From ‘Zionist Dream’ to Dissent: An Interview with a Former IDF Captain on Israeli Military Culture, Personal Transformation and Advocacy for Change – Part 3

Yonatan Shapira is an ex-captain and pilot in the Israeli Air Force. In 2003, he helped coordinate the circulation of a letter that was signed by 27 Israeli Air Force pilots expressing their refusal to engage in Israeli military actions targeting Palestinians. Additionally, Shapira has endorsed the domestic Israeli movement supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which is commonly referred to as “Boycott from Within.”

Shapira spoke with JURIST’s Deputy Managing Editor for Interviews, Pitasanna Shanmugathas, about his life growing up in Israel, his activities as a soldier in the Israeli Air Force, his disillusionment with Israel’s policies, his activities as a dissident within and outside Israel, and his thoughts on the mindset of Israeli soldiers and society since the October 7th attacks.

This is part three of a three-part interview. You can read the first and second parts of Shanmugathas’ and Shapira’s conversation here and here.

Shanmugathas: In 2005-2006, you started an organization called Combatants for Peace, can you talk about the purpose of this organization and the work you did?

Shapira: I’m not a member of that organization. I was very proud to be part of the group’s founding at that time, but now I see things differently. I prefer to be in organizations led by Palestinians rather than those that give the impression of a conflict between two equal sides.

Nevertheless, we decided it was important to refuse to be a part of the occupation and oppression.  I also felt it was time to figure out what to say yes to. It’s crucial not only to refuse something but also to affirmatively support something. We managed to get in touch with them, primarily through my older brother, later on my younger brother, and other activists from different units who were refusing to serve. We reached out through friends and organizations and were able to contact Palestinians who were mostly part of the Second Intifada and had been in Israeli jails for many years.

After their release, they were interested in meeting with us. It was initially quite scary and strange, realizing that we were quite similar in some ways, growing up in our societies and wanting to protect our people. The idea behind the group was to find ways to struggle together non-violently to end the occupation and oppression, promoting peace and love. The organization is still active, and I played a significant role in starting it. However, as mentioned earlier, I now feel uncomfortable with these types of engagements. Although it’s amazing, the process that one goes through from, you know, sticking together in one room with people that you used to see as your enemies, but now, realizing that they are your friends, and they, when you come to visit them, they keep you safe. When they come to visit you, you keep them safe, and you’ve struggled together. You go through the trenches together. You breathe the tear gas together. It’s a very profound experience for someone who started in a mainstream Zionist upbringing.

Shanmugathas: Was there any story in particular from a Palestinian ex-fighter that resonated with you that you’d like to share?

Shapira: There are so many stories, it’s hard to select one to tell. Hearing the stories of Palestinians describing their experiences growing up in occupied lands, where they constantly witness their land being taken, and people being oppressed, killed, or taken to jail, creates a strong sense of identification with them. I remember a story from a friend who described how, at 14 years old, he felt the need to protect Palestine and attempted to take weapons from Israeli soldiers. He didn’t succeed; he was just a child, and he ended up hiding until they found him. He then spent 10 years of his life in jail, essentially growing up behind bars from 14 to 24 years old. His story resonated with me because he was exactly my age. It made me reflect on how, if I hadn’t grown up on Air Force bases near Tel Aviv, I might have been in a similar situation. However, especially during this ongoing genocide, I feel a sense of discomfort discussing such activities, even if they are inspiring for the members. The message conveyed externally seems to paint a problematic picture of a struggle between two equal sides, which is not the reality.

Shanmugathas: So you now live in Norway. What prompted you to take your family and leave Israel?

Shapira: My personal story. I have a child with a Norwegian woman, and we lived in Tel Aviv until some years ago. It was difficult for her to be there, so we decided to move here. Also, I was fired from all the companies I worked for in Israel. I was working as a civilian helicopter pilot, involved in various types of construction and civil work using helicopters.

Shanmugathas: Were you fired because of your dissident activity?

Shapira: Yeah, after a certain time, it was basically not possible to work there. So, I had to find work somewhere else.

Shanmugathas: Can you talk about how the views of Israeli society have changed, seemingly becoming more anti-Palestinian since the October 7th attacks?

Shapira: The shift is incredible; it is just crazy. The level of acceptance of the extermination of thousands of civilians is shocking. As an activist, I always observed how people were able to ignore the oppression of Palestinians and the horrors, but the current situation has taken it to a whole new level. In a way, some part of me always knew that it was coming because I could feel the trend, the trajectory of things, or I guess I could somehow see it happening—how people from the Zionist left camp, where I originally came from, became so brainwashed and indifferent to this level of mass killing. Way before October 7th, I talked about how it was for me as an Israeli who grew up hearing all the stories about the Holocaust and my own family’s history. Most of my grandparents’ relatives were killed in concentration camps, and even my name is after my great-grandmother who perished in Treblinka in Poland. So, in recent years, I used to say to my friends, “I know how the Holocaust happened.” Now I understand because I could see the processes, how people slowly accept oppression, dehumanization, and all these processes of occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the fake court system that is basically just a theater. If you’re Palestinian, you have a 99.8 or 99.7 percent chance of being convicted in Israeli military courts. It’s essentially a scripted drama where the secret service tells the judge what to do.

