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.
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.”
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.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2001