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Israeli War Hero forced out as Refusenik

by ARIEH O'SULLIVAN Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003 at 8:34 PM

Brigadier General Yiftah Spector is paying a price for his principled stand in opposition to targeted assassinations and of the Occupation. His courage should be applauded.

'This should be the last lesson I give the Air Force'


Outside Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yiftah Spector's house is a plastic bin filled with trash. On top of the heap is the Yediot Aharonot weekend magazine featuring the pilots, himself included, who have refused to participate in targeted killings.

Spector himself will not go quietly to the garbage can of history. His ferocious self-confidence and sense of mission prevent this man from falling to the wayside of contrition and regret.

Spector is the most senior of the signatories of the 27 pilots who refused to participate in targeted assassinations and advocated ending the occupation.

"I don't fly anymore. They threw me out," he told The Jerusalem Post this week, his bare feet up on his large wooden desk of his office, decorated with his own paintings. "I'm 63. The country isn't losing much. Until a week ago I was training flight instructors. The air force thought I was suitable for this task. But in light of my political expressions – not while I was wearing a uniform and not in a military framework – last Friday [OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Dan] Halutz summoned me to his office and asked me for permission to end my flying.

"I felt this was something he needed to do for his own authority so I told him 'No problem.' I put my record and my reputation and my wings on the table for the future," said Spector.

And so ended the flying career of this living legend, a man who helped write the pages of Israel's history books for bad and for good, the man who taught most of the present commanders how to fly and tales of who's exploits are used to raise young pilots.

Spector pretends it doesn't hurt. Since signing what he calls the "declaration" and which the nation calls the "pilots' letter," he has been busy trying to explain why he agreed with their refusal to carry out "illegal and immoral orders" and condemn Israel's occupation of the territories for corrupting the country and undermining its security.

In many ways Spector is the epitome of "the new Jew," a son of a hero, a triple ace, a mythological fighter pilot turned painter and sculpture who led squadrons into some of the most fateful battles of the Jewish state. If pilots were the elite of Israel, he symbolizes the elite of the elite. He is the son of one of the "23 men in the boat," a group that was sent in World War II to demolish oil installations in Lebanon (at the time under Nazi-puppet Vichy French control) and were never heard of again. He participated in the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

So when a man like this signed on as the senior ranking officer among the 27 pilots refusing to do what they feel is illegal, the nation listens. The tidal wave of reaction hit him while he was in India visiting a friend.

"I am not a refuser, the contrary," he says. "Yes, I refuse to carry out an illegal order, but this is not being a refusnik. I fulfill the laws of the state. I pay taxes and have fought for the state every time they asked. I am not a refuser in the same way that a woman who refuses to be raped is not a refuser."

Spector relates how a few weeks ago a young pilot came to his house on a moshav in the center of the country with a letter. Spector was on his way to the airport for a trip abroad, but the pilot was persistent so he laid out the letter on his large white pine kitchen table and read it.

"'It's badly drafted,' I told him. 'Let me fix it. You are mixing two issues, one political and one legal.' The kid told me that the declaration had already been signed by a number of people. The kid pointed out to me that I had just said I agreed with it and it was up to me to make a decision. I agreed that we could not carry out illegal orders and I am at the head of a movement that says that the occupation is eroding us.

"'What is important for you, Mr. Spector. What are you, a lawyer?' I said to myself. 'Was this how you were raised? Or were you brought up concerned about human lives and principles?' I signed it.

"I didn't join this group. I signed a declaration. I have signed lots of declarations, but always as a civilian," he added. "No one will silence me."

But this argument rang hollow since some of the pilots were photographed wearing their flight suits and helmets. For the record, Spector said he opposed such a move.

Spector also rejects the claim that these principles of disobeying illegal orders were self evident among the entire military.

"Why should I and the other pilots strip off our shirts and start yelling like a mad man 'I don't want to kill!' Why? It's because these pilots and myself have a sense that this could happen. We have enough examples to tell us we are walking on the edge."

The timing of the pilot's letter came after the IAF deliberately undermined a strike on Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and top Hamas henchmen by choosing to use a smaller bomb that would reduce civilian casualties. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon himself said that choice was made because that principle overrode the military objective.

Speaking to the Post on Tuesday, the day after Yom Kippur, Spector recalled the same day 30 years before. Commander of a vaunted 107th F-4 squadron, he said the situation on the second day of the Yom Kippur War was one of chaos close to collapse.

He himself had embarked three combat missions that day on both fronts. It took another week before he felt his squadron was back on its feet.

"We were like a boxer who had been hit in the nose and were striking out in all directions. There was a lack of faith," Spector said.

"Today I know what I am doing. Where as in the Yom Kippur War I didn't. I was carrying out orders from people who had lost their bearing. Then, I was serving the state. Today, I am a citizen and I am sovereign. I am a civilian and I am saying what I demand from my government," Spector says.

Spector says he knew the pilots' letter would become scandalous, but didn't foresee just how large of a splash it ultimately made. He blames this mainly on the way the IAF reacted. He believes Halutz should have summoned the pilots to his office to hear them out and chastise them quietly for introducing politics into their military service. Ironically, this is exactly the criticism the air force has of the pilots who chose a PR campaign instead of keeping their concerns in house.

"People are asking me why am I using the fact that I am a pilot to express political opinions? I don't think that the only one who can express opinions on bad command are bereaved parents," Spector says.

Spector has no qualms about raising the background to the purity of arms in the IDF, mentioning Deir Yassin, Kibya, and Kafr Kasim where Israeli fighters killed civilians.

"The prime minister was involved in some of these," he notes. "We are fighting against a civilian population because our government doesn't have any solution other than using brute force."

Spector says that if he were a Palestinian living under the oppression of Israel today he would strongly fight against it.

"My father fought against the British Mandate and against the Nazis. If I were an Arab, part of a people who were being treated like this I would fight it too."

He espouses a unilateral separation from the Palestinians to preserve the Jewish State.

Spector opened up his computer flight log. There have been very few like him in the IAF; nearly 7,000 flight hours, 8,500 sorties including 334 combat flights. A triple ace having shot down 15 enemy aircraft. Only one other Israeli pilot shot down more planes.

Spector says he did 47 days of reserve duty so far in 2003, and flew 110 times. The last flight?

"Gee, I don't remember, I think it was a night-time training flight with flight instructors."

He says he gave up his wings willingly, but notes others who have signed the letter have not coped as well.

"One of these kids phoned me and cried. They told him they are grounding him and he doesn't know what to do. I asked him how old he was, and he told me 25. I told him 'You've developed a spine, use it.'"

After a life of incredible victories he sacrificed his wings by joining a declaration whose benefits are shrouded in controversy. But he has no regrets.

"I left Halutz last Friday. I put my wings on the table and I told him take them," Spector says. "I want freedom to speak. He didn't let me go and we talked for two hours. I shook his hand and I told him 'Halutz, this should be the last lesson I give the air force.'"

Excerpts from the pilots' letter

"We, veteran and active pilots alike, who served and still serve the State of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the State of Israel has been conducting in the territories...

"We, who were raised to love the State of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in air force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the air force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians...

"These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society...

"Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the State of Israel and its moral strength."

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