Inside story

Huwara rampage, more than judicial overhaul, prompted pilots’ insubordination threat

Military brass see last week’s incident as a severe moral failure indicative of deeper trends in Israel, prompting fears of widespread refusal to show up for duty among reservists

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard after a settler riot, in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard after a settler riot, in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Prescient. That is perhaps the word that best describes the letter the commander of the Israeli Air Force sent to his subordinates on Friday, demanding that they continue to report for duty and making it clear that the military would continue to operate according to well-established “moral standards.”

A day earlier, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar had spoken with the air force’s senior brass, both career and reserve officers, and first realized the extent of the crisis.

During that conversation it was mostly the reservists who spoke out, among them pilots in El Al, who expressed fear that the government’s radical judicial overhaul plans could expose them to arrests in various international airports and prosecution by global forums such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. Critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

But for the pilots, even more than the legal concerns that they specified in their letter, the crisis centered on Huwara, the Palestinian town where settler vigilantes rampaged last week, torching homes and cars and wounding dozens of residents. One Palestinian was shot dead in unclear circumstances.

“The Huwara incident crossed a dangerous red line,” one of the senior fighter pilots who participated in the conversation told The Times of Israel.

“We didn’t hear unequivocal wall-to-wall condemnation of the lynching of Palestinians civilians by Jewish hoodlums,” said the officer, a reservist brigadier general who used to command one of the IAF’s largest bases.

“Instead,” he continued, “we heard support for these actions from some Knesset members, equivocation from ministers, and mealy mouthed condemnations from large swaths of the hard right. And then, to cap it off, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich came along on Wednesday with his blunt statement calling for Huwara to be ‘wiped out.’

“We, who attack enemy targets at the behest of political leaders, have never heard of an order to wipe out a village,” added the officer, whose name cannot be published due to the sensitivity of his position. “In the past, we never doubted the righteousness of the path and the morality of decisions. Today there are question marks regarding the moral fiber of some of the decision-makers – that is why we are issuing this warning.”

Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, the new chief of the Israeli Air Force, at a ceremony on April 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Confronted with such statements during his meeting with the senior pilots, Bar, the IAF chief, realized he had to act fast and put out the flames before they spread and gave rise to widespread insubordination. In the letter that he penned to reservist air crews immediately after the meeting, one line stood out as a direct response to the concerns regarding the Huwara rampage.

“I will state the obvious: The IDF, including the IAF, conducts itself according to the codified operational practice, and the moral standards, values and spirit of the IDF, and will continue to do so. I will insist on it no matter what, as always,” he wrote.

In other words, Bar told his pilots: Not on my watch. I am the moral buttress protecting you from any immoral command. What he did not state but was apparent between the lines was a commitment to say no to political leaders should the need arise.

For the pilots of the 69th Squadron – the IAF’s strategic unit, which bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 and would likely lead the charge in any future Israeli attack on Iran – it was too little, too late. On Sunday, 37 of the squadron’s 40 pilots announced in a letter that they would not show up to a training session on Wednesday, in protest of the government’s plan to radically curtail the judiciary.

The Air Force is unsure how to respond to the letter, which places the military in the middle of a sociopolitical battleground that it desperately sought to avoid.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has in recent weeks been trying to steer the military establishment between two political landmines – Finance Minister Smotrich and his far-right ally Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister. On Sunday, Gallant joined Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former chiefs of staff currently with the opposition National Unity party, in calling for dialogue and for the IDF to stay out of the fray.

That too may not be enough, with additional reserve pilots already gearing up to join the protest of their comrades in the 69th Squadron.

Though the IAF is hoping that the protest will end this week and the pilots will show up for duty, the military is beginning to understand that their action is only a symptom pointing to a more severe condition. The air force is where the crisis first manifested merely due to the fact that pilots have to show up weekly for practice flights and fitness tests — not because pilots are inherently more politically conscious than other reservists.

Israeli F-15 fighter jets escort an American B-52 bomber through Israeli airspace en route to the Persian Gulf on September 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

No one in the military is under the illusion that reservists in the ground forces will not launch similar protests, in similar numbers, though there, due to the extent of their service – a few weeks every year – the magnitude will not be apparent until the end of the year. For the time being, there are reports of silent protests, not as organized as the one launched by the pilots.

It is instructive that the Huwara rampage is proving to be a watershed for the military – both the standing army and the reserves. Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi made it clear that he sees the incident as an ethical bellwether, an operational failure with moral implications. Halevi staked out that territory in a speech last week to graduating Navy officers.

“We also had to prevent what developed in the wake of the [initial] attack in Huwara,” he said, referring to the terror shooting that killed two Israel brothers that preceded the rampage in the Palestinian town. “Riots, violence against IDF soldiers, and damage to residents and property as an act of revenge are something that must be condemned.”

Halevi is not a man of many words. Trained as a philosopher, he knows how to keep his messaging concise. The fact that he chose to address the Huwara incident in such a manner, disregarding the diplomatic fallout – for instance, Smotrich’s comments and the American response to them – is a clear indication that he has no intention of letting it slide.

The head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, who is in charge of troops in the West Bank, said last week that the vigilante settlers had carried out a “pogrom” in Huwara. Later this week, he is set to present Halevi with the results of an IDF investigation into the incident. Fox has already admitted that the military was caught unprepared, so there are likely to be severe repercussions along the chain of command.

It seems that, at least as far as the IDF is concerned, the Huwara rampage, beyond being the result of extremist ideology among some in the settler movement, is a symptom of a broader, more dangerous moral lapse.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this piece, which first appeared in The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language site, Zman Yisrael.

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