An Israeli pilot refusenik reflects on the state of Israeli fascism and apartheid

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  September 23, 2023

Yonatan Shapira reflects on the Israeli drift to Judeo-Nazism, as well as a “60 Minutes” interview with an Israeli soldier who says in order to bomb houses with children in them, she has to be confident of the moral values of her commander.

It is exactly 20 years since Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli former military helicopter pilot, refused to serve in the Israeli army (along with two dozen other pilots) because Israel was indiscriminately bombing civilians. Last week, the news program “60 Minutes” aired a program featuring an interview with an Israeli helicopter pilot who opposes the judicial overhaul whose only concern when bombing houses (possibly with children in them) was whether she could have confidence in the moral values of the commanders giving her the orders. I found it a very fitting time to interview Shapira about how he sees Israel’s anti-judicial reform movement and how Israeli society has shifted since his refusal two decades ago.   

Jonathan Ofir: We are speaking together, two Israelis, now in Scandinavia, you in Norway, me in Denmark. The other day, the news program “60 Minutes” ran a story about the protesters against the Israeli judicial overhaul and focused on a group called Brothers in Arms. (Brothers and Sisters in Arms are one of the most influential sectors of the protest movement comprised of army reservists and soldiers.) Three representatives were interviewed, and there was a critical moment in that interview where protester Shira Etting said:

“I was a combat helicopter pilot…If you want pilots to be able to fly and shoot bombs and missiles into houses knowing they might be killing children, they must have the strongest confidence in the people making those decisions.”

And her comrade, Ron Scherf — a Commander in the special forces — says “In the moral values of them.” He confirms it, and Shira Etting confirms it again, “Exactly.”

The interview comes almost 20 years to the day since you refused to continue your military service as a helicopter pilot in the Israeli army, and you confronted the commander of the Air Force Dan Halutz, and asked him whether he would be willing to do the same thing, to bomb a house knowing that there are civilians there, if that was an Israeli house, and he said no. 

Yonatan Shapira: I asked if they would approve shooting a missile to hit any target of someone going to bomb or something like that, knowing that what they called “collateral damage” of people around would be Israelis, say in an Israeli city like Tel Aviv. And in response to my question, he said that he has a hierarchy of the value of blood — of course he didn’t say value of blood, but he meant that the worth of life is as follows: On top are Israeli citizens; below that is the Israeli military, soldiers; under that are the Palestinian civilians and under that are the Palestinian fighters. And therefore, he would not risk shooting a missile knowing that it has a good chance to kill civilians that are from the high blood value of Israelis. 

Now, I think that if you go back 20 years, and find those interviews that we — me and my friends from the pilots letter — when we refused to continue to be part of these war crimes, you probably can find sentences that are not so different to Shira’s words, with one little difference: We thought that it’s not normal, and not legitimate at all, to shoot into houses, to shoot into a ghetto, to shoot into a concentration camp that we lock and humiliate and oppressed people in for decades. That’s the reason that me and my friends decided that we no longer want to be part of these horrible crimes against humanity. 

The “60 Minutes” coverage was meant to valorize the forces fighting to maintain democracy in Israel, but in fact, it ended up sharing a snapshot of the degeneration of Israeli society, which the protest group Brothers in Arms is part of. What do you think will be the catalyst for a real change in Israel, and can anything force these people to recognize that they are normalizing the inhumane?

To me, the only thing that can happen that can save this place is collaborating together with Palestinians who live in this region and making this the struggle for real democracy and equality for all. Its leaders, in my view, the leaders I would welcome are the Palestinian citizens of the non-democratic state of Israel and Israelis who are realizing that to be a white supremacist or Jewish supremacist citizen is totally not illegitimate. But maybe in some strange way, those brothers in arms and those forces in Israel today will find themselves on the front line actually fighting in the civil war against the more Nazi powers. And that will be their process of realizing how brutal the system is. 

Maybe that’s where we are going: a civil war where one side is the extreme right and fanatics, and the other side is these people who are trying to protect what was never a democracy. And during that, maybe realizing that the whole system is rigged, the whole thing has never been a democracy. 

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, who never agreed with me, we served together in the same squadron. All those last 20 years, I’ve been trying to convince him to refuse. And for some reason, we still managed to keep in touch, many people did not want to talk to me or meet me or continue being friends. Because it was clear in our relationship that I stay in touch because I still have some hope that I can convince people to stop murdering or to stop being part of a murderous terrorist organization like the Israeli military. But in a recent conversation we had, and he’s now not flying in the Air Force anymore — he was a rescue pilot like me, but then he became a pilot in the police under [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, the Kahane guy that is now Minister and he’s devastated with the current situation of course. And he was talking about maybe it’s time to leave, but not just to leave the police — to leave the country, because he has no hope. And I told him no, no, no. You should have left before and protested these crimes. Now, you have to stay there, and you’ll have to do probably the most dangerous fight because now some forces within the military and the police are realizing that it’s going to be a full-blown Nazi system, then it will be on their shoulders to maybe fight, to maybe do the things that we as nonviolent activists never wanted to be part of. They stayed in the system for so long they don’t have the privilege to leave now, take their fancy pension and retirement packages. They might be those who have to stay now and fight because it’s going to be more and more crazy in the coming years. 

