"We See, We Hear, We Refuse" - Israeli Conscientious Objectors

By Miri - 

General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It tramples the forest, it crushes a hundred men.
But it has one flaw:
It requires a driver.
General, your bomber is strong.
It flies faster than the storm, it loads more than an elephant.
But it has one flaw:
It requires a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He knows how to fly, he knows how to murder.
But he has one flaw:
He knows how to think.                                                                                       
Bertolt Brecht

The other day I was sitting in a bar in Tel Aviv. I don't remember how the kid sitting next to me started the conversation, but we soon came to talk about political issues. I asked him whether he had served in the army and he told me that he was actually still serving and that he was only on a home visit because of the Pessach holidays. I asked him what his job in the army was and he told me he had refused to fulfil the tasks assigned to him and requested instead to be a medic. Though I myself object to the institution of the military as a whole, and to the Israeli one in particular, I told him that being a medic was still one of the better, i.e. more "moral" positions in the army. "Yeah, but it still sucks", he replied. I asked him whether he had considered to refuse the draft completely and he told me he had thought about it, but that he saw himself incapable of actually taking that step: "I would end up completely alone, nobody in my social surrounding would understand or support me".

Personally I hold a lot of grudge against the Israeli army, whose soldiers have injured and arrested me and many of my friends, Palestinians, Jewish Israelis and others, this army, that is responsible for the killing of people that I knew, people I used to work with, people I respected and admired. I admittedly find it very hard to empathise with anyone representing this institution, including individual low rank soldiers, even though many of my closest friends, before becoming politically more conscious, did serve in that same army and went through the same limbo.

Knowing Israeli society, however, I do understand how difficult it is to take this step and to bear the consequences of it. In Israel, more than in many other countries, mandatory military service is a natural moral and a rite of passage that turns boys and, to a lesser extent, girls, into men and women, and into citizens. (For a more thorough analysis of the role of women in the Israeli army, please refer to our recent article here)

Children test out weaponry during an IDF sponsored event celebrating Independence Day at the settlement of Efrat, April 2012. JC/ActiveStills
Due to the deep entrenchment of militarism within Israeli society, including in areas that are supposedly of a civil nature, such as education, agriculture, housing and social welfare, there is a lesser need for the military to use explicitly coercive measures to realise the drafting of young Israelis into the army.
A person's military past is still related to one's chances in the labour market, and conscientious objection in particular is still seen by large segments of the Jewish Israeli society as an act of treason as it constitutes a threat to national security and even to the survival of the Jewish people. As such conscientious objectors (in the following COs) frequently face harsh social ostracism, including from within their own families and friends.     

History of Conscientious Objection in Israel

Israeli historians trace the first cases of refusal to obey unlawful orders as far back as 1925. Also during Israel's War of Independence in 1948, some individual or organised acts of conscientious objection have been documented. The more concentrated efforts, however only started after Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, which commenced the period of Israel's military exercising direct control over the Palestinian population living in those regions.

In April 1970, a group of high-school graduates and draftees issued the first collective "Shministim" (Hebrew for "twelfth graders") letter to then Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which they expressed the reasons for their refusal to serve in the army.

Three of the 2009 "Shministim", T-shirts reading "We See, We Hear, We Refuse", Keren Manor/ActiveStills.org
The 1973 Yom Kippur war, which for the first time led to a great number of Israeli casualties, shook the country as a whole and generated wide scale protests, including anti-militaristic ones, which in turn sowed the seeds of a new and larger CO movement.
The Lebanon War which lasted from 1982 to 1984 brought about another wave of COs. More than 3,000 reserve soldiers signed a petition by the Israeli peace group Yesh Gvul (Hebrew "There is a limit"), founded at the time by reservists themselves, to protest the use of military force as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Lebanon, which they viewed as an act of "naked and futile aggression in which they wanted no part". Further, the refusal of young brigade commander Eli Geva to lead his forces into the besieged city of Beirut which he based on moral grounds sparked an unprecedented controversy in Israeli society. Geva was eventually dismissed and the invasion was cancelled. During the Lebanon war a total of 168 COs were sent to prison.

The onset of the First Intifada sparked another wave of conscientious objectors; 200 soldiers refused to serve in the Occupied Territories and served prison terms, others managed to avoid serving in Gaza and the West Bank without directly confronting the military.

After the 1990s passed relatively quietly and were mainly marked by efforts to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a non-military way, violent confrontations increased towards 2000 and escalated with the onset of the 2nd Intifada and the Israeli response to it. Due to the unprecedented violence, large scale collective punishments against Palestinian civilians a growing number of soldiers and reservists started refusing certain orders or to serve in the occupied territories as a whole.

In 2003 the so called "pilots' letter" signed by 27 reservist and active duty pilots made international headlines. In the letter, which was precipitated by the targeted killing of a leader of the Hamas' militant wing, which caused the death of 14 civilians, the pilots stated their refusal to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centres, condemning them as "illegal and immoral", and as "a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting the Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength."

With an increasing number of COs, the amount of organisations and movements supporting those who refuse also increased. Those diverse groups offer guidance and councelling to refusers and aim at educating Israeli society as a whole. Unfortunately however, with the right wing push that the Israeli government and Israeli society as a whole has been experiencing, the number of those refusing to serve in the army and explicitly stating moral or political reasons for doing so has decreased in recent years. Instead, a parallel movement has emerged, consisting of soldiers refusing to perform specific military orders mainly pertaining to the eviction of settlements and/or engaging rioting right-wingers. In 2005, during the disengagement from Gaza, more than 30,000 active duty and reserve soldiers and officers reportedly signed a petition declaring that they will refuse orders to implement the Disengagement Plan. The Israeli army keeps on emphasising that it does not tolerate those acts of subordination just as it does not accept similar acts by left-wingers.

Those young people who continue to refuse to enlist in an army that upholds the occupation of the Palestinian people need internatiol support. Check out our facebook page for updates and ways of how to support them.


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