Air Force chief pledges to uphold moral standards

Top pilots said to warn IAF chief new gov’t putting their continued service in doubt

Active reservists, some of them responsible for strikes in Syria, Gaza, potentially Iran, say Smotrich’s incendiary rhetoric, judicial overhaul could expose them to ICC prosecution

A graduation ceremony for cadets who have completed the Israeli Air Force pilots training, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, June 23, 2022. (Flash90)
A graduation ceremony for cadets who have completed the Israeli Air Force pilots training, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, June 23, 2022. (Flash90)

Dozens of senior pilots in the Israeli Air Force held an unprecedented meeting Friday with IAF chief Tomer Bar in which they reportedly expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves, after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call for the state to “wipe out” a Palestinian town along with the government’s plan to radically restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.

According to Channel 12, the pilots, reservists who continue to do active service, expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies 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. But 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.

Some 50 pilots participated in the Friday meeting, which followed growing warnings from military reservists who say they won’t show up for duty if the government’s planned judicial overhaul goes through, Channel 12 said.

The meeting’s participants came from all parts of the IAF and said they also represented hundreds of others. They included those responsible for carrying out airstrikes in Syria and Gaza, and those who would be called on to target nuclear facilities in Iran, TV reports said.

The network characterized the sit-down as intense, with the pilots speaking passionately about what they felt were important values being trampled by the government, which has them facing “a crisis of faith.”

They said they were genuinely unsure of how to act moving forward and were upfront with Bar about their predicament.

The pilots highlighted Smotrich’s call earlier this week to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, after two Israeli brothers were killed in a terrorist attack there on Sunday. The finance minister said that civilians should not be the ones to attack the village, as was the case when hundreds carried out a deadly rampage on Sunday night. Instead, the state should be the one to wipe the village out, Smotrich said.

Smotrich later claimed his original comment — reported here accurately — had been “interpreted in a distorted manner” by the media. Noting that Huwara “has become a key bastion of terror,” Smotrich said: “To be clear, I didn’t mean wiping out Huwara but only to act in a pinpointed manner against terrorists.”

Fearing that some of them could be called upon to carry out such an operation, the pilots told Bar that they will not carry out illegal missions.

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

Smotrich later this week clarified that he didn’t actually mean that the entire village should be wiped out, but rather that Israel should act in a targeted manner against terrorists and their supporters in Huwara and carry out a “disproportionate response.”

Bar told the pilots that he would pass along their concerns, and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi was updated on the conversation, Channel 12 said. The IAF chief also said that he recognized that the pilot could not be separated from the human being, but stressed the importance of unity within the air force.

A participant told the network that Bar recognized that each squadron already has members who are considering not reporting for reserve duty and that those convincing their comrades to show up won’t be able to do so for much longer if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Later in the day, Bar penned a letter to all IAF reserve members that was leaked to the media in which he wrote that he expects them to continue to report for duty. He clarified that the IDF and the IAF would operate “according to the moral standards and according to the values and spirit of the IDF — without any change.”

“My friends, you are the volunteers for long-term active reserve service. You’re committed, dedicated and willing to sacrifice due to the realization of the heavy task on your shoulders. Our shared responsibility is to maintain the ability of the Air Force, to meet its tasks and to maintain its cohesion and competence,” Bar wrote.

“I am aware of and attentive to the difficulties and challenges we all face these days,” he added, without going into specifics.

“I respect the doubts [you might be having]. However, my expectation as IAF commander, as is the expectation of the commanders alongside me, is that you will continue to report to your units for duty; that you will continue to serve and realize the commitment to your unit, to your subordinates and to your commanders, to the State of Israel, to its security and the protection of its citizens. You [must] show commitment and responsibility for the cohesion of the ranks, the soldiers and the brotherhood of fighters. There is no substitute for you all.”

Demonstrators block a road and clash with police as they protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

He noted that reserve fighters have come under criticism in recent days, ostensibly referencing the pushback voiced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its supporters to the thousands of IDF reservists joining anti-government demonstrations.

Bar said he would not allow anyone to drag the names of protesting reservists through the mud.

“I will not lend a hand to those drawing your image in an unfair way. I am committed to you,” he said.

In a statement on Friday, the IDF said that it was “conducting an ongoing situational assessment and command dialogue in view of the recent events.

Halevi directed the members of the General Staff Forum to hold a command dialogue — each commander with his own unit. He emphasized that he is aware of the public discourse and the controversy but will not allow harm to the IDF’s ability to carry out operations and maintain the security of the state.

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