Protest of 27 pilots highlights deeper class divisions emerging in Israeli society

Last week twenty seven Israeli pilots signed a public declaration in which they announced their refusal to participate in missions of "targeted killings" and assassinations of political and military leaders of the militant Islamic factions in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Many children and women have been killed as a result of the brutal assassination policy carried out by Israel's Air Forces (IAF). These criminal acts have been described across the world as "war crimes" after Israeli helicopters killed innocents while they tried to assassinate senior leaders in the resistance movements.

Although the Israeli authorities claim that these acts are being carried out on the basis of specific information about individuals who are alleged to have been involved in planning suicide bombings, the latest act was clearly political in its character: an attempt to assassinate the founder of the Hamas movement, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and the group's spokesperson. Both were political figures with serious influence among the Arab people.

In their declaration, which has been criticized by the Israeli government and the senior generals in the Israeli Defense Forces, the pilots have raised questions of moral and basic human rights. "We, both veteran and active pilots, who have served and who still serve the state of Israel, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral orders to attack, of the type Israel carries out in the territories," the letter states.

"We, for whom the IDF and the air force are an integral part of our being, refuse to continue to hit innocent civilians... The continued occupation is critically harming the country's security" and moral fiber, it added.

The Arab press highlighted the declaration. Thus, the daily Egyptian Al-Jumhuriyah wrote, "Twenty-seven Israeli war pilots have slammed the Sharon government for pursuing an assassination policy against Palestinian activists, likening this to other criminal guerrillas and terrorist organizations, which have no way of dealing with opponents other than killing them…" It added, "The entire world, except for the USA, has condemned the killing of Palestinian leaders, not because of the loss of civilian life, as admitted by the Israeli pilots themselves, but because it wastes an opportunity for peace".

Prime Minister Sharon condemned the letter, saying that it reminded him that there had also been an attempt "to overthrow a democratically-elected government" during the 1982 Lebanon War. Sharon's comments were an apparent reference to Amram Mitzna's decision to resign during the 1982 War. Mitzna was commander of the IDF Command College at the time. Mitzna cited the behavior of the then defense minister Sharon during the invasion of Israel's northern neighbor, in particular regarding the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, as the reasons for his decision.

As a response, the IAF has decided to punish some of the 27 pilots after they drew harsh condemnation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and their fellow reservists. According to the daily right-wing Jerusalem Post, Sharon said the "severe and difficult" issue must "be dealt with and quickly." He said it is "unacceptable" that officers should "exploit their uniform and rank in the name of the IDF for political purposes."

The Jerusalem Post reported, "OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz gave the order to ground the nine, instructors at the Hazterim IAF base and the only active pilots of the refusal movement. They will meet with their commanders soon and will be asked to retract the statement publicly. Those who refuse will be dismissed from active duty. IDF sources indicated that the reservists would likely not be court-martialed, mainly because their reserve duty is semi-voluntary and because a majority of the signatories are beyond reserve age". The most likely reason why they will not be court-martialed is that such an act of repression would have the opposite effect to that which they want. It could spark off an even bigger protest movement.

Many antiwar, peacenik and pacifist movements across the globe and in Israel have expressed their support for the pilots. The signatories of the letter said that they refused to "continue to harm innocent civilians" and carry out other 'immoral and illegal' operations that are "part of the occupation." In a meticulously planned media campaign, they had cut a deal of exclusivity with Channel 2 and Yedioth Aharonot prior to the release of their letter. According to the Jerusalem Post, the letter had been circulating among IAF officers for about two months.

In a letter to all IAF officers, Halutz wrote that the refusal is as immoral as "sticking a knife in the backs of the fighters fulfilling their operational duty... and into democracy." He also condemned the action coming at a time when "hundreds of civilians and soldiers are killed in terrorist attacks." In addition, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz slammed the reservists, arguing their "refusal has no connection to morality... they are simply using [their] rank and their uniform to issue political statements."