These things happen, not because of just bad people doing bad things, but it’s the good people being silent.  I’m also a musician, and I’m doing concerts, telling my stories, kind of trying to do these sorts of soft activism counter to my more pro-activism. But to see it actually happening to see the actual genocide, and to see some of the people close to you ignoring it and just saying, I can’t talk about it now, I can’t think about it now, I’m too horrified about what happened to us on October 7th, it’s a new stage. Even though part of me was preparing for that, now we’re here, and it’s happening, and it’s devastating.

Shanmugathas: You have this case in Israel where the Israeli people oppose Netanyahu but they support the war.

Shapira: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that it was very hard to participate and take part in these protests, because only a small group of protesters were actually protesting for the right things. The majority were protesting because they were losing their privileges, you know, because the settlers, right-wing and religious groups were climbing up the ladder and the Zionist center, even center-left, were going down in the ladder of the Israeli society and the political system. So, we could see it all along, but it was an interesting slow process of more people realizing that everything is eventually connected to the occupation and oppression of millions of people.  You cannot separate these issues. The attempts to make the court system dysfunctional and all this stuff, everything is eventually connected to the wish of Netanyahu to dictate and control millions of Palestinians and complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by creating some small Bantustans. That was the basis of all this judicial reform they were trying to do. So, there was a process of more and more people opening their eyes to realizing things that me and my activist friends were talking about. Nevertheless, once October 7th happened, the majority of these people who started waking up had a very easy opportunity to close their eyes again, put on the uniform, and go to participate in genocide.

Shanmugathas: Do you have any insight or contact with people currently serving in the IDF? And if so, can you talk about what their mentality is given that they are now doing a ground and aerial assault of Gaza?

Shapira: I don’t have contact with too many people who are still serving; most of them would not want to talk to me, but a few of them do. I have been texting with an old friend who reconnected recently. He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. We grew up together, and now he is not flying anymore because of his age, but he is doing reserve duties in the headquarters of the Air Force in Tel Aviv, in the place where they make the decisions where to bomb, how, who, and with what. At first, I was trying to convince him to refuse, but then I realized there was no chance of that. So I decided I would try to get as much information from him as possible. He did admit to me in a text that the [Israelis] know relatively well how many civilians they are going to murder in every bombardment. He took pride in the fact that they were trying their best to minimize the number of civilian casualties, totally blind to the horrendous meaning of what he expressed. It means that a lot of the thousands and thousands of civilians that they killed actually, it was a conscious decision, in order to assassinate a few or one or more fighters from Hamas or people affiliated with Hamas—they intentionally, knowingly killed all these civilians. It is an important fact, I think, because it counters Israeli officials’ propaganda and statements that they are trying their best not to harm civilians. As he admitted, and in other places I also found the same kind of admission, that they know they are going to kill civilians in all these bombardments. Obviously, we don’t need any statement from them to know how murderous and genocidal all these attacks are. But with the technology they have, they actually know how many civilians they are going to kill in every bombardment.

In other cases, I also have heard, I didn’t have direct contact, but I heard of people that were quite left-leaning, joining and going to the reserve to fight in Gaza, people that were already supposed to be awakened from the blindness of most Zionists. That is very unfortunate. But I guess it is part of the reaction to the shock and fear people felt after October 7th. Even some strong lefty radical activists became blind again.

At the same time, there are other people like me who are still promoting the refusal and trying to encourage others to refuse. There is an initiative, a campaign that recently started, of people who refused in the past, saying they would refuse now, and encouraging other people to refuse in a way that would not doom them or risk their freedom because the authorities in Israel are becoming much harsher now. In this campaign, we publish short videos stating why we refused, like 10-20 years ago, and why we would refuse again now, and the whole purpose is to be a model or example for people who are now debating within themselves if they should refuse or not. We know for sure that there are many people who, also during their service now in Gaza, want to refuse and, of course, there is a lot of fear and misunderstandings. People have contacted different friends of mine, wanting to not go or to stop their service, and in many cases, they managed to just leave [the Israeli military] because the military’s interest is to hide this phenomenon as much as possible, so in many cases, they just leave them without a fuss, and people just go home. If you do it publicly, then you might suffer the consequences and go to jail.