Mon, Aug 07, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Israeli pilots `deliberately miss' civilian targets

INNOCENT CASUALTIES A number of fighter pilots admitted to aborting raids on civilian targets in Lebanon as concern grows over the reliability of intelligence

THE OBSERVER , HATZOR AIR BASE, ISRAEL

In this picture released by the Israeli Defense Force, Israeli soldiers march in southern Lebanon near the village of Ataibe yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

At least two Israeli fighter pilots have deliberately missed civilian targets in Lebanon as disquiet grows in the military about flawed intelligence, it has emerged. Sources say the pilots were worried that targets had been wrongly identified as Hezbollah facilities.

Voices expressing concern over the armed forces' failures are getting louder. One Israeli Cabinet minister said last week: "We gave the army so much money. Why are we getting these results?"

Last week saw Hezbollah's guerrilla force, dismissed by senior Israeli military officials as "ragtag," inflict further casualties on one of the world's most powerful armies in southern Lebanon.

At least 12 elite troops have already been killed, and by Saturday afternoon Israel's military death toll had climbed to 45.

As the bodies pile up, so the Israeli media has begun to turn, accusing the military of lacking the proper equipment, training and intelligence to fight a guerrilla war in Lebanon.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, on a tour of the front lines, was confronted by troubled reserve soldiers who told him they lacked proper equipment and training.

Israel's chief of staff, Major General Dan Halutz, had vowed to wipe out Hezbollah's missile threat within 10 days. These claims are now being mocked as rockets rain down on Israel's north with ever greater intensity, despite an intense and highly destructive air bombardment.

As one well-connected Israeli expert put it: "If we have such good information in Lebanon, how come we still don't know the hideout of missiles and launchers? ... If we don't know the location of their weapons, why should we know which house is a Hezbollah house."

As international outrage over civilian deaths grows, the spotlight is increasingly turning on Israeli air operations.

One senior commander who has been involved in the air attacks in Lebanon has already raised concerns that some of the air force's actions might be considered "war crimes."

Yonatan Shapiro, a former Black-hawk helicopter pilot dismissed from reserve duty after signing a "refusenik" letter in 2004, said he had spoken with Israeli F-16 pilots in recent days and learnt that some had aborted missions because of concerns about the reliability of intelligence information.

According to Shapiro, some pilots justified aborting missions out of "common sense" and in the context of the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF) moral code of conduct, which says every effort should be made to avoiding harming civilians.

"Some pilots told me they have shot at the side of targets because they're afraid people will be there, and they don't trust any more those who give them the coordinates and targets," Shapiro said.

"One pilot told me he was asked to hit a house on a hill, which was supposed to be a place from where Hezbollah was launching Katyusha missiles. But he was afraid civilians were in the house, so he shot next to the house," he said.

"Pilots are always being told they will be judged on results, but if the results are hundreds of dead civilians while Hezbollah is still able to fire all these rockets, then something is very wrong," he said.

So far none of the pilots has publicly refused to fly missions but some are wobbling, according to Shapiro.

"Their target could be a house firing a cannon at Israel and it could be a house full of children, so it's a real dilemma; it's not black and white. But ... I'm calling on them to refuse, in order save our country from self-destruction," he said.

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