CBS’s Simon to Israeli Air Force Pilot: ‘You Don't Look Like a Killer’

NewsBusters.org | Still Shot of Bob Simon, April 27 On Sunday’s CBS "60 Minutes," anchor Bob Simon talked to members of the Israeli Air Force and asked one pilot, Captain Omri, about air strikes in the Gaza strip in which civilians occasionally are killed:

It's a classic guerilla war. Fifty dollar rockets made in the back alleys of Gaza against Israel's $50,000 missiles. The Israelis will tell you that kind of expense buys precise weapons which limit collateral damage. But it also gives the air force the capability of assassinating their enemy's leadership. The Israelis call this "targeted killings"; the Palestinians call it murder. Have you hit any targets?

Simon then went on to say to Omri: "But I must tell you, your face, your manners, your demeanor, you don't look like a killer. And yet what you do a lot of the time when you're over Gaza, you're killing." The pilot responded: "I agree. I don't think I'm a killer. When I look at my face in the mirror, I don't see a killer."

Simon then turned to Colonel Ziv Levy and asked about civilian deaths:

SIMON: Israel's pilots will tell you that blowing up buildings and cars in crowded cities are not the kind of missions they dreamed of when they joined the air force. But those are the missions they're flying today in Gaza, sometimes with devastating consequences. Scores of Palestinian civilians have been killed this year alone. What's the air force doing to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza?

LEVY: Anything and everything we can.

SIMON: And yet civilians are getting killed. Children are getting killed.

LEVY: And yes, sometimes, unfortunately, civilians are getting hit. So it's a very difficult moral dilemma, what to do.

At the end of the segment, Simon asked the head of the Israeli Air Force, Eliezer Shkedy, about the threat of Iran and seemed surprised by Shkedy’s comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany:

SIMON: Shkedy and many other Israeli officers are from families who survived the Holocaust. In a letter to your commanders, you compared the leaders of Iran today to Hitler.

SHKEDY: In those days, people didn't believe that Hitler was serious about what he said.

SIMON: You mean back in the 1930s.

SHKEDY: Yes. And I suggest us not to repeat this way of thinking and to prepare ourselves to what they are planning.

SIMON: Can you tell me what that means?

SHKEDY: We should be prepared for everything.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:04PM SEGMENT:

BOB SIMON: If any country takes the words of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, more seriously than the United States, it is Israel. And that's not surprising. Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran could be two years away from having a nuclear weapon. Tonight, we will give you a rare look inside the organization that may well be called upon to do something about it: the IAF, Israeli Air Force. It's one of the most secretive organizations of its kind. So, in return for access to its planes and personnel, we had to agree to rigorous censorship. We cannot identify the bases we visited, nor the young pilots we interviewed. In addition, the video we filmed inside their facilities had to be examined by military censors. If the Israelis blow their secrets, they insist, they'll lose the next war. How do you characterize the threat from Iran?

ELIEZER SHKEDY: I think it's a very serious threat to the state of Israel, but more than this, to the whole world.

SIMON: Major General Eliezer Shkedy, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, says Iran's threats against Israel cannot be ignored.

SHKEDY: They are talking about what they think about the state of Israel. They are talking about destroying and wiping us from the Earth.

SIMON: Shkedy not only commands the air force, he also heads the Israeli task force on Iran. These are only his desk jobs. Every week, he flies with the pilots he may send to the next war. But here you are, a key member of the defense establishment of the state of Israel. Isn't a little -- isn't it a little bit risky to have you flying once a week in different warplanes?

SHKEDY: Risk is part of my job.

SIMON: As it is for all Israeli pilots who maintain a constant state of alert. The call can come at any time and with no warning. We cannot tell you how long it takes them to get to their planes. We can tell you it's really fast. Israel is a tiny country in a tough neighborhood. Beirut and Damascus are less than 15 minutes away. They still train for dogfights, that's where the glory was, but it's been a generation since pilots had to fight one; for 60 years, the Israeli Air Force has ruled these skies.

ZIV LEVY: We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort in training and being prepared for the worst.

LEVY: We cannot lose a single war. The first war we lose, Israel will cease to exist.

SIMON: The censors allowed us to show Colonel Ziv Levy's face because he's the commander of an air base where rookies and combat veterans hone their skills together. There's very little time for saluting, very little ceremony. A lot of time is spent on critiquing each other.

LEVY: When I go to fly with the other pilots, ranks don't matter. I can be the base commander and the youngest pilot in the squadron will be the leader. I expect him to tell me what he thinks about what I did. What were my mistakes?

SIMON: Mistakes are ultimately unacceptable because the country is so small and the stakes are so high. In the US, you volunteer for the Air Force and if you have the right stuff, you become a pilot. In Israel, everybody has to serve in the military. The air force by law gets to select the nation's finest, whether they want to be in the air force or not. When you were a kid, did you always want to be in the air force?

OMRI: No. Nope. Nah. My dream was to go to the special forces in Israel.

SIMON: But the air force wanted you.

OMRI: Yep.

SIMON: You don't say no to the air force.

OMRI: That's right.

SIMON: And once they make it to the flight academy, only one in 40 cadets actually become jet fighter pilots, one in 40. Many cadets used to dream of flying fighter jets, but that's changed. While a jet pilot may fly one or two big missions in his career, helicopter pilots see action every day. Twenty-one-year-old Shira is about to graduate as a pilot. Where do they find a suit that small?

SHIRA: There are short guys also as well.

SIMON: Not that short.

SHIRA: Actually, it wasn't that difficult to find.

