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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Rebel Israeli pilots 'grounded'
Building on fire in Gaza City after Israeli air strike
Israel describes its strikes as "targeted killings"
The head of Israel's air force has grounded a group of fighter pilots who are refusing to carry out air strikes against Palestinians, Israeli media has reported.

Air Force Commander Dan Halutz issued the order against nine of the 27 pilots still on active duty, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

The declaration by the pilots, some of whom regularly carry out combat missions, has been condemned by Israeli military leaders.

Israel frequently launches air strikes designed to kill Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli Government describes the operations as "targeted killings", but Palestinians and human rights groups condemn them as assassinations - and note that innocent civilians are often killed as well.

Jail threat

General Halutz told Haaretz the pilots would be dealt with in the same way as soldiers who have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza - suggesting they will be dismissed from the military and possibly jailed.

"This method has proven itself," he was quoted as saying.

The pilots have been ordered to retract their joint statement or be punished.

In their statement, released on Wednesday, the pilots said: "We, veteran and active pilots... are opposed to carrying out the illegal and immoral attack orders of the sort that Israel carries out in the territories."

They added: "We are refusing to continue to attack innocent civilians."

Israel's Channel 2 television reported that the pilots were also refusing to fly ground troops into the Palestinian territories to carry out attacks.

'Severe matter'

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also warned the pilots against their action.

"This is a very severe matter, which will be dealt with soon and appropriately," he was quoted by French news agency AFP as saying.

One of the rebel pilots told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that he felt like he had "come out against his family".

"I was proud to belong to the organisation called the Israel Air Force, and today I am ashamed," said the pilot, a Blackhawk helicopter captain named Alon.

"This is an organisation that carries out actions that in my eyes are immoral and patently illegal."

Hundreds of Israeli reserve soldiers have chosen prison over military service in the Palestinian territories during the last three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.


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