These hypocritical denunciations by those whose morals are on the level of those of war criminals, reflect the panic among the Israeli military and political leadership. They are worried because among the officers who signed the letter, are two lieutenant-colonels, nine colonels, and Brig.-Gen (res.) Yiftah Spector. Spector is considered a living legend in the Israeli Air Force. These are not ordinary rank and file soldiers. They are part of the elite. It is a historically unprecedented development in Israel.

The Israeli generals are aware of the influence that this kind of letter can have among the "ordinary" soldiers. The fact that high-ranking officers dared to express their condemnation must reflect a much more widespread and deeper discontent among the ordinary solders.

The IAF is aware of a new tendency among pilots - the so-called "gray refusal," whereby a small number of pilots express their discomfort with targeted assassinations and are removed from the assignment by their superiors. The deal is conducted quietly, often without the knowledge of senior IAF commanders.

Israeli newspaper commentators questioned the pilots' rationale in submitting their joint letter. "The reasoning is crooked and the conclusion is impossible," according to Nahum Barne'a, writing in Yedioth Aharonot. "There is no army and there can be no army where you can do as you please," he continued. "They should file away their rash letter or be released from military service."

In the meantime, another IAF fighter pilot has added his name to the 27 signatories of the pilots' letter of refusal. Haaretz reported, "IAF airman Lt. Colonel Eli, a fighter pilot credited with downing an especially high number of enemy planes, announced that he was adding his signature to the refusal letter. Eli, who serves as a flight instructor together with Colonel Yiftah Spector, one of the original 27 signatories, said he decided to add his signature following IAF Chief Halutz's announcement that harsher measures would be taken against flight instructors who signed the letter, saying they were not 'the people who should educate the next generation of pilots.' Earlier Sunday, Colonel Ran, one of the original 27 signatories of the letter of refusal, said he regretted signing the letter and had changed his mind about the move". This probably reflects the pressures the group has come under from the government and the very tops of the Israeli armed forces.

There has been a general campaign to discredit the 27 pilots. All the TV channels, all the newspapers have revealed themselves to be at the service of Israel’s military command. For days all of these media fed the public with high-ranking figures condemning the stand of these courageous pilots.

Defend the stance of pilots! Down with the Sharon government!

This government of big capital and the national bourgeoisie is in panic. The letter of the pilots has undermined the legitimacy of the war crimes committed by the Zionists in the Occupied Territories. The fear is so great that a group of right wing and "loyal" pilots has been hurriedly organized in order to help the Israeli ruling class overcome this crisis. The fact that the entire Israeli leadership has felt the need to publicly denounce the pilots and has spent time in explaining the Israeli authorities’ stance only serves to further underline the importance of this letter.

As we expected, the so-called "opposition" has refused to back the pilots. The social-democratic Meretz party, which has a long and shameful record of opposing this kind of refusal, has remained silent apart for Sarid who has put up a half-hearted defense of the 27 pilots. The Labour party and its leaders such as Mitzna have denounced the initiators of the letter. Unfortunately, even the leadership of Hadash (the Communist Party's political front) has done absolutely nothing to defend the brave pilots. Unfortunately the party is becoming more and more passive in the face of many issues. This paralysis of the party reflects a crisis that is the result of the contradiction between the members on the one hand who want to struggle and the leadership on the other, who with their reformist programme show that they are under the influence of a petit bourgeois outlook. This crisis situation in the party will continue unless the party takes a firm decision to return to its historical roots as a revolutionary Leninist party.

And yet this is happening in the party precisely when the Israeli middle classes are beginning to feel the pinch of the economic crisis. This move of the 27 pilots is not an isolated case. It reflects something deeper in Israeli society. From their ranks these pilots are obviously closely linked to the middle class layers in Israeli society. Thus they reflect both the mood among the ranks of the army and air force and among wider layers of society in general.

The middle class layers have many good reasons to denounce what is going on, not to speak of the working class and unemployed! Given the lack of a political alternative this opposition to what is going on may not always come to the surface. In many cases it may remain at the level of silent unexpressed opposition, but it is undoubtedly there. The stance of the pilots is one of those events that brings these underlying processes to the surface.

