Yuli Novak served as an officer in the Israeli Air Force during 2000-2005 and completed her service as first lieutenant. Since 2013 she is executive director, Breaking the Silence, an NGO, established by Israel Defence Forces.
Exactly 12 years ago, in July 2002, the Israeli Air Force dropped a one-tonne bomb on the home of Salah Shehadeh, the head of the military wing of Hamas, in Gaza. You don’t have to be an expert in air combat to imagine what’s left of a home hit by a one-tonne bomb. Not much. That bomb killed not only Shehadeh, but also 14 civilians, including eight innocent children.
At that time, I served as an operations officer in the Israeli Air Force. Like many of my friends, I found myself carrying the burden of immense responsibility at the ripe age of 20. I was responsible for running the aircraft squadron on the ground, relaying commands and intelligence from Air Force headquarters to the pilots, preparing the aircraft for operations, and providing support to the pilots throughout.
After the operation in which Shehadeh was assassinated, Israel shook. Even when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) insisted that there was operational justification for the attack, public sentiment could not accommodate this assault on innocent civilians. Several Israeli intellectuals petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that it examine the legality of this action. A few months later, a group of reservist pilots submitted a letter criticising the nature of such elimination actions.
As soldiers and officers used to carrying out our missions without asking unnecessary questions, we were affected by the public criticism. But Dan Halutz, the commander of the Air Force at the time, told us that pilots should “Sleep well at night. Don’t pay any notice to the criticisms”. One month later, Halutz was asked in an interview what a pilot felt when they launched a one-tonne bomb on a home. He said: “A slight jolt of the jet’s wing.” To outsiders this statement sounded cold and detached, but my friends and I trusted our commanders to make the right moral decisions, and returned our focus to the “important things” — the precise execution of further operations.
A few months later, I was appointed commander of a course for Air Force officers. I taught cadets how to perform their tasks professionally, and how to take responsibility for their actions as officers. We studied the conclusions drawn from previous Air Force operations, and the lessons learned from them. I taught them that the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and that the Air Force is the most moral corps within the IDF. I believed with all my heart that we were doing what needed to be done. If there were casualties, they were a necessary evil. If there were mistakes, they would be investigated and lessons would be drawn.
Things have changed and now I can no longer have that certainty. In 2002, the launching of a one-tonne bomb on a home, resulting in the death of 14 civilians, was the exception. A few months after the assault on Shehadeh’s house, the IDF acknowledged that it was wrong to have dropped the bomb. It deemed it a failure in intelligence and said that had it known there were civilians in the home it would not have carried out the operation.
Seven years later, during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ there was widespread use of the tactic of dropping bombs over densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip. Today, in operation ‘Protective Edge’, the Air Force boasts of having released over 100 one-tonne bombs on Gaza. What was once the exception is now the policy.
This is how it goes today. We notify the inhabitant about the imminent destruction of a house minutes before a bomb drops (via text messages or by dropping a smaller bomb on the house as a warning). That is enough to turn it into a legitimate target for an air strike. In the last two weeks, dozens of civilians have been killed through this practice.
Houses of Hamas members have become legitimate targets, regardless of the number of people within their walls. Unlike in 2002, no one bothers to justify or make excuses. What’s worse is that almost no one protests. Entire families are erased in a second, and the public remains indifferent. From year to year, from one military operation to another, our red moral lines are stretching further away. It is not clear anymore where they lie, or even if we know we are crossing them. Where will they be in the next operation? Where will they be 10 years from now?
I know from experience how hard it is to ask questions during times of active conflict as a soldier. The information that the officers on the ground and in the air get in real time is always partial. That’s why the responsibility for drawing the red moral line, and alerting when we cross it, lies with the public. A clear and loud voice that says that bombing a house with civilians in it is immoral must be heard. It cannot be a policy that is accepted without question. Public silence in the face of such actions — inside and outside of Israel — is consent by default, and acceptance of an unacceptable price.
The views expressed by the author are personal