SIMON: Don't be fooled by her size. In six months, Shira will be flying a Cobra, one of the most lethal helicopters in Israel's arsenal. How many girls were in your cadet class to begin with?

SHIRA: Seventeen.

SIMON: Seventeen. And how many are left?

SHIRA: It's only me. Right.

SIMON: Just you.

SHIRA: Yeah. Fortunately.

SIMON: You're the only woman here.

SHIRA: In my course, yes.

SIMON: You must be proud you made it.

SHIRA: Yeah, I'm feeling lucky.

SIMON: The Israeli Air Force may take the best and the brightest in the country; it may fly the finest American-made warplanes; and it may be so powerful that none of Israel's historic enemies will fly against it. The era of the dogfight is over. But in this new era, the air force is facing new challenges. Challenges which may prove more difficult than anything it has faced until now. And the challenges come from enemies that have no air force at all. Lebanon doesn't have one, nor does Gaza, where Islamic militants have launched thousands of crude homemade rockets into towns in southern Israel. Once the rockets are fired, Israelis have only seconds to take cover. We flew above Gaza to have a look. And that's Gaza in the background?

OMRI: That's right. The center of Gaza is on our right.

SIMON: For the last two years, Captain Omri has been hunting down militants in Gaza in his Apache attack helicopter. But you still can't take out all the people who are firing rockets at you?

OMRI: They are working from a very crowded, populated places, and they shoot the missiles from there. And they're shooting near children. And when you're taking your weapons system and looking at the launch area, you just see children running near it. It's unbelievable.

SIMON: And you retaliate?

OMRI: Yeah.

SIMON: They fire rockets, you hit back. So they fire more rockets and you hit back in a bigger way, and it just gets worse and worse.

OMRI: Yep. I agree.

SIMON: It's a classic guerilla war. Fifty dollar rockets made in the back alleys of Gaza against Israel's $50,000 missiles. The Israelis will tell you that kind of expense buys precise weapons which limit collateral damage. But it also gives the air force the capability of assassinating their enemy's leadership. The Israelis call this "targeted killings"; the Palestinians call it murder. Have you hit any targets?

OMRI: Definitely.

SIMON: People? Men who are wanted?

OMRI: Yep.

SIMON: But I must tell you, your face, your manners, your demeanor, you don't look like a killer. And yet what you do a lot of the time when you're over Gaza, you're killing.

OMRI: I agree. I don't think I'm a killer. When I look at my face in the mirror, I don't see a killer.

SIMON: Israel's pilots will tell you that blowing up buildings and cars in crowded cities are not the kind of missions they dreamed of when they joined the air force. But those are the missions they're flying today in Gaza, sometimes with devastating consequences. Scores of Palestinian civilians have been killed this year alone. What's the air force doing to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza?

LEVY: Anything and everything we can.

SIMON: And yet civilians are getting killed. Children are getting killed.

LEVY: And yes, sometimes, unfortunately, civilians are getting hit. So it's a very difficult moral dilemma, what to do.

SIMON: Things were a lot clearer back in 1967, when Israeli warplanes decimated the air forces of three nations in just two days. Or in 1981, when the Israeli Air Force was given the mission to stop Saddam Hussein from building a nuclear reactor, a mission that today is taking on new significance now that Iran has its own nuclear program. Back then, eight pilots and eight planes, each armed with two one-ton bombs, were readied for their flight to Baghdad. Then, after years of planning, they flew into history. This is the actual cockpit video of their mission. Flying 100 feet above the ground, they dodged Jordanian and Saudi radar. So far, so good. When they finally crossed the Euphrates River, the dome of the reactor appeared in their sights. Then, one by one, they dropped their bombs. The bombs hit their target. And you didn't have smart bombs back then, did you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We didn't have smart bombs, but we had smart bombers.

SIMON: Iraq's nuclear program was blown apart, and all the pilots returned safely home. Iftach Spector was one of them. When you got back to Israel, you were acclaimed super heroes, saviors of the Jewish nation.

IFTACH SPECTOR: We postponed a threat, a real threat, and this -- I mean, the heroes were not us. The decision makers were the heroes in this because they showed the world what's right and what's wrong.

SIMON: Today, Israel's decision makers are faced with a similar choice. Will they take out Iran's nuclear facilities? The Israelis hope they won't have to, but can they do it? The pilots who flew on the Baghdad mission are convinced that the Iranians will be ready. Zeev Raz was the mission's commander.

ZEEV RAZ: We had one point to destroy; they have many points, many of them deep under the mountains, under the ground, and it's a much more complicated problem than in '81.

SIMON: Do you think Israel could do it?

RAZ: I really hope it will be solved in another way. There's only one thing worse than the Israel Air Force having to do it, is Iran having a nuclear bomb.

SIMON: It's a scenario which reminds Air Force Commander Shkedy of the Holocaust. He often gives this photograph to his officers. It shows Israeli Air Force planes flying over Auschwitz.

SHKEDY: We should remember. We cannot forget. We should trust only ourselves.

SIMON: And you believe that.

SHKEDY: I totally believe that.

SIMON: Shkedy and many other Israeli officers are from families who survived the Holocaust. In a letter to your commanders, you compared the leaders of Iran today to Hitler.

SHKEDY: In those days, people didn't believe that Hitler was serious about what he said.

SIMON: You mean back in the 1930s.

SHKEDY: Yes. And I suggest us not to repeat this way of thinking and to prepare ourselves to what they are planning.

SIMON: Can you tell me what that means?

SHKEDY: We should be prepared for everything.

SIMON: This past week, the CIA told Congress it believed that last September the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC