|Power and Morality|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Nothing fills us with more pride than the sight of an F-15 or F-16I with the blue star markings, the symbol of the fabulous power of the Jewish State. However, these glorious birds elicit not just our admiration when we see them passing over our heads during a training flight. In this connection I would recall here what I wrote in my editorial to Vo. 46 of SHALOM, which came out about a month after the end of the Second Lebanon War, “34 minutes! That’s the time it took for the Israeli Airforce to destroy 95% of Hizbullah’s long-range launch sites and missiles in Lebanon. Thanks to amazing work by the Mossad, Israel knew their exact locations. So Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem were spared.” This outstanding performance by the Israeli Air Force is now studied in every military academy in the free world.
To better understand the air force’s role in the geo-strategic context of the Middle East, we met with Major-General Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the Israeli Air Force, the renowned IAF.
General Shkedi has spent his entire military career in the air force, and since 1977 he has accumulated over 3,000 hours of flying time on almost every plane and helicopter the air force has. He has taken part in numerous operations, has been both an instructor and a planner, and during Operation Peace in Galilee in 1982, he shot down an enemy plane. General Shkedi is also field commander for those countries without a direct border with Israel, including Iran.
Charming, with sparkling, intelligent eyes and radiating a strong personality, General Shkedi set an appointment for 7am at the IDF headquarters, where he received us warmly over coffee that was scalding hot as it was strong.
Before getting into details, could you give us a brief outline of the role and work of the Israeli Air Force today?
Before replying more precisely to the second part of your question, I would like to say a few words about the IAF in general. There are several special things about us, of which the first is that we are the only air force in Israel. In most other countries, each branch of the armed forces has its own air service, as is often the case in the navy. The second special point about us is that in Israel, the air force is also in charge of what we call “force building” as well as of its use. That means that every air operation is totally controlled by the air force command, from planning and preparation on the ground through to the final execution. Our third feature is that we are active as much in the defense of the country as in military offensive measures. Most people do not know these things, though they understand that our air force is something special. Ever since the creation of the state, Ben Gurion had understood the importance of command of the skies to ensure the Israel’s protection.
Having said which, our activities cover a very wide spectrum that I will divide into three categories: nearby, medium-range and long-distance areas. Thus the entire anti-terrorist fight that we are currently carrying on in Gaza is above all handled by the air force, which plays a key role. In the north we are active in the fight against terrorist organizations set up in countries with which we have a common border. In Lebanon, for example, Hizbullah is installed in a country with which we share a common border, but whose government has effectively no control over this terrorist organization. When it is deemed necessary, we can also intervene in places very far from our borders, since there are countries with which we do not share a common border yet still fight us. At the same time we are being faced by Hamas, a terrorist organization in an area that has no government.
You mentioned Lebanon and Hizbullah. Is it true that during the first half-hour of the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Hizbullah’s long-range missiles, thus saving Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem?
During that conflict the air force was deployed in several areas. Firstly we destroyed Hizbullah’s entire weapons and logistics infrastructure in the Baalbek region (the Lebanese Beka’a Valley). We mainly worked from the air, but there were also special operations on the ground. However, responsibility for all of Israel’s military actions in the Beka’a Valley was in the hands of the air force. We destroyed practically the entire infrastructure there together with all means of communication between Lebanon and Syria. The second phase of our activities was in Beirut itself. Right in the middle of the city Hizbullah had constructed a veritable fortress, both on the ground and below, where most of the infrastructure that Hizbullah had built up over the last few years was concentrated. You really must appreciate the precision of these operations. We succeeded in destroying the military infrastructure and the bunkers installed in a residential area without touching the buildings where women and children lived. We also hit 150 buildings in central Beirut, each strike precisely hitting the target, which represented a unique military achievement in its own right. The third phase, which bears directly on your question, was directed against what Hizbullah called “its strategic weapons”. These were medium- and long-range missiles, with highly accurate trajectories. These explosive-tipped rockets were quite capable of hitting central Israel. It is true that in the first thirty-forty minutes of the war we managed to destroy most of these medium- and long-range missiles. Moreover, during the war each time one of these missiles whose launcher we had not destroyed right at the beginning and that was still fitted with a large warhead, was fired, we intercepted it and destroyed it in mid-air long before it got anywhere near Israel. Of course, during the conflict our activities were not limited to the operations I have just described. We provided support for the ground forces, especially in the Lebanese border area.
At the end of July 2007, the USA announced its intention of increasing military aid to the region, especially to Saudi Arabia. How do you perceive the development of Israel’s air force in the light of this new fact?
In principle, we are constantly endeavoring to enhance the IAF’s operational capacities. To do so we always have to keep one step ahead of our enemies and to have the very latest state-of-the-art equipment. We can never be satisfied with what we already have, but must constantly be on the lookout for the leading technical developments. Our air force is made up of two elements, of equal importance, the equipment supplied to us by the USA and sometimes other countries, while the improvement that Israel’s aerospace and military industries can contribute in certain cases has an enormous effect. Do not forget that the State of Israel has exceptional resources and highly capable and inventive people who manage to achieve unimaginable and quite extraordinary technological advances. We have what I will call “base platforms”, namely planes or other elements, but their interior has been modified and filled with unique Israeli technology. Having said which, the fact that surrounding countries are receiving modern weaponry is annoying but effectively represents one more challenge for us, which makes us think faster and further ahead. We must constantly make our weapons systems more effective, faster, more precise, more modern and capable of countering every weapons system that currently exists. On the one hand we are annoyed, but on the other hand we are placed before an enormous challenge, which we have to face up to on a daily basis. Entire sectors of Israeli industry, which are involved in attack, defense, electronic warfare and the world of explosives, employ all their resources so that in both offense and defense we will always be able to beat our enemies, whatever the weapons they are able to obtain.
What you say is very encouraging. However, since the Second Lebanon War the Jewish world has been worried and is asking itself many questions about the true defensive capabilities of the Israeli armed forces in general. Do you think there is really cause for concern?
It is true that the air force is an integral part of both the IDF and the State of Israel. Personally, I consider that we are the air force of the Jewish People and that we thus have a very special responsibility. If you look around you at the decoration of my office you will see three pictures. The first is a fly past over Masada by our planes, the second our planes over Auschwitz, a symbol whose power exceeds any commentary, and lastly the dove of peace. We shall never forget what happened to us less than 70 years ago, and to achieve our dream of living in peace, that can only be based on two things, our power and our determination. Our message is clear, and no one should delude himself into believing that there is a way of destroying us or even of inflicting irreparable damage. With that in mind we invest our time, money, energy and all our efforts, for we know how important are our tasks and the responsibility we bear.
It is well known that no one wants to be allied with a weak country. Do you believe the American decision to provide the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, with modern weapons, in the long- or medium-term will weaken Israel’s power image and have deleterious effects?
Obviously, we always want to have the best weaponry possible to be able to face those countries with whom we do not live in peace. Yet Israel’s strike capability against hostile States is remarkable. What can occasionally be confusing is the difference that exists between the way of combating terrorism and that of fighting a country. What is this difference? We are facing two different types of wars. On the one hand the conflict with the terrorist organizations, who hide among the civilian population from where they conduct their attacks and whose machinations are independent, since no nation nor any authority claims responsibility. We have to hunt down the leaders and render them non-operational. On the other hand, war against a country with an army and an air force is ipso facto a clearer situation, facilitating a different kind of intervention. If we have to strike at a specific place and inflict major damage, the IDF and Israel are capable of doing so, wherever it is, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere. What’s more, I know that all the countries in the region are well able to assess extremely accurately Israel’s capabilities against them. They are not kidding themselves and have no illusions in this regard. They are aware of what is involved if Israel decides to stand up against a country, an army or a military infrastructure. We know from reliable sources that the leaders of the countries in the region know very well the difference between action taken by Israel against a terrorist organization that hides among the civilian population and that Israel can strike without so much as touching the civilians who they are using as a shield, and a major military operation against a sovereign state.
Despite everything, do you not believe that the fact that the USA suddenly reinforced the enemies of Israel is sending a negative image, even one of weakness, of the Jewish State around the world?
Firstly, I must stress that America is a true friend of Israel, and that we are bound by genuine, deep and long-standing friendship. I do not believe that it does anything that it reckons might cause us harm. What’s more, the USA is fundamentally committed to do everything to ensure that Israel’s defense level is maintained. America’s commitment to Israel is very big, and I have no reason to believe that these latest developments represent the beginning of a change of attitude.
Recently we were in Sderot and could see at first hand the damage and the misery inflicted by the Kassam rockets that continue to rain down on this martyred city. You said the air force was directly involved in the fight against terrorism. In practical terms, what can you do to end this scourge?
I have to say that these Kassam attacks are a form of aggression that does not simply harass us but affects us enormously. We must bear in mind that the purpose of a terrorist is to inflict the maximum evil possible on civilians by preferably attacking women and children. The more they wound civilians the more they will have achieved their target. As Jews and Westerners we have an entirely different approach. We want to strike at the terrorist, but not at his wife and children. So we have the final decision and must make the choice of what we want to do: whether we are prepared to kill women and children, because a terrorist who attacks us is hiding behind them, hides rockets in children’s bedrooms, fires them from balconies and gardens, or if we wish to act according to our moral principles. On this point there is no simple answer, because we are involved in a constant debate about what to do, what is the right action to take. The question is to know when we have to act more aggressively, and even launch a large-scale ground offensive etc. In this debate I believe that our true victory is not obtained absolutely and exclusively by force of arms, but by maintaining our principles and our morality. Over time and faced with enemies who are terrorists entirely devoid of morals, we find ourselves faced with a challenge of whether we can continue as a state and a people. There is just one solution for that, which addresses ourselves, within our society and our people, so that we hold our heads high and say, “We acted justly and morally, without deviating from our basic principles”. I want to stress that in this field, the way we have elected to fight terrorism is unique in the world. It’s enough to observe the behavior of other people, who when faced with terrorism have indiscriminately struck at women and children when their leaders lost patience. Armed with very high moral principles, deeply anchored within us, and with our own spiritual strength, we cannot simply accept the idea of striking women and children. This is not simple and carries a very high price, which we pay every day.
We are at the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Do you have a special message for the readers of SHALOM?
As far as I am concerned, I am first and foremost a Jew before I consider myself an Israeli. For me, Rosh Hashanah is the festival that unites the Jewish People in hope, even if during the year we do not constitute a single, homogenous group. As I told you, I lead the air force of the Jewish People, and I wish everyone a quiet and safe year from every point of view. For our part, we continue to watch over our State and our people. I have not forgotten what has happened in our history, how we were considered and what was done to us. I do not believe this has disappeared and that today we are fully accepted and that we can live peacefully in the Diaspora. Therefore, one of my responsibilities is to ensure for every Jew in the world the certainty that there is a place where he or she can always come to live in complete security. Obviously, we are also counting on him or her to help us give to this country, the Land and the State of Israel, the development it deserves, so that we can finally achieve the peace we have so much longed for.