Agonizing Choices for an Israeli Fighter Pilot

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How do you make a moral, life-or-death decision while streaking across the Lebanese sky at twice the speed of sound? That is the excruciating dilemma that Israeli pilots say they face dozens of times every day during air raids over Lebanon. If a fighter pilot sees the fiery blob of rockets being launched toward Israeli cities, should he go ahead and blast the target — even though it might kill Lebanese women and children near the site where Hizballah militiamen are launching their rockets?

And it is a particularly significant question now, in the wake of an Israeli air attack on Sunday that killed nearly 60 Lebanese refugees, mainly children, who had taken shelter from a heavy Israeli bombardment in an apartment building in Qana. The incident remains under investigation, and few details of the actual attack are known. But an Israeli Colonel, who asked to be identified only by his initial A. and who commands a fighter squadron that has flown 1,000 sorties over Lebanon during the past 20 days, spoke exclusively to TIME about the agonizing choices in general that Israeli pilots are forced to make while fighting an enemy who disguises himself among the ordinary Lebanese people.

The pilots may be able to turn around and fly home at the end of the day, but that doesn't mean it's a question of shoot and forget. On the contrary, like everyone else, they return home to watch the international news of Israeli bombing runs gone wrong: cars of fleeing families hit, apartment buildings smashed and hundreds of Lebanese civilians killed.

"When I see dying women and children," says Col. A. "I feel pain. I think about my own children. But I also feel pain when I see that people are being killed by rockets in Haifa — and I know that they died because of Hizballah."

The colonel, 42, a steely aviator in a flight suit, says he doesn't prevent his men from watching the scenes of destruction wrought by Israeli warplanes in Lebanon, even for the sake of morale. "I can't order them ‘Don't watch TV.' But my men know they're doing the right thing.' He says that from the first day his airmen enter flight training school, they're taught that "they have massive destructive power in their hands." He adds, "They're very conscious of this."

He says that in every mission, a pilot tries to check and double-check that a target is free of civilians before he presses the trigger on his weapons. Before firing, the pilot must first get clearance from a superior officer tapped into intelligence data and in radio contact with ground troops. Still, the decision to fire ultimately rests with the fighter pilot. "We've had many cases of canceling missions, returning with our bombs, because at the last minute the pilot saw people who weren't Hizballah," says Col. A, who points out that in the dozens of daily sorties made by his pilots, they nearly always hit their targets without killing innocent Lebanese civilians.

"We're very cautious — for moral reasons and because we know the strategic consequences," he says referring to the tragedy in Qana, which raised an international outcry against the Israelis. He recounted one incident in which a fighter jet hit a rocket launcher once, but the pilot wasn't sure that the launcher was destroyed. When he put his jet into a dive for a second attack, he pulled out at the last second when he saw that many civilians had come running to the target after his first attack. The strike was called off.

Col. A spent a year training with U.S. airmen in Alabama, and all shared their experiences — and frustrations — over 21st-century warfare in which air power is no longer facing conventional, easily identifiable armies but stealthy terrorists who use civilian populations as both shields and targets. He says, "We're fighting the same battle as the U.S. is with al-Qaeda." Hizballah, he says, are hard to spot among Lebanese civilians because they don't wear uniforms and they ride around on motorcycles and in pick-up trucks. Hizballah also hides its rocket launchers in houses, garages and in teeming neighborhoods, he alleges.

By the 20th day of the air campaign, the Israeli air force had finished the relatively easy part of the job, blasting away most of Hizballah's larger long-range missiles. Many of them, Col. A. says, were kept in Hizballah arsenals in Beirut. "We have fewer big targets left," he says, adding that Israeli warplanes were able to take out a long-range missile launcher just three minutes after one of its rockets hit south of the Haifa seaport.

That initial level of success means that the current task is becoming more difficult. Now, the Israelis are hunting for rocket launchers small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck or that can be fired from an apartment balcony. "It's like a match. They can only use their rockets once before we strike them," the colonel says.

Col. A claims that the Israelis are probably the most cautious airpower in history. But he knows that there is no latitude for error. "In the morning I look in the mirror and I ask myself: "Am I happy with what I'm doing? There's no absolute truth, no absolute morality. I'll do everything I can to prevent killing innocent people. But if I see that Hizballah is firing rockets from Lebanese houses, and it's going to put my soldiers, my civilians in Haifa or wherever, in danger, then I'll put my own people first. I have to." Still, in the heat of battle, that clarity doesn't make a pilot's split-second, wrenching decisions all that much easier to make.