Source: +972

‘I won’t fly refugees to their deaths’: The El Al pilots resisting deportation

At least three pilots for Israel’s flag carrier publish declarations publicly refusing to take part in the forced deportation of asylum seekers should they be asked to. The Israeli government is giving tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers a stark choice: deportation or indefinite imprisonment.

By Yael Marom

An El Al pilot hangs out the window of one of the carrier's planes. (Illustrative photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

An El Al pilot hangs out the window of one of the carrier’s planes. (Illustrative photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)


At least three El Al pilots in recent days published public declarations of their refusal to take part in the deportation of asylum seekers to countries where their lives may be in danger.

Captain Yoel Piterbarg, a pilot on Israel’s national airline, wrote the following on Facebook (Hebrew):


Israel is populated primarily by Jews who, in their near and distant pasts, were refugees in countries around the world. The vast majority became citizens and a small number remained refugees. Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.

Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.


I will not fly deported refugees against their will for the legal reason (there is no other legal reason) that they are likely to endanger the safety of the flight.

In another Facebook post, El Al pilot Shaul Betzer wrote (Hebrew):


As part of the Jewish people, as someone who was raised and educated with Zionist values that renewed the existence of our nation in the Land of Israel, who has lived here his entire life, who has taken part in missions behind enemy lines, which required no small amount of courage and belief in the justness of our path, recognition of Jewish morality and the sanctity of every human being whoever they may be, all in order to ensure ourselves and the generations to come that we will never again be refugees and reliant on the goodness of others.

There is no way that as pat of the flight crew, I will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination, in which their chance of survival after arrival (“a third country”) is close to zero.

Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.

A third El Al pilot, Iddo Elad, wrote on his Facebook page (Hebrew): “I have joined many of my good friends, in declaring that I will not fly refugees to their deaths. I won’t take part in that barbarism.”

More than 7,500 Israelis signed a petition, published by “Zazim — Community Action” earlier this month, calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport to “stand on the right side of history and refuse participate in this immoral deportation.”

The deportation cannot be carried out without the cooperation of pilots, the Zazim petition noted. (Full disclosure: My life partner works for Zazim.) In the first nine months of 2017, over 200 deportations of asylum seekers “failed” because German pilots for Lufthansa and its subsidiary, Eurowings, refused to take off with them on board, declaring that flight safety could be compromised if someone says they do not want to take the flight. In the UK last summer, a Turkish Airlines pilot refused to take off upon learning that a refugee was being deported against his will to Afghanistan.

In recent weeks the Israeli government approved the deportation of refugees to third countries. According to the plan, the Holot desert detention facility, where many asylum seekers are held, will shut down and those who refuse to leave “voluntarily” to Rwanda and Uganda (and perhaps other countries) will be imprisoned indefinitely. According to numerous reports, which Rwanda and Uganda have denied, Israel will pay those countries $5,000 for each refugee they take in from Israel. Additionally, Israel will pay $3,500 to each asylum seeker who agrees to leave, although that sum will get smaller over time, thereby incentivizing them to leave sooner than later.

The agreements between Israel and those two African countries are not new. For years now Israel has paid asylum seekers to leave to Rwanda and Uganda. Despite Israel’s promises that those who agree to leave won’t be in danger, hundreds of testimonies demonstrate that they are not actually given any status or remain welcome in those countries. Instead, they are forced into yet another life-threatening journey. They are vulnerable to exploitation and humiliation, human trafficking, frequent arrests, demands for bribes, and threats. Some of them fall victim to kidnapping gangs, some into the hands of ISIS, and many choose to risk their lives trying to make it to Europe by boat.

It appears that all of the previous flights taking asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda were operated by non-Israeli airlines, including Ethiopian Airlines, and other carriers that service both Tel Aviv and Rwanda or Uganda. (There are no direct flights from Israel to either of those two countries.) It is unclear whether El Al pilots will be asked to fly asylum seekers out of Israel, but declarations like those published by these three pilots send a message of solidarity to the asylum seekers — and can perhaps influence pilots flying for other airlines that are being asked to carry out Israel’s dirty work.