The public debate going on in Israel about the immorality of the occupation and its atrocities flows directly from the current crisis of the Israeli economy and of the capitalist system in general. More and more Israelis are seeing where the state is investing their hard-earned money. It is being invested in buying military equipment, in enlarging the settlements, in providing more and more money to the army in order to strengthen the occupation. They are seeing that the present bloody war has a price. Huge numbers of Palestinians have been killed, but increasingly large numbers of Israelis have also lost their lives. But it is not merely a loss of life. There is also a huge social and economic cost. The standards of living, wages, social gains and rights of ordinary Israelis are being gradually whittled away. While money is spent on bolstering the military apparatus, while the government is waging war on the Palestinians, that very same government is waging another kind of war on ordinary Israelis, by cutting back on welfare spending, pensions, jobs, etc.

The reformist leaders in the movement are proving incapable of carrying forward the struggle against the immorality of the occupation and transforming it into a mass struggle for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Such a struggle would require a "national divorce", not "national peace". It requires war between the classes and not between the peoples. The working class is the only social force that objectively has an interest in ending the war. It also is the only class, with its trade union and workplace structures, that has the ability to mobilize and draw behind it all the other layers, the unemployed, the youth, the petit bourgeois, etc. But for this to happen the working class needs a leadership that is capable of breaking with the present logic, whereby all Jews are supposed to be united around the Zionist cause. Working class Jews (and also large layers of the middle classes) have no interest in continuing to be a part of this game. This means the task is to patiently build up that revolutionary alternative among the workers and youth.

Without this revolutionary alternative, with the "subjective factor" - the revolutionary party - an end to this bloody conflict will not come easily. The current reformist, Zionist and nationalist "leaders" will sell out the interests of the laboring masses in order to block a revolutionary development of the situation. This is why those "leftist" elements that had raised their voices lately against Sharon are now refusing to back the brave pilots.

Let us not forget the past. The best example of a similar situation to what is beginning to develop now is the protest movement that emerged during the Lebanon War. During the war of 1982, a small group of Jewish and Arab students organized themselves in the Campus Group and decided to build an opposition against the nationalist-expansionist war. The number of Israeli soldiers that were being killed and injured was increasing and many people - some of whom had never been involved in politics before the war began - took to the streets and protested against the war. That antiwar movement grew as each day unfolded and its most radical and militant expression was the 400,000 strong demonstration that filled what is today known as Rabin's Square in Tel Aviv. The Zionist peacenik movement Peace Now became the most prominent and loudest voice against the war. Although the Campus Group had taken the initiative before Peace Now took over the protest movement, the Zionists assumed a decisive role in organizing the protest.

However, when the mass protest increased and the contradiction between Zionism and the genuine interests of the Israeli masses became clear, Peace Now looked for a way of diverting the attention of the masses away from the real problems. Its so-called "leaders" used the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, was forced to resign from office and that an investigation committee, the Kahan Committee, had been set up in order to investigate the atrocities which had been carried out in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in order to defuse the movement, which was becoming explosive. Peace Now presented this as an extraordinary achievement, particularly after Ariel Sharon, who had served as defense minister, had been denounced by hundreds of thousands of Israeli workers and youth. The Peace Now movement diverted this anger of the masses against the Likud into the class collaborationist project known as "National Peace as". This so-called "leadership" was faced with the choice between Zionism and a movement that had revolutionary implications, a movement which could have overthrown the Zionist regime itself. Thus they did everything to dissipate the forces that had built up among the masses.

How low this movement has fallen since those days was underlined in a demonstration that was recently organized by the Peace Now movement in Tel Aviv. It was not able to mobilize even three thousand members and supporters. No one forgets the fact that Peace Now served and continues to serve the Zionist project and it is no coincidence that at the end of every demonstration, the Israeli national anthem is sung.

Create a movement of support for the pilots!

The pilots should not be left on their own. They need support in order for them not to be victimized and isolated. It is our duty to organize and unite all those who are for the immediate withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories and build a mass united front of all the organizations, parties and groups on the left. It is important to provide any defense needed to these brave pilots and protest against their persecution by the Israeli authorities.

