Refuseniks

Draft Resistance Grows in Israel

Landau's own official statement asserts: "The Palestinian population is being subjected to starvation, denial of medical treatment, demolition of homes, and economic strangulation. I will take no part in these war crimes, nor will I serve as a fig leaf for them." Landau explains that he is not a pacifist. A captain (and also a lecturer in linguistics at Ben Gurion University), he is willing to serve in legitimate defense of Israel. But that's not what the military is doing in the West Bank and Gaza, he says: "The myth is that our pressure in the territories will protect our country. On the contrary. It is the trigger to more violence."

The concept of selective refusal is unusual, allowing soldiers to draw their own lines on the basis of their own moral reasoning, says Peretz Kidron, a longtime activist with Yesh Gvul ("There's a Limit"). The group began supporting refuseniks with the start of the Lebanon war of 1982, then sprang back into full action during the first intifada in the late 1980s; since last fall, its phone has been ringing constantly. Compared to the '80s and '90s, says Kidron, the army is now being much less aggressive in prosecuting refuseniks. Nearly all of them served some jail time during the first intifada, he says, but these days fewer than 10 percent are being put on trial. The army is following a policy of non-confrontation—"clearly orders from above" aimed at avoiding headlines, Kidron says. Indeed, when there have been trials and jail time, there has been press. At the beginning of August, one of Israel's major daily papers, Ha'Aretz, ran a 3000-word profile of a reservist, Yishai Rosen-Zvi, who did 13 days in detention for insisting he would not go to the territories "to maintain the occupation."

In 20 years, according to Kidron, the army has never court-martialed a single refusenik. After all, that would open the military to a political trial in which it would be forced to answer questions about compliance with its own military laws—among them, a clause asserting that soldiers are required to disobey illegal orders, and others noting that Israeli military law comprises all the international conventions (against torture, for instance) to which Israel is a signatory.

Yesh Gvul activists are currently handing out leaflets to soldiers as they board buses taking them to bases. "Soldier, where are you headed?" the flyer demands. Reminding soldiers of the Fourth Geneva Convention and asking them whether they are willing to go to war to defend settlements, it cautions: "The international community has recently indicted soldiers who committed war crimes in Serbia, Bosnia, Uganda, Chile and elsewhere. The sentences ran to long years of imprisonment. Would you want to risk it?"

Chilling as that admonition is, soldiers board their buses with much counterbalancing baggage, notes Ruti Kantor, a graphic designer active with New Profile. "The military is practically holy in Israel," she explains. "Children are trained to worship it from early on. Boys are taught to define their masculinity through it, and girls are taught to admire them for it." Regular rituals in schools glorify the IDF—often children must participate in making presents to distribute to soldiers, for instance. And then, for adults, job opportunities are often linked to army service, and even the kind of unit one served in. "The military pervades our society at every level," says Kantor. The mother of a six-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy, she has been taking part in various efforts to reduce militarization in her kids' schools. It astonishes her that anyone finds the inner strength to resist what she calls "massive manipulation."

And yet, an increasing number of young Israelis are finding the courage to try. Sergeiy Sandler, 26, endured two 28-day sentences when he was conscripted because he declared himself a pacifist. Born in the Ukraine, Sandler immigrated to Israel at age six, and remembers the heavy indoctrination he walked into when he started school in his new country. His friends yearned to be combat heroes and saunter through the streets of Tel Aviv with machine guns on their shoulders. "Somehow it didn't work on me," Sandler says, and when he grew up he refused to don the olive uniform of the IDF. To his shock, however, none of his friends or colleagues criticized his choice. "Everything official—government, media, education is absolutely dominated by the army here," he says. "But unofficially the people are more inclined to my position than I ever would have imagined."

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