Israel's air force is threatening to dismiss nine pilots who signed a letter saying they refuse to take part in operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although 27 reserve pilots signed the declaration, only the nine are still on active duty.

The Israeli air force is planning to call the nine pilots to meetings with the heads of their bases in the coming days. It says if the pilots do not retract their statement during these meetings, they will be dismissed from active service.

The threat of sanctions emerged after the pilots signed a letter describing aerial activity in the territories as illegal and immoral.

The fliers oppose taking part in air strikes in civilian Palestinian population areas, a reference to Israel's practice of using military aircraft to target Palestinian leaders.

Such operations have sometimes resulted in innocent civilians also being killed.

The pilots' revolt came as the head of Israel's Defense Forces, General Moshe Ya'alon, credited the policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders with a recent lull in terror attacks. He also rebuffed the criticism from the pilots, saying their remarks constituted nothing more than, as he put it, a political statement made in army uniforms.

Air Force Commander Dan Halutz played down the significance of the pilots' letter.

He says the group represents a small proportion of the thousands of pilots who had served Israel's air force.

General Halutz also rejected the protest as unfair, saying those who served under him are ordered to act in what he said was a humane and moral fashion.