. Who said they wouldn't do something like this to Tomer? And yet, after all this discussion, which is amazing in itself, no one thought of not doing his job to the best of his ability. I, right after this conversation, led a couple of missions to Gaza. That's what we're there for and we have no doubt that nothing illegal will happen."

People say you've gone crazy.

"Have we gone crazy? Have we gone crazy? Let's say. So what about the [Sayeret] Matkalists? And the Schaldagists (Airborne special forces)? And the Shabakniks (Internal security)? What about them? Have they gone crazy too? And if all these have gone mad, why not look for the one who made them mad? Who brought this madness here?

"I take off for Gaza on the orders of Goldknopf and Ben-Gvir without hesitation, but I also think about the army. Who will rescue me if I am stranded? The ones who went crazy? After all, this protest, these letters, these feelings exist along the length and breadth of the entire front. Everywhere".

How do you look the commanders in the eye in such a situation?

"It's difficult. But the closeness between us, the brotherhood between us, will overcome this too. I sat with the commander of some base and we talked for hours. How do we solve this, how do we manage to overcome without getting to the situation we've reached? Then his wife came, brought the children back, took a flag, and went to a demonstration. This is what our life looks like."

To what extent was the competence of the Air Force damaged?

"There is very serious damage to the competence. The reserves are between 70 and 75 percent of the force. The percentage of those who announced now is very high. I don't want to say a number, of course, but there is significant damage."

If there is a war you will return immediately

"That's not the question. Look, a round with Gaza is also possible without us, easily. But a northern war, impossible."

I said you would return.

"Suppose we return. What about impairment of competence? You know we fly every week. One day a week. If you don't train for two weeks - you get injured. Think of a basketball team. The Lakers. Think of it going up to a playoff game after a month without training. How many balls will go into the basket?

"Flying is a complex event. Weapon systems. Concentration and sharpness. When you stop training - you drop your level. It can cause great damage. We have fewer pilots than the Americans. Not only the plane is an expensive matter, but also the pilot is precious. In the end, there is one sentence that we grew up with: 'Aggression without skill is like suicide.' When you don't train - you're not skilled, period."

And if a big war breaks out tomorrow with Hezbollah and Iran, everyone will return, right?

"I don't believe that people won't return. But after we return, we will go up to Jerusalem. We will demand explanations from the one who threw us into the campaign. It will be like after Yom Kippur."

There are conspiracy theories that [Netanyahu] will create a conflict now just to give you a preemptive strike. Do you believe in such a possibility?

"I say this only on my own responsibility. A personal opinion that does not represent anyone but me. With sorrow and pain. Yes, I believe. Today, I already believe in everything."

This article was written for Maariv by Ben Caspit and translated to English for The Jerusalem Post by Yuval Barnea.