Israeli Air Force Pilot Refuses to Commit War Crimes
Israeli Air Force Captain Yonotan Shapira
Yonotan Shapira is a Former Captain of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) who has since become an outspoken activist and supporter of the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Shapira served in the IAF for 11 years as an officer in the Black Hawk helicopter squadron. In 2003, Shapira authored the “pilots’ letter” in which 27 IAF pilot co-signers stated their refusal to fly over the occupied territories.

Shapira spoke with Washington Report on Middle East Affairs journalist Robert Hirschfield in 2005 about his change of heart: “In July of 2002, an F-16 took off from the center of Israel and killed Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas commander with blood on his hands. They dropped a one-ton bomb on his house in Gaza, killing 14 people, nine of them children. It was a war crime. You cannot fight terrorists with terrorist means.”

He was questioned by Shin Bet after publishing the letter, and he and the other co-signers were dismissed from the IAF. Shapira recounted that after asking IAF commander General Halutz about the ethics of hurting innocent civilians, the commander responded that Jewish superiority to Arabs contextualizes Jewish actions.

Conscientious Objector Shapira Becomes an Activist

The young Shapira grew up with a patriotic love for his country and a desire to follow in his IAF pilot father’s footsteps. He told contributor for The Electronic Intifada Ryan Rodrick Beiler in 2015 that he was raised with “a lot of socialist values—caring about the other, caring about the poor—but at the same time with a big wall of negligence of Palestine. The same time I was in class learning these beautiful values, the Israeli army was engaged in occupation, land grabs, settlements, massacres, deportation of Palestinian activists. But I didn’t know these things.”

It wasn’t until he witnessed the Israeli government initiate its targeted killing policy that he realized “something was rotten.” Amnesty International (AI) described the policy in 2003 as “assassinating Palestinians who they suspect of involvement in attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.” The AI report shared that between November 2000 and July 2003, over 100 Palestinians were assassinated and “killed scores and injured hundreds of other Palestinian men, women and children bystanders.” [Amnesty International has released another report on apartheid in Israel in 2022.]

The pilots’ letter and the Israeli government and citizens’ responses to it opened a new chapter in Shapira’s life in which he and his co-signers became “peace activists, human rights activists, freedom activists.” Shapira continued, “It’s not enough just to not be part of something you believe is wrong. Now you have to make another step and become part of the solution.”

war crimes

Shapira’s Next Chapter

In 2006, Shapira and his peers started the Combatants for Peace organization, which brought together Palestinian and Israeli fighters. He told The Electronic Intifada: “It was one of the most significant experiments I ever had in my life. To step into a room with people who before you were fearing to death—they were supposed to kill you and you were supposed to kill them. [Instead] you talk about your story… When you leave this room, you are a different person. The ‘we’ and ‘them’ that you had before cannot exist anymore.”

However, Shapira soon realized that he could no longer support the organization because he believed the framework was problematic. The organization treated Israeli and Palestinian fighters as if they shared equal power in the conflict. He argued, “It’s not that you have two countries fighting each other. It’s a colonial struggle—colonizer and colonized.”

He now supports Boycott from Within, an organization of Israelis who support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). He believes not only that the occupation should end, but also supports the right of return. Shapira said that Jewish Israelis must “realize that you can’t have peace and freedom with someone worth more than someone else… There is already one state. The only question is whether it will remain an apartheid state or if it will to [sic] be an equal place for everyone.”

Supporting the Jewish Tradition of Freedom for All

BBC News interviewed Shapira in 2018 and asked for his assessment of “what Israel is doing in Gaza.” Shapira responded that he could answer the question with only two words: war crime.

He continued, “As Jewish people, we know that you cannot kill the desire of people to be free. As a Jewish person that was raised on all these values of liberation and humanity and freedom, we cannot kill the desire of the Palestinian people to live in freedom.” Shapira continues to use his voice to raise awareness about the Israeli army’s war crimes. As recently as 2021, he described the Israeli government and army as “terrorist organizations” run by “war criminals” to Middle East Monitor.

Shapira has called on the Jewish American community to join him in demanding human rights for all people living in Israel-Palestine. He said, “The role of the Jewish community in the [United] States is essential to our future. The whole political situation in Israel depends on the American government. As a Jew, as a lover of Israel, you must stand up and criticize the government of Israel.”

To learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict and how you can get involved,

visit The Promised Land Museum and consider hosting an exhibit to promote peace.

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