Cliff May

Tel Aviv, Israel— Israel’s military is unusual in many ways, but start with this: A patch on Captain Omri Levy’s sleeve alludes to a Mel Brooks joke. The patch reads: “It’s good to B200 King.”

The B200 King is a Beechcraft used by the Israelis for reconnaissance. “It’s good to be the king” was a laugh line delivered by Mel Brooks in his 1981 film History of the World: Part I. The phrase entered American pop culture, where it has remained ever since. To take just one example: Jeffrey Goldberg used it as the lead for his recent Atlantic profile of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Captain Levy, however, was born in 1986 and is not familiar with the comedic stylings of Mel Brooks. So I ask about another patch on his uniform, one that shows a camel sprouting wings. This story he knows well: Back in 1947, Egyptians, Syrians, and other Arabs planning to go to war to prevent the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab nations — the original two-state solution — scoffed at the prospect of a Jewish air force, saying that it would come about “when camels learn to fly.” And so, the following year, the first squadron of the Israeli Air Force took the winged camel as its symbol.

I’m at a military base in north Tel Aviv, among a group of American journalists being briefed on Israel’s use of air power. The Israelis use both drones and piloted aircraft to gather “visint” — visual intelligence. But their mission is not just to identify targets. They also do everything they can to avoid collateral damage. “We make sure there are no civilians around the targets,” the briefer tells us. “We want to destroy Hamas’s ability to shoot rockets at us — but we’re not trying to kill people.”

We’re shown a film, taken from a B200 King, of two shadowy figures apparently preparing to launch a rocket from Gaza into Israel. As soon as the figures move away, the rocket is destroyed from the air. I ask whether those seen in the film were targeted later. No, the briefer says, they were allowed to get away because there was a chance — however remote — that they were not terrorists, that they stumbled upon the rocket and were examining it out of curiosity.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.