But of course, no one, no one wants to do that. But to me, in a distorted and maybe funny way, looking at, you know, Dan Halutz, the general that fired me personally and was the symbol of that which we fought against or struggled against at the time, 20 years ago, the pilots’ letter — now he is the leader in a way of at least 1,700 Air Force former and still active pilots and air crews calling to refuse to obey the orders. Even if it’s not for the right reasons, history is all the time unfolding in front of our eyes, and in a way, sometimes it puts the responsibility for some actions on the shoulders of those people who were blind all these years and maybe slowly, slowly will start to open their eyes. 

I tell people that previously, they look at people like you and me as super-super extremists talking about Israel as an apartheid [state]. Now, it’s the former commander of the Mossad that says that, yeah, Israel is enforcing apartheid in the occupied territory. So some things are happening, and not all of them are negative in a way, and maybe it will be those criminals that stayed in the system for so long, that in a way will have to do that, [fight] that real fight. 

I want to ask you about this principle — the deferring of moral responsibility, because this is what is at the core of what Shira Etting was saying on “60 Minutes.” She must have the strongest confidence in the people making those decisions. Never mind what those decisions are. Now, you talked about your comrade who is now a pilot in the police — from what I understood, it seems to me that his problem is that now he’s getting orders from Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist, and maybe those orders will be the same orders that he got ten years ago, but now he’s going to get it from a certified a Judeo-Nazi, right? So this is creating a huge problem in the people, and this is what is at the core of what Shira Etting is saying — if Dan Halutz gave her the order to kill a family with children, then she would probably be pretty much okay.

Which he actually did — give orders to kill families, so yeah, it’s totally right. I think that the inner lie, the inner self-deception, is crumbling. And it’s not possible anymore to sustain when your commander or your minister is a full-blown neo-Nazi Jewish supremacist Kahanist. Yes, I think in one way, of course, I look at it in a very cynical way, but in another way in you know, some other voices inside me are saying that maybe that’s what we need to see, maybe that’s what these guys needed to see — to get orders from these Nazis, not Amos Oz-like commanders who send the military to bomb Gaza while reading a poem, you know… maybe you need these extreme-extreme fascist, Nazis, whatever you want to call them, to come to your doorstep as the commanders, [in order] to wake up.

Because it’s a very critical time, I think people talk about all the protests, and I’m all for protesting, but I don’t know; when we grew up in Israel, as kids we learned that Nazis are to fight with, you know, you don’t negotiate with Nazis — when Nazis are in power, you fight them. And you know, now I live in Oslo in Norway, and it doesn’t seem like they have any motivation to put any pressure on Israel. The level of hypocrisy is just unbelievable. They would continue to do whatever the U.S. State Department tells them. They continue to do arm trade to sell oil to politically and diplomatically defend Israel. Just as we speak, like a few days ago, the foreign minister of Norway came back from a meeting with the foreign minister of Israel. So it’s, I see, the Israeli occupation, apartheid, whatever name we call it — ethnic cleansing, as a joint project, not only of Israel — and it’s really important because, for some people in the Palestine Solidarity movement around the world, it’s easy to look at, you know, people like you and me and put the responsibility of these crimes on us and our families and our society. And I say, no, no, no, you don’t get to do that. The continuation of this ongoing ethnic cleansing is very much the responsibility of every state in Europe, of the United States, of course, of Australia, of all these countries that are totally part of the mechanism that makes it possible. 

So, I, the last thing I want to create, in the hearts of people when they hear you and me, is this sense of purification, you know, they support Palestine, they are on the good side. And over there, the crazy fascist Israel is… no, no, it’s a joint project that would never continue for so long without the active participation of every country in Europe, especially those beautiful, peaceful social democracies in Scandinavia, [where] there are all these projects and humanitarian support and everything… No, no, no, they are all an active part of the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine. 

They have some lip service that they pay, and they give some money here and there. And they invite all these nice organizations to speak here and give some humanitarian support. But behind the scenes, they are the reason that all this craziness continues. And lately, it became more and more important for me to say that, because I realized that that’s the actual reason that it continues…you have to go into the arms industry, in your own country, to your ministers that are profiting…we just found out a few days ago that the foreign minister of Norway is dealing with the stocks of the arms manufacturers in Norway, her husband, but yes, it’s basically the same. And the husband, also of the foreign Prime Minister of Norway…they all benefit directly or indirectly, from the killing of Palestinian children, that Shira and her friends are killing directly. But the bullet is coming also from here. 

So maybe these people also, and especially in the United States where they’re consuming this “60 Minutes” program, maybe they are finding in these Brothers in Arms a kind of moral cushion?

They supply the arms of these Brothers in Arms. When they look at Shira talking about her killing of Palestinian children, they should know that the missile is made in their country. In many cases, those Hellfire missiles, for example, they are produced in America, I think. And the explosive is made 40 minutes from here, next to Oslo, in a company named Chemring Nobel that was actually previously owned by the famous Alfred Nobel family, and it’s even still called Nobel. And that’s where they produce the explosives that eventually go to the heads of these missiles that Shira and her friends are shooting into houses in Gaza. So they are all brothers in arms of the Israeli Brothers in Arms.

Jonathan Ofir  is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark