Putting lessons of Holocaust into practice

August 7, 2006

In News

Jonathan Pearlman

FOR this Israeli pilot, the difference between killing Lebanese civilians and saving Israeli lives comes to this: a finger on a button, while travelling at twice the speed of sound.

In a briefing room at Israel’s Hazor air force base, Colonel A, a wing commander, shows footage of a two-storey residential building – as filmed by a speeding F-16 fighter jet. As the plane nears the building, a missile emerges, fired from a window on the second floor.

“If there is a chance that civilians are in the building, what would you do? I say you would hit it,” says Colonel A, 42, who cannot be named.

“Once these civilians are letting people use those targets to launch rockets, they are involved. If you don’t hit the target, this rocket will reach the people who sent you on your mission – your family.”

While the Lebanese Government and much of the world say Israeli attacks in Lebanon and its bombardment of residential areas have amounted to war crimes and a disproportionate use of force, the pilot has no such qualms.

The colonel, who has overseen more than 1000 sorties since the war began, says Israeli pilots can abort a mission if they are concerned about the threat to civilians. In one example he cites, a pilot bombed a target but failed to destroy it. When he returned for a second bombing, people had gathered at the site and the pilot called off the attack.

“We know that Hezbollah are using human shields and we try not to hit them when they are hiding behind civilians,” Colonel A says.

In this conflict, the Israeli Air Force’s deadliest mistake has been the bombing of a residential building in Qana, in which at least 28 civilians were killed. Human rights groups and Lebanese officials have claimed Israeli drones must have detected the residents, and accused Israel of targeting civilians. But an inquiry by the Israeli Army this week found the air force mistakenly assumed the building was empty.

“Qana had been used for three or four days for launching hundreds of rockets,” Colonel A said. “This was not the first target that was attacked in the village. Our assumption was that the innocent people had left.”

Colonel A, a career pilot, said his personal history had shaped his belief in the potential morality of the use of force.

“My mother is a survivor of the Holocaust,” he said. “She lost her whole family … I know that at other times in our history, when we did not have a state, or any force to defend ourselves, things happened in a different way.”