We know of many cases in which soldiers do not have enough courage to refuse and they are using many tactics and methods in order to participate in other military activities. It is our role to express our support for those soldiers and ask them to join hands with us. A widespread movement of insubordination of officers and soldiers would undermine the legitimacy of the criminal policies carried out by Sharon and Co. Sharon should be brought down, but only a mass movement of workers, trade unionists, students, youth, soldiers, intellectuals, can achieve this.

Thus we are calling on all members of Hadash and the Communist Party to place themselves in the vanguard, to take the lead and build a movement in defense of these courageous pilots. This must be done by linking the protest of the pilots to the more general social problems of the workers in Israel. The workers in Israel today are protesting about cuts in welfare and jobs. The strike movement is growing. The port employees have been on strike. Even the customs workers are protesting. 50,000 workers are striking over further planned cuts and lay-offs in the civil service. The Ben Gurion airport has been seriously affected. This shows that the protest of the pilots does not come like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.

Public support can be galvanized around the question of the pilots’ protest to develop a mass movement. Hadash and the Communist Party could give such a movement the class content it needs. Thus it could become the lever through which a mass proletarian movement could be developed, a movement that would seek to transform the social relations in Israel as the only way out of the present bloodshed.

A group of 200 or so university lecturers and professors have now signed a petition in support of the 27 pilots. It was published in today’s edition of Yedioth Aharonot and it is also addressed to the students. The petition praises the pilots for their courage in refusing to take part in the repression and killing of another people. This highlights even further that this stand of the pilots is not an isolated case, it goes much deeper.

The Gush Shalom-Peace Block movement, led by former MP Uri Avnery, published in the Haaretz daily an advertisement in which the group praises the pilots. "Honor to the pilots! You, the 27 of moral courage, who are refusing to comply with immoral orders, who are rebelling against the occupation, you are the real patriots, you save the honor of Israel, you restore the belief in our state, you are the national conscience!"

Furthermore, Gush Shalom called for a demonstration on Monday September 29 in Tel-Aviv. While we praise their initiative and call on everyone on the left to join this kind of action, it is not enough. A one-off action, although it would be a clear expression of opposition to the government, has to be followed by more. Gush Shalom should take the initiative to call on the other left parties and organizations to form a genuine united front in action on this question.

It is not surprising that most of left (from the small sectarian groups, including among them, those who unfortunately describe themselves as "Trotskyists", to the larger organizations) have remained silent on this question. This means they have learnt nothing from history. History has thought us long ago; that reformism and sectarianism walk hand in hand. For these sectarian groups these officers are an irrelevance because they do not break with Zionism (as the officers’ letter makes quite clear). But this reaction just shows that they have learnt nothing from the history of the working class movement.

We cannot expect these protesting officers to emerge as pure anti-Zionist internationalists. Their protest, in its form, remains within the confines of the Zionist set up. But that is not the point. The point is that objectively their protest undermines the plans of the reactionary Israeli ruling class. Their action brings to the surface something which has been undoubtedly simmering for some time within the ranks of the Israeli armed forces. We have already had the phenomenon of the "refuseniks", mainly lower ranking soldiers and privates, who have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. The fact that this time it is officers, and high-ranking at that, makes it more difficult for the authorities to brush it aside as an irrelevance.

Furthermore it highlights that Israeli society, and with it the armed forces, is not one homogeneous, reactionary, impregnable block. The armed forces are not impermeable to the processes developing within Israeli society as a whole. If even the army officer cast is affected then what it reveals is that class divisions in Israeli exist as much as in any other country. The task of the left, and genuine Communists in particular, is to highlight these divisions and approach them from a class point of view. The ability of Sharon to continue oppressing the Palestinian people depends on them keeping a tight grip on the minds of the soldiers and officers. Once this breaks down their room for manoeuvre becomes more limited. That is why it is our duty to support the stance of the 27 pilots.

