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Behind the Veil:
Insider Access to Information and Ethics at an IDF Base

Israel's beloved "birdman,"
Prof. Yossi Leshem

Tel Aviv — The largest air force base in the Israeli Defence Forces, Palmachim is the hub of cutting-edge technology. Home to 20 elite helicopter and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle squadrons, it trains for and executes 50 percent of the Air Force's missions.

It's also the site of life-saving research and environmental work.

Prof. Yossi Leshem, Tel Aviv University's renowned ornithologist, provided a rare look at this unique base. There, they were introduced to Prof. Leshem's ground-breaking project using high-tech surveillance methods to track migrating birds. Before his system was used, 75 in-air collisions carried a heavy price — the lives of three pilots and $1 million in damages.

Prof. Leshem is also spearheading an initiative that places the welfare of the bases' expansive natural environment, including surrounding wildlife, in the hands of soldiers. Armed with bicycles, soldiers routinely visit the outlying areas of the base to care for their natural surroundings, fostering a greater appreciation for the environment and the animals who share their home.

It's an extension of the strong thread of morality that permeates all activity on the base. Working 24 hours a day to keep the country secure, many soldiers here fly advanced drones through the skies, but their thoughts are never far away from the human lives below.

"Every day we are faced with life or death decisions," explains a member of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle squadron. Situations such as terrorists hiding in civilian homes, or employing schools and apartment buildings as launch sites for rockets are shockingly common, so it's important to confront them with a cool head. If innocent lives will be lost, such strikes are to be aborted — even if rockets could be heading to a civilian area within Israel's borders.

"It's a question of humanity, and we do everything to avoid harm," he says. "We don't do it for the media. We do it to maintain morality."


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