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Israeli Refusenik vs. Israeli Peace Party Member: A Debate on Israel’s Assault on Lebanon

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While a large part of the international community opposes Israel’s offensive on Lebanon, polls conducted over the past week have shown that between 90% and 95% of Israeli Jews remain in support of Israel’s actions. We host a debate with a former Captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves and a member of Israeli peace party, Meretz. [includes rush transcript]

While a large part of the international community opposes Israel’s offensive on Lebanon, polls conducted over the past week have shown that between 90 and 95 percent of Israeli Jews remain in support of Israel’s actions, including members of the major Israeli peace parties. Yet as the assault continues into its tenth day, there are also many Israelis who have begun to speak out against their country’s policies.

This week Staff Seargent Itzik Shabbat became the first Israeli soldier to refuse to participate in the attacks on Lebanon. The Israeli peace party, Meretz, which initially supported the military’s actions, has more recently begun questioning the extent of the current violence, according to a spokesperson for Meretz head Yossi Beilin.

  • Yonatan Shapira, a former Captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves. In 2003 Yonatan initiated the group of Israeli Air Force pilots who refused to fly attack missions on Palestinian territories. He is also one of the founders of the organization Combatants for Peace.
  • Uri Zaki, chairman of Young Meretz.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our Firehouse studio here in New York by Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli soldier who left the military in 2003, is now founder of the group, Combatants for Peace. We welcome you to the Democracy Now!

YONATAN SHAPIRA: Hi. I’m not the founder. I’m one of the founders of this group, and I was a pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you join the Israeli military?

YONATAN SHAPIRA: Just like all the other Israeli boys, when they finish their high school. It was the year of 1991, and I finished my pilot course in the end of 1993. I served about ten years as a rescue pilot flying Bell 212 and Black Hawk helicopters.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did you serve?

YONATAN SHAPIRA: Most of the mission I did were rescue and also transport of commando forces into Lebanon and into the Occupied Territories.

In the year of 2003, I initiated and found a group of Air Force pilots, including colonels and brigadier generals, all of them from all of the most respectable squadrons in the Israeli Air Force. Attack helicopter pilots, squadron commanders, F-16 pilots, F-15 pilots, all of them join me to this petition that I have here with me, and we published this letter, which called a “Pilots’ Letter,” in which we declared our refusal to take part in these attacks on civilians.

And since then, we were all dismissed from the Air Force, and many of us became peace activists, anti-occupation activists, and some of us formed with other soldiers, other refusers from the Israeli Army, the group named Combatants for Peace, which is a group of Israeli former militants and Palestinian former militants who came together to the conclusion that there is no military solution to the violence and the conflict in the Middle East.

And my message here today is that if you will let the Israeli government to solve this conflict, it means the destruction of my country and the destruction of the neighbors’ countries.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was it that brought you to that conclusion during your time of service? What were the particular incidents or situations that you can confronted that led you to conclude that?

YONATAN SHAPIRA: You know, it’s a long process. And I give lectures here in the United States and in Europe and in Israel, sharing my process of transformation and realizing that in order to contribute to the security of my country and to the security of all the people who live in this region, I must refuse. I can talk to you about that for hours and hours. But if I have to put some particular events, it was the assassination policy that was led by Prime Minister Sharon and the same general who is now the commander of the Army, General Dan Halutz, who was the commander of the Air Force. And they started to use my friends and my fellow pilots in the F-16 pilot squadrons and Apache squadrons, in order to assassinate suspects in Gaza and in the Judean-Samarian Occupied Territories.

And that process brought us to the situation where we finally understood that we are just part of this circle of mutual violence, circle of revenge. And once you understand that you are part of this circle, you understand that there is no much difference between the terror that you are suffering from and the terror that you are involved in. And it’s a very, very hard thing for one to understand and to go through. It involved personal crisis sometimes, and it involved with a lot of things that now connecting to each other, not just in the issues in the Middle East, but all over the world.

But now the idea is we believe that people like us who were part of the Israeli Army, who were part of the core of the Zionist enterprise and still care about their country and their people and love Israel, and I’m talking out of love to my country and my family. I’m going to be back there in a few days. I have friends that are now sitting in shelters and all this kind of stuff. I know the suffering also of my people. But we believe that it’s our obligation now to shout this and to call the world: if you care about my country, if you care about the Israeli people, as well the Palestinian and the Lebanese who are now suffering, you must put massive pressure on the Israeli government, and putting pressure on the Israeli government means putting pressure on your government.

AMY GOODMAN: Uri Zaki is also with us, chair of Young Meretz in Israel, the Meretz Peace Party. What is your position on what Israel is currently doing in Lebanon and Gaza?

URI ZAKI: First of all, hello. I must say that unlike Yonatan, I differentiate between what’s going on in the Occupied Territories, meaning Gaza and the West Bank — and I’m saying Gaza, even though we withdraw from Gaza — and what’s going on in Lebanon. The way I see it, the peace camp, the camp that I’m a member of, proud member of, has been always advocating towards a withdrawal to international recognized borders by Israel.

