Why elite Israeli combat pilots are refusing to serve until judicial reforms are abandoned

Some of the highest ranking members of Israel's Air Force are refusing to fly, one pilot explains why


"For the first time, the greatest threat to Israel isn’t from the Arabs, it’s from other Jews.”

These are the words of an elite Israeli combat pilot, who has not reported for duty since July in protest at the Israeli government’s controversial programme of judicial reforms.

The pilot, who spoke to the JC on the condition of anonymity due to security concerns, is a lieutenant colonel in one of the Israeli Air Force’s most decorated squadrons and has flown on hundreds of missions, clocking up 3,000 hours of flight time during operations in Syria, Gaza and across Israel.

Like 70 per cent of Israel’s pilots, he is a reservist. But for months now he has refused to take to the skies — and he insisted he will not return to active duty until the government backs down from what he called an attempt “to destroy Israeli democracy”.

Pilots, regarded as the elite of the elite in the IDF, are put on a pedestal across Israeli society. And with good reason. They have been the first line of defence in every modern conflict Israel has fought, and in the case of some wars, almost the sole reason the Jewish nation survived.

They are regarded as some of the most loyal servicemen in Israel. Yet waves of discontent have spread through their ranks this year. In March, their frustration came to a head, with hundreds of pilots refusing to show up for their training operations. The revolt culminated in a temporary climbdown from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking at a house in north London, the pilot, who the JC is referring to as Gil, said he feels he has no choice but to take a stand against what he sees as the erosion of the fundamental idea at the heart of his country: that Israel is both a Jewish and a democratic state.

Reflecting on the judicial reforms, he said: “It’s like someone is taking your phone and changing your operating system without asking you. You bought an iPhone, and now suddenly, you have an Android.

“If you want to mess with the democratic liberal characteristics of the state, you need more support. You need to talk about it, you can’t just wake up one day and decide that Israel is not a democracy anymore.”

Gil was quick to point out he would come back and serve in the event of a war. But only on his terms. “I don’t think there will be a war tomorrow, but if there was, and rockets from Lebanon or Iran or wherever were raining down on Tel Aviv, we’d all be back in the cockpit,” he said. “Then, when the war is over, we’ll be back on the streets protesting.”

He continued: “For the first time ever, I’m hearing from people in the army who are asking questions when they get called up. In the past, you would go in the middle of the night, and they would say they needed you to go to Gaza.

“Whatever it was, I would say yes, but now, we ask, are we doing these things for the Israeli Defence Force or the Ben- Gvir defence force — what kind of war are we talking about?”

Gil is used to the accusation that this is a purely political protest, that elite pilots are trying to stop an elected government they don’t like from doing what it wants.

“It’s not a case of right or left, it’s a case of right and wrong. The first thing people say is that it’s politics. But for me, that’s bulls**. I’ve dropped hundreds of bombs under five of Bibi’s governments.

“If these rules pass, and in five years [Labour leader and left-wing MK] Merav Michaeli is prime minister, and she started to take away Jewish things because she doesn’t like religious people, I would do more protests and more balagan.

"There is only one Jewish state, and it needs to be Jewish and democratic. We can’t lose that magic.”

Gil was also adamant that Jews outside of Israel should care about what is going on:.“We see what happens whenever there are wars in Israel.

“Antisemitism increases everywhere there are Jews. What would it do to the sense of identity of your children and grandchildren if they knew that their identity is associated with a rogue country?"

For Gil and many of his fellow pilots, the turning point was the violence that erupted in the Palestinian town of Huwara earlier this year after Bezalel Smotrich, one of Netanyahu’s key allies, demanded it be “wiped out”, a statement that he subsequently retracted. Many pilots were aghast.

“Pilots can do a lot of damage, and so when you’re in the cockpit, you need to be 100 per cent sure that the person giving the orders is 200 per cent sure it’s the right thing. And right now, we just don’t have that trust.”

If the protests carry on and pilots refuse to fly, isn’t there a risk innocent Israelis could die?

“It’s painful,” Gil said. “To wake up every morning and ask yourself, am I doing the right thing? I’m looking at it as if there is a patient with cancer.

Chemotherapy will kill parts of the body but if I do not fight now, the patient will die. And Israel will die. The only one Jewish state will not be democracy anymore.

“So right now, I need to fight cancer. I need to fight and defend against the existential threat to Israel. Today is an existential threat. Not in two years or five years. Today.

“If we don’t stop this process now, we will be like Hungary, Poland, Turkey - countries that woke up one day saying, ‘S**t, we’re too late.’”

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