    Many of my Jewish friends here in UK/ Europe and America are devastated by this Israeli Govt dictat. It’s not so long ago that German/ Nazi Govt issued a similar dictat re their family and friends. We know the fate of most. Survivors? Most modern Israeli residents descend from those Refugees who found asylum/ sanctuary in the Homeland. As a person who holds Jewish folk at the top of the World Premier League of talent/ civil life and awesome achievement; people from whom i have learned much—astonishing for a tribe/ people so small in number—let them reflect.

    Their Govt’s intent is to deliver up 10s of 1000s of Eritrean/ Sudanese and other Africa nationals/ refugees/ asylum seekers to fates in their home countries, that smack of the horrors of Auchswitz/ Buchenwald/ Dachau and the 63 additional principal Concentration/ Transit and Extermination camps of the Nazi regime. Let Israeli folk rise to their rooted humane ethic of Light, compassion, caring, engagement. Their support is greatly needed. The Israeli Govt must withdraw from this savage/ brutal policy which destroys all that Jewish folk have at the civil root of their wondrous pride and huge humane achievement.

    Those El Al, and indeed other pilots and flight staff have by their forthright, courageous stands, sent a powerful, telling message. High humane ethics amongst Israeli folk are at the root of israeli culture and life. Let the Govt take note. In Govt as in life mistakes can be made. What is important is that mistakes are corrected.


  2. I applaud the pilots with one hand and correct them with the other. They are pilots, their job is to fly. The people that work in immigration decide who is allowed in the country…that is their job. If the immigration official told the pilot how to fly he would be exceeding his area of expertise. So I would expect the pilot to respect the same. The citizens of Israel have the right to be considered first. Although I sad for anyone who must return to these countries I do not want Israel to be put in jeopardy due to outside threats that are preventable.

  3. Israel is the land of the blessed people by The Almighty God of Abraham, Isak and Jacob. Even though the decision made by the government and pushed by some racist elements is so cruel, Israel has so many brave and blessed people who understand the human misery and knows the meaning of humanity genuinely. Million thanks desrve to those pilots who refuse to take the refugees for their death chamber, million thanks to the Rabbis, intellectual university professors, and ordinary israelis for their bold historic stand on the case of refugees. They will be remembered on the history of Eritrea as heroes and they will be the bridge of the best friendship in the future.

  4. […] Although Uganda and Rwanda deny any agreement with Israel, several testimonies of Eritreans who were sent to Rwanda confirm the fact that they were left without any status or permit and were therefore forced again to look for another place of refuge. After having been expelled from Israel, some of them have lost their lives at the hand of ISIS. To protest the impossible choice they have been presented with, refugees have held mock slave auctions in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, the Knesset, and the Rwandan Embassy in Herzilya. The refugees are not the only ones who know what might await them once they are deported, as many have already expressed their solidarity with the refugees and some airline pilots have shown it by already declaring they refuse to take “refugees to their deaths”. […]

  5. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The only rule of humanity that makes any sense. Humans should not be categorized by race, gender, culture, etc in order to persecute them or prevent them from having a chance at a peaceful productive life.

  6. All of us who believe in the sisterhood and brotherhood of the human race, are appalled by the actions of the Israeli regime and just as horrified by the collaboration of some African governments who are participating in this heinous crime. Equally, we are uplifted by the courage and humaneness of the pilots who have refused to be used as tools of oppression, persecution and violations of human lives. We embrace their humanity and acts of s/heroism in the face of intimidation and threats.

    Let us be inspired by the words of MLK Jr. as we fight against this particular act of injustice: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” An African proverb counsels: “However long the night is, it will give way to daylight.” May the struggle for peace, justice, human rights and human dignity
    bring an end to this long night of oppression! Every act of resistance (however small) against the Israeli government and His collaborators matters. Let us all act in solidarity with the sufferers, for, our silence and inaction could mean their death.

    In solidarity,
    Micere Githae Mugo (Ph.D)

  7. The decision by the El Al pilots and the standpoint of many of the jews in the commentaryfields reflects the true nature of humane jews. It is difficult to understand the position of the Israeli Government when almost 100% of them were at work and earn for their living and by no means a burden to the state


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