Two rows of cardboard boxes line up on the shiny floor of Capt. Stav’s new living room. The walls are white and bare, the only decoration a poster of Pink Floyd’s compilation album hanging in the hallway. A pile of dirty laundry lies on one of two brown, leather couches.
Capt. Stav is just settling into his new position at the Southern Cobra Squadron of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). His new apartment, which looks more like a penthouse in the city than a dwelling on an air force base, is a perk of the new position. As second deputy commander, his responsibilities now include arranging the squadron’s schedule, its training and its day-to-day activities. And though today he’s thrilled about the obligatory 12-year service he signed up for as a first step on the road to becoming an IAF pilot, the path was one he hadn’t planned for and, ultimately, included missions hitting very close to home.
Capt. Stav, tall, dark haired and olive skinned, wears the faded green pilots’ suit clad with patches of the Israeli flag and that of his squadron, named after the Cobra helicopter. Sitting on one of the brown leather couches, he begins to tell his story, speaking calm and clear.
The Early Days of Travel
Capt. Stav was born in Petah Tikva (just outside of Tel Aviv) where he lived until second grade, when his family’s voyages began. Amdocs, the computer company his father worked at sent the family first to New York City then eventually, during Capt. Stav’s high school years to Seoul, South Korea, and Hamburg, Germany. Despite the life of new perspectives, Capt. Stav knew he would go back to Israel. “Even after those years,” he says, “I knew the anchor was here.”
When he told his parents of his plans to move back and, as he’d reached the age that Israelis join the army, that he too would enlist, the family decided they’d move back together. They moved to Sderot, a city in southern Israel just outside of the Gaza Strip. And though at the time Sderot was relatively calm, by 2007, over 6,000 rockets would have fallen on the city.
Life in the Air Force
When it came time to decide on a path in the army (enlistees are given a choice), Capt. Stav didn’t have a specific idea in mind. So when his parents suggested he try getting into the Air Force’s selective and prestigious pilot’s course, he agreed.
Over the course of a year he passed test after test, some checking practical application, others basic coordination and physical ability until he found himself among those few selected to begin the course. Again, he said he’d try passing the intensive three years until he was cut. But, at the end of those three years, he found himself among the few left standing at the ceremony, celebrating his certification and joining the Air Force as a pilot.
“At the ceremony where you get your wings [the pin representing your status as pilot] you’re at the highest point in life. You’re sure you’re God. Then about a month later you get it really happened and that you’re now going to be in the army for nine years,” he says describing the shock that hit when the course was over and his service as pilot began.
Despite initial shock, today he says of his position and the life it has presented, “I’m the happiest person in the world.”
Trouble at the Home Front
By Operation Cast Lead, which took place over the course of three weeks in 2008 and 2009, Capt. Stav was a leading pilot in his squadron’s operations. Since 2001, thousands of rockets and mortars had been launched into Israel, mostly hitting Sderot and the surrounding areas. In 2008 alone, just before the onset of the operation and indeed an instigator for it, well over 3,000 Qassam rockets, mortar shells and Grad missiles were launched into Israel.
The interview has moved to the squadron’s one-floored office building. Capt. Stav sits behind his desk, two computer screens in front of him, the off-white walls bare here, too. “There was one flight that started out calm,” he recalls his second mission in Cast Lead. “The Paratroopers' Brigade was inside buildings [in the northern Gaza Strip], preparing for the following night’s operation while we flew above. Everything was calm, they were just resting - then within seconds there was tension. We hear an update from one to the other - soldiers have been wounded, they’re being shot at. We’re trying to speak with them, to understand how we can help but they don’t have a second to respond.
“We ask the Air Force representative at the brigade’s base where we can shoot - the important thing was to shoot so attacks at our forces would stop. We were given a target. We fired. It worked and the force had a second to get back on track and tell us exactly which house the shots were coming from.”
As mentioned, Capt. Stav’s family lived in the area that saw the most rocket fire. He looks at the ground as he talks.
“There were a lot of times just before Cast Lead when rockets were being launched. We were called to operations because the Air Force found rockets that were set to launch and sent us to catch them before they could be. When you know that launcher is aimed at your house, it makes that race more meaningful and scary and bizarre. More than once we didn’t make it in time and we saw the smoke tail of the Qassam rocket after it launched and I’m thinking, OK, now it’s flying in their direction... My mom’s at home now, my brother’s in school...”
Nevertheless, when asked if this fact makes the pilot want to do all damage necessary to ensure his family will never be harmed, Capt. Stav says, “God forbid. In most cases it’s the opposite – how to do the least amount of damage. One of the ways to measure the success of our operations, especially in the Gaza Strip, is how much we were able to avoid harming uninvolved people.”
What the World Doesn’t Know
“We talk about it day and night,” he says about the ethics instilled in IAF soldiers. “They showed me a film just before I became leading pilot of our operations. We always fly in formations, the leading pilot making real-time decisions. They showed me a film of a pilot who decided, of his own accord, not to go through with a mission. He wasn’t sure of his target and he saw people who weren’t supposed to be there – people who weren’t involved. So he turned around and flew back. In the exercise everyone goes around saying what he or she would have done. Then they tell you about the full support and backing the pilot got for making that decision.”
“There is no operational mission in the Gaza Strip which doesn’t include moral considerations,” he continues, “Because it’s one of the most populated places in the world.”
When asked how often the IAF makes mistakes, Capt. Stav confidently responds, “There are very few mistakes, I think, because there is a lot of cooperation in the air force. Things are researched, everyone learns from everyone. At the end of a period of operational activity, we learn about the decisions others made and the morals of each of our stories. It’s a huge part of how we fly.”
Criticism for the IDF after Operation Cast Lead was harsh. Many generals couldn’t leave the country for fear of being arrested and charges of the IDF’s allegedly immoral behavior and disregard for the Gaza Strip’s civilian population raged worldwide. When asked about his reactions to this criticism, Capt. Stav says, “I think it’s not based on facts. It’s based on theories and obstruction of truths by the media and, ultimately, these are people’s sources of knowledge. As someone who was actually there, the huge disparity between facts and what is said is difficult to hear. On the other hand, it doesn’t bother me on too deep a level because I know where I am, what kind of body I’m part of. And in my opinion, it’s one of the most humane in the world.”
Today, following the long path through traveling and the course, Capt. Stav says he has one hope for the future.
“My one and only hope is that I keep flying a lot - but only in training.”