Refuseniks

Draft Resistance Grows in Israel

 JERUSALEM—"We don't cry, we don't shoot! To be murderers, we refuse!" Down the block from Orient House—the hub of Palestinian cultural and political activities in East Jerusalem until it was seized by Israel on August 10—Shai, 24, bangs a drum and chants. He is one of Israel's own Seattle generation of protesters. Demonstrating on August 14, along with some 300 longtime Israeli peaceniks and Palestinians from the Arab side of the city, Shai and his cadre demand the return of the building to its rightful owners, the sharing of Jerusalem, the end of the occupation. And for Shai, there is another message: draft resistance.

His head nearly shaved, his chin dotted with soft whiskers, Shai beats out an increasingly urgent rhythm. The anti-military chant is especially meaningful to him, he explains later, because he refuses to honor his obligation to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Like nearly a quarter of the tens of thousands of Israelis conscripted each year, he has found a way to dodge the draft. Shai likes the way the slogan invokes the controversial and contemptuous old saying about Israel's idea of itself as having an army of sensitive soldiers, who shoot first and then cry later because they'd really rather not be forced to do such terrible things. They don't need to fire in the first place, he says. The massing of tanks outside West Bank cities over the last few days, the ongoing assassinations of suspected militants, the demolition of homes and wells, the three decades of daily, degrading control of Palestinian lives: All of it confounds and disgusts him. Especially because, he maintains, it's gratuitous, weakening Israeli security more than strengthening it.


Between September and March—the first six months of the current intifada—the number of reservists filing requests to defer their tour of duty doubled.


These are fringe views to be sure, in a country that, despite its firepower, regards itself as besieged—and even more so in Shai's hometown, Bet Horon, a West Bank settlement. In the first opinion polls since the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa, reported in this week's Israeli press, 34 percent of Israelis applauded the current level of IDF force against Palestinians—and 42 percent called for more. Still, when it comes to putting one's own body on the line in pursuit of such policies—even at a time when fear has emptied intercity buses and given wispy young waitresses the added duty of searching customers' bags at café entrances—the consensus may be showing some cracks.

According to the IDF, 22 percent of all Israeli males eligible for the draft (at age 18, into three years of basic service) are granted exemptions—an increase from 12 percent 20 years ago. Research collected by Israel's anti-militarist, feminist organization, New Profile, puts that number even a few points higher, and also shows that of those who do enlist, about a third find reason for early discharge. Meanwhile, the reserves, in which men must serve for about a month each year until their mid forties (the specific age depends on the type of unit they're in), are experiencing even greater attrition. The IDF reports that only one-third of all men eligible for reserve duty actually fulfill it. And 41 percent of that minority believe, according to a recent Israeli poll, that they are suckers for doing so. Between September and March—the first six months of the current intifada—the number of reservists filing requests to defer their tour of duty doubled.

The IDF insists that these statistics do not represent a crisis in the readiness and solidity of Israel's famous "people's army" (though it did make preparations at the end of July to call up tens of thousands of reservists who are living abroad). And to be sure, most draft dodgers make no ideological declarations against the occupation and its tactics, but may simply want to get on with their lives. Still, some antioccupation activists see a tacit rejection of Israeli policy in the high numbers shirking their duty. "These are what we call 'gray refuseniks,' explains Idan Landau, 34, a reservist who completed a two-week prison sentence at the end of July after explicitly refusing orders to serve in the West Bank as a matter of conscience. "They fabricate some kind of medical or psychological condition to get out. It would be better, though, if they said why they refused to sacrifice their lives to play a part in the repression."

Since this intifada started, some 200 soldiers like Landau have, indeed, said exactly why—and some have gone to jail as a result. (Israeli law does not recognize conscientious objection for men, though it does allow it for women.) In a recent open letter from military prison, another defiant reservist, David Haham-Herson, writes, "I am a soldier in the Israeli army, imprisoned for refusing to take part in repression, arising from a sense that it is out of the question to be a Jew, the son of a people of refugees, and yet repress a people of refugees." He continues, "I am concerned because I know that the [Palestinians'] terrible hatred toward me is justified. This hatred has led to horrifying and perverted manifestations, like the young suicide bombers, but we create the conditions that lead to this monstrosity."

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