JERUSALEM — In the midst of a campaign of airstrikes that aim at Hamas but sometimes kill Palestinian civilians, 27 reserve pilots in the Israeli air force presented a signed petition on Wednesday night saying they would not take part in "illegal and immoral" strikes in Palestinian areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"We refuse to participate in air force attacks on civilian populations," said the letter, which was sent to the head of the air force, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz. "We refuse to continue harming innocent civilians."
The petition is similar to a letter signed by hundreds of reserve soldiers who have pledged not to serve in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Most of the pilots who signed the petition have not been on active duty in recent years, the air force said. It was not clear whether any had been involved in the strikes.
Israel calls the strikes "targeted killings." They have broad support among Israelis, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government saying they are the most effective way to attack terrorists who hide among civilians.
The Israeli news media said one of the petition's signers was Yiftach Spector, a brigadier general in the reserves, who took part in the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.
In a sharp response to the pilots' letter, Halutz said members of the military should not take political positions. "We do not choose our wars or missions," he said on Israeli television.
"We will continue to hunt terrorists," he said, adding, "We have no intention of harming civilians."
One recent Israeli target, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, emerged on Wednesday for the first time since he was lightly wounded on Sept. 6 in the bombing of a Gaza City apartment where he was meeting with Hamas members.
In a news conference at a Gaza City mosque, the defiant sheik said Hamas was not prepared to call off its bombing campaign, and he accused President Bush of declaring war on Islam.
"Resistance and holy war are the only choices for victory," he said. "We promised God and we promised the people that we won't surrender and we won't raise white flags."
After high school, most Israeli men perform three years of military service, while women serve for two years. After that, the men are liable for annual reserve duty of up to a month. Some of the soldiers who have refused duty have been jailed for the amount of time they were supposed to serve.
The military says the number refusing to serve remains quite small in a country where service is so widespread.