‘Slightest doubt’ cancels mission, says top Israeli pilot

Although there have been many civilian casualties in Gaza, Lt. Col. T, an F-16I squadron commander, says his team goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming innocents

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Amid a rising chorus of condemnation of the steep civilian death toll in Gaza – there were 172 fatalities in total by Palestinian accounts as of Monday – a senior Israeli air force commander who has flown combat sorties all throughout the past week asserted that the fact-checking of possible targets and in-air awareness of his pilots to the possibility of harming civilians is unrivaled.

“I don’t think there’s an equivalent anywhere in the world,” said Lt. Col. T, the commander of a squadron of F-16Is, the air force’s most advanced model of that aircraft. “And I am familiar with many other air forces.”

The officer rejected the notion that the operational protocol of “roof knocking” – dropping a flare first on the roof of a structure as a warning to civilians – has limited the army’s success in its operation in Gaza. “I see it as a source of strength,” he said.

A statement from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday decried “the impact on Palestinian families of Israeli military action,” noting, in addition, that “too many Palestinian civilians have been killed.”

The current operation began on July 8 and came on the backdrop of the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens; the subsequent arrest of hundreds of Hamas personnel and operatives in the West Bank; the murder, by Jews apparently, of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem; and a steady drip of rocket fire from Gaza, which Hamas first refused to halt and then joined.

Late last Monday, after Israel bombed an offensive tunnel dug by Hamas, the Gaza-based organization launched a salvo of rockets on southern Israel, shattering the unofficial ceasefire that had been in effect since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, triggering yet another mini war.

Thus far the campaign has been waged mostly from the air. Hamas and other organizations have indiscriminately fired primitive rockets into Israeli civilian centers, injuring several Israelis, with two dying of fright-induced heart attacks. The Israeli army has launched technologically advanced and infinitely more powerful strikes, hitting targets that include terror operatives, rockets, rocket launchers, and the homes of Hamas personnel, which also double, the army says, as command-and-control structures for a terror organization that is increasingly run like a military.

IAF pilots, serving as the tip of the Israeli spear, have dropped one-ton bombs on enemy positions intentionally set amid civilians, increasing the civilian death toll.

Former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told The Times of Israel Monday that in his estimation Hamas has managed to retain “around 90 percent” of its rocket stores, both because the air force lacks pinpoint intelligence and on account of the understanding that many of the targets, if struck, would “cause massive collateral damage.”

Lt. Col. T described the operation as going “excellently well” and said that the target bank has not been exhausted and that “very few” targets have been hit a second time.

Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on July 11, 2014. (photo credit: Mohammed Othman/AFP)
Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on July 11, 2014. (photo credit: Mohammed Othman/AFP)

The pilots of the Knights of the Orange Tail Squadron, the 107th, he said, have received targets that have been thoroughly investigated at air force headquarters. The pilots under his command, fully aware of the nature of the target, are then briefed about the moral constraints and considerations of fighting an enemy enmeshed in a civilian population. A sudden change of circumstance, such as the appearance of civilians on or near the target, means immediate cancellation, he said.  “I can say categorically, if the slightest doubt arises, then they don’t fire.”

The squadron commander said he and the other pilots have been sleeping “in drizzles,” a few hours here and a few hours there.

The fact that the rocket fire has covered large swaths of Israel means that the “battle is also at home,” he said. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the pilots’ view from above means they often see rocket fire directed at their houses, “we do everything possible to avoid harming those that are not relevant” to the target.

Gaza-based terrorists have fired over 1,000 rockets at Israel; the air force has responded with an air offensive that, at present, is nearly twice as intense as the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense.

Speaking of the destruction on the ground in Gaza, Lt. Col. T, who fought in the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense, said that the devastation seems worse this time around. “I see what’s happening from up above,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t want to be a Hamas man there.”

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