And that’s what we did in Lebanon. We withdrew exactly by meter by meter, centimeter by centimeter, to the borders as were declared by the United Nations. Now, once these borders were determined, any violation of Israeli sovereignty beyond these borders, like Hezbollah did, meaning attacking Israel with rockets and killing some of our soldiers, kidnapping others, that has to be answered by force, because that was a violation of our sovereignty beyond our border.

YONATAN SHAPIRA: I have a question to Uri. The conclusion that you made, that that has to be answered by force, who said that? Who said that by force we are going to save our country? Maybe it’s some conception that you were raised upon and all those values and all those principles that we got during our education, in processing Israel. I don’t believe and I think the rest of the world, the enlightened world, do not believe that there is a solution that will come out by using force and using the Israeli military. And just think about what the Israeli government is saying now. They refuse for ceasefire. They refuse to stop the war. And missiles are falling on our families in Haifa, and at the same time, our leaders refuse to stop the war.

URI ZAKI: Yonatan, I respect your act of refusal, even though I don’t necessarily support it. But I think because of your courageous act, you cease to differentiate between two different realities, the reality of occupation and the reality of a country defending itself. I think Hezbollah and also the Lebanese state, the Lebanon state — I mean, the Lebanese government did not try to prevent Hezbollah from standing on our border. I think Hezbollah is a terrorist group, a similar group to many groups that are now threatening the Western world.

We did nothing to provoke the Hezbollah from attacking us. I think it’s a different story than the Occupied Territories, which the activities there were the reason for your act of refusal. I think it’s a different story, and I think, yes, once a country is being attacked on its borders, I don’t see any other thing we can do. By the way, in a way, we tried another way. Israel — it’s not the first time that the Hezbollah attacked over our northern borders. The two past times that it was done, there was no reaction, no military reaction. And indeed for the third time, if we would have been silent right now, in a few months they would do another violent act, maybe more viciously.

AMY GOODMAN: Yonatan Shapira.

YONATAN SHAPIRA: Just to refer with a few points to what you said now. First of all, this morning I talked to one of the leaders of Meretz, Zehava Galon, and she agreed with me that international pressure must be applied on the state of Israel, on the government of Israel, to force them to stop this crazy operation that eventually can cause to a nuclear war. We know that the situation in the Middle East is very fragile, and the Bush administration do not need much things to happen in order to get us all involved in a regional war and maybe a world war. These are things who are much more dangerous for us from missiles in Haifa. The situation can get much worse.

And tell me, please, why do you think that killing innocent Lebanese, by now 330, most of them civilians, children and women, why do you think that killing these innocent people will bring you some kind of security? It’s the same kind of logic to think that if you kill Lebanese civilians, you will force them to bring Israel security or to press the Hezbollah is the same kind of logic that maybe Nastrallah is trying to shoot Israeli cities and forcing, by that, the Israeli people to convince the Israeli government to stop this war. It’s the same kind of insanity.

And although — just last important thing — although it’s not the same situation in Gaza and in the Occupied Territories and in Lebanon, the same insanity and the same cruelty and the same stupidity of our leaders is now being on the spot. This is the danger, because the leaders of this country now and in the Lieutenant General, General Halutz, who is now leading this crazy war, will not hesitate to get Syria and to get Iran involved, and this is my greatest fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Uri Zaki, that first point, why you think the killing of Lebanese civilians is justified?

URI ZAKI: I don’t think that the killing of — God forbid — that the killing of the Lebanese civilians is the purpose of the Israeli assault. Of course, that happens in situation of offenses. Now, I don’t think that the NATO forces, when they tried to bring down Milosevic, with what they did with the former Yugoslavia, wanted to hurt innocent civilians, and yet it did, and eventually Milosevic was tried in an international court of justice.

What I’m saying is —- and by the way, Yonatan is right. We have different views in our own party, because in this operation I think Zehava is maybe the most extreme, extreme presenter of the view that Yonatan is presenting, but most of the party is not there. It’s not by mistake, we’re the most dovish peace party in Israel, and yet -—

AMY GOODMAN: We only have ten seconds, but your comment to that, Yonatan.

YONATAN SHAPIRA: Maybe the reason that Zehava Galon is the only one who is now supporting publicly those who refuse to participate in these crazy attacks, is a woman. She is a woman, and maybe she suffers less from our own machoistic problem and ego problem. And this is kind of, I think, one of the most important things that’s happening now in the leadership of my country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue this discussion. Yonatan Shapira, a former captain in the Israeli Air Force Reserves, calling on Israeli soldiers to resist serving in the Israeli military in Lebanon now. Uri Zaki, chair of the Young Meretz Party. I want to thank you both for being with us.

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