The history of the Marxist movement has many lessons for us in this regard. The example of the Dreyfus affair can shed light on what our approach should be here today in Israel. In 1894, the French Captain Alfred Dreyfus was put on trial for "high treason". The case arose when a French spy in the German embassy discovered that secret French documents were being passed to the Germans. The French army at that time was dominated by monarchists and Catholics and also permeated by anti-Semitism. It attempted to discover who the "traitor" was. Without any shred of evidence suspicion fell on Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew. The press added to the whipping up of anti-Semitic hysteria by pointing the finger at "Jewish treason". He was sentenced to life imprisonment and deportation for life and it took many years for the truth to come out: Dreyfus was totally innocent and it later emerged that false evidence had been used to frame him. Dreyfus was pardoned and released in 1899 and eventually exonerated in 1906.

The case split French society into two opposing camps. The case unleashed political issues (ranging from nationalism to socialism, anticlericalism, antimilitarism, survival of the republican regime, separation of Church and State, etc.) as well as such issues as civic and human rights. It highlighted the anti-Semitism that permeated the higher levels of the French state. It brought to the attention of the masses how public opinion was manipulated by the Press and the government. It brought to the attention of the masses real nature of the state and the ruling elite.

Even then, many on the left considered the Dreyfus Case as a clash between capitalist cliques irrelevant to the proletariat. However, Lenin had a completely different approach. In his Political Agitation and "The Class Point of View" (published February 1, 1902 in Iskra, No. 16) he wrote the following:

"Let us recall also the words that the Communists support every revolutionary movement against the existing system. Those words are often interpreted too narrowly, and are not taken to imply support for the liberal opposition. It must not be forgotten, however, that there are periods when every conflict with the government arising out of progressive social interests, however small, may under certain conditions (of which our support is one) flare up into a general conflagration. Suffice it to recall the great social movement which developed in Russia out of the struggle between the students and the government over academic demands, or the conflict that arose in France between all the progressive elements and the militarists over a trial in which the verdict had been rendered on the basis of forged evidence. [i.e. the Dreyfus affair] Hence, it is our bounden duty to explain to the proletariat every liberal and democratic protest, to widen and support it, with the active participation of the workers, be it a conflict between the Zemstvo and the Ministry of the Interior, between the nobility and the police régime of the Orthodox Church, between statisticians and the bureaucrats, between peasants and the "Zemstvo" officials, between religious sects and the rural police, etc., etc. Those who contemptuously turn up their noses at the slight importance of some of these conflicts, or at the "hopelessness" of the attempts to fan them into a general conflagration, do not realise that all-sided political agitation is a focus in which the vital interests of political education of the proletariat coincide with the vital interests of social development as a whole, of the entire people, that is, of all its democratic elements. It is our direct duty to concern ourselves with every liberal question, to determine our Social-Democratic [note: in those days this term was synonymous to Marxist] attitude towards it, to help the proletariat to take an active part in its solution and to accomplish the solution in its own, proletarian way. Those who refrain from concerning themselves in this way (whatever their intentions) in actuality leave the liberals in command, place in their hands the political education of the workers, and concede the hegemony in the political struggle to elements which, in the final analysis, are leaders of bourgeois democracy."

Thus in spite of his own personal views, the workers’ movement came to the defence of Alfred Dreyfuss. Similarly today the Israeli government is attacking the pilots in spite of their Zionist beliefs or leanings. The point is that their actions are undermining the authorities and bringing to the attention of the whole of Israeli society the terrible crimes that are being perpetrated in their name, and they are highlighting the divisions which are clearly opening up on this question. Sharon, his government and the whole ruling elite in Israel are afraid of the impact this letter could have on the army’s morale, that it could damage their capacity to carry on with their war crimes against the Palestinian people. That is not an unimportant detail.

* Israel out of the Occupied Territories!
* End Israeli state-terrorism now!
* Build a united front in defense of the pilots now!
* Socialist revolution is the only solution!
* For self-determination for the Israeli and the Palestinian masses!
* For a socialist federated state of Israel/Palestine!
* For a socialist federation of a free and democratic Middle East!