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 their courage.
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 survivors.
“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 Israeli 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 occupied 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 thirty 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 neighborhood of Gaza City in 2002,” recalls Shapira.
A one-ton 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 approximately 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 Israeli military during the 2006 Lebanon war for refusing to serve in Lebanon.
“Our opinions changed drastically during the second Palestinian intifada which broke out in 2000 when we witnessed the ongoing criminality and cover-ups by the [Israel army]. 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 [the establishment of the State of Israel] too.”
“Now I believe Israel is a racist state that brutalizes the Palestinians in the occupied territories and discriminates against [Palestinians] 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 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 behavior,” says Shapira.
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