JERUSALEM - Israel on Thursday temporarily grounded reserve air force pilots who - in an unprecedented protest - condemned airstrikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "immoral" and refused to fly such sorties.
The declaration by 27 pilots, including nine on active duty, was widely criticized in Israel as subversive at a time of war, but it also revived a flagging debate on the ethics of Israel's three-year war on Palestinian terrorists.
The protest struck a nerve because many Israelis believe their military has higher moral standards than that of their neighbors, and that other countries would have been much more ruthless.
The military is also seen as an institution that binds the fractious nation; Israelis get jittery at signs of cracks in the ranks. The air force in particular is considered key to Israel's survival. Critics also say such talk gives ammunition to Israel's enemies.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the pilots would be dealt with swiftly.
"Everyone can express his opinion, but it is unacceptable that a group of people in the military would interfere in a subject that does not apply to them," he told Israel TV.
The air force quickly tried to contain the damage. Commander Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz said the nine active pilots, grounded for now, could face suspension and perhaps military jail if they don't recant.
He said the protesters are a tiny minority among thousands of pilots. Hundreds of pilots began circulating declarations Thursday in support of their commanders.
Only veteran leaders of Israel's dovish left, including Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni of the Meretz party, defended the pilots.
The group of 27 is informally led by Brig. Gen. Yiftah Spector, a highly decorated retired pilot who, according to Israeli media, took part in the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.