Position Takes Courage
By Mel Frykberg
Oct 20, 2010 (IPS) - A former captain in the Israeli Air Force,
previously an ardent Zionist who lost many members of his family in the
Holocaust, has been labelled a psychopath and denounced by many Israelis
for the moral stand he has taken against the Israeli occupation.
Yonatan Shapira, 38, was fired from his job, has
been verbally abused in public, subjected to death threats in newspaper
talk-back comments, called a traitor by many Israelis, falsely charged
with assaulting Israeli security forces, and interrogated by Israel's
domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet.
While Israel often gets a lot of negative publicity
for its brutal treatment of Palestinians and the inherent racism within
its society, there is a growing core of Israeli human rights activists
who are challenging government policy -- and paying a high price for
Shapira made international headlines recently while
on board the 'Irene', a boat sent by Jews for Justice in an effort to
break the siege of Gaza but which was intercepted by Israeli commandos.
On board the small boat were a number of Israelis and several Holocaust
"The commandos separated my younger brother Itimar
and me away from the other passengers. It was obvious we were being
targeted. I was tasered twice on the shoulder and once near the heart
area after my life jacket was lifted by the commando to get better
access," Shapira told IPS.
After media equipment was confiscated the
passengers were taken to a police station in Ashdod where they were
interrogated. Shapira was charged with assaulting a commando, despite
eyewitnesses disputing this.
This was the second time the Israeli activist was
charged with assaulting a member of the security forces. Earlier this
year he was targeted by Israeli soldiers while taking part in a protest
against land confiscation in the Palestinian village Nabi Saleh near
Ramallah in the West Bank. Video footage refuted the assault claim.
What really irked Israel's security establishment
was what came to be known as The Pilot's Letter in 2003. Shapira was
then a captain in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), a member of Israel's
military elite in a country that hero-worships its military.
Together with 30 other pilots Shapira penned a
letter which stated, "We the undersigned are no longer willing to be
part of the indiscriminate attacks on Palestinians in the occupied
territories. We declare our refusal to participate in what we believe to
be illegal and immoral activities." "I had heard about so many acts of
brutality and unnecessary killing. But what really brought the situation
home to me was the then commander of the IAF Dan Halutz's comments on
the indiscriminate bombing of a residential building in a densely
populated neighbourhood of Gaza city in 2002," recalls Shapira.
A one-tonne bomb was dropped on a building housing
Saleh Shehade, a military commander of the Islamic group Hamas. Fifteen
innocent civilians, including many children, were killed, and about 150
injured in the attack along with Shehade.
"All I would have felt when the airplane dropped
the bomb was a slight tremor of the aircraft," responded Halutz when
asked how he felt about the deaths of so many civilians.
Three months after Shapira signed the Pilots'
letter, his older brother Zohar signed the Commandos' Letter that said
much the same as the Pilots' Letter. Zohar was a member of Israel's
elite Sayaret Matkal commando unit. Younger brother Itimar was
subsequently imprisoned by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) during the
Lebanon War for refusing to serve in Lebanon.
"Our opinions changed drastically during the second
Palestinian Intifadah which broke out in 2000 when we witnessed the
ongoing criminality and cover-ups by the IDF. My mother became very
politically active and now spends a lot of time in the West Bank,"
Shapira tells IPS.
Shapira's family has come a long way from its
Zionist roots. "My father was a squadron commander in the IAF and took
part in Israel's wars from 1967- 1982. I myself used to regret not being
born earlier so I could've taken part in the War of Independence in 1948
"Now I believe Israel is a racist state that
brutalises the Palestinians in the occupied territories and
discriminates against Israeli-Arabs within Israel. My friends and I have
come to the conclusion that the only way to save Israel from itself is
through international support of the Boycott, Disinvestment and
Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel," says Shapira.
"The current government is the most extreme and
right-wing Israeli government ever. It is no longer enough to try and
change Israel from within. Israel has to be pressured in the same way
apartheid South Africa was forced to change."
He believes the reason for Israel's sharp swing
rightwards in the last few years is Israel's growing difficulty in
portraying itself as the victim in the conflict with the Palestinians.
"Israel was established on the basis of victimhood and has continued to
use this as a political tool in the face of growing criticism but this
is increasingly being questioned.
"Israelis have two choices. To either admit to the
injustices committed against the Palestinians and take responsibility
for this or to continue to play the role of the victim and become more
entrenched in racist behaviour," says Shapira.