The struggle of the refuseniks

A small but growing number of Israeli soldiers are refusing to serve in the occupied territories -- awakening the nation's dormant left, but also dividing it.

By Ferry Biedermann
Published February 16, 2002 1:01AM (UTC)
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"Don't even talk to me," said the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint outside Nablus to a group of Palestinian men who were trying to get out of the city earlier this month. They explained that they needed to go to Ramallah, normally a 30-minute trip by car, for business, and showed all kinds of documents supporting their claim to be vegetable traders. "No, I can't do it," said the Israeli soldier. "You don't have the right papers and you know it. I have my orders. Now go back."

These kinds of confrontations -- and many far more traumatic -- take place every day in the occupied territories, the lands seized by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. The overwhelming majority of Israeli soldiers, both conscripts and reservists, still adhere to army discipline and obey orders, no matter how unpleasant they may find them. The now 17-month-old Palestinian intifada and the army's reaction to it, however, has spawned a growing movement that refuses to go along.


Last month, a group of some 50 enlisted men and officers signed a petition proclaiming their refusal to serve in the occupied territories, asserting that they were given orders that served no security purpose, and boldly stating that "we shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people." The number of names on the petition, under the heading "Courage to Refuse," has by now reached almost 250 and is updated regularly on the group's Web site.

The people on the list, and as many as 500 others who refuse to serve but have not signed the list, are known as "refuseniks," the name originally given to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel. The refuseniks are spearheading a reawakening of the Israeli left -- but also revealing fissures within it.

The peace camp, stunned into dormancy by the failure of Ehud Barak's peace moves and the outbreak of the intifada, is now slowly starting to regroup, led -- as usual -- by the grass roots rather than politicians. Last Saturday, fringe-left groups held the largest rally against the occupation in Tel Aviv since the outbreak of the intifada. The army objectors were made the centerpiece of the demonstration, which was attended by a rainbow coalition of some 10,000 people, from Gays and Lesbians Against Occupation to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Communist Youth.


"There are things that are forbidden," one of the objectors, Yishai Rosen-Tzvi, told the crowd. "To humiliate people, to impoverish them and drive them to the verge of hunger, that is forbidden." A reservist, Rosen-Tzvi served in the occupied territories during an earlier tour of duty and was appalled at what he was forced to do; he served a jail term for his refusal to go back to the territories last September. With his knitted skullcap, crew cut and blue shirt, Rosen-Tzvi looks more like a supporter of the National Religious camp than a refusenik, but he made the most attention-grabbing speech of the evening. "They duped us. When the soldiers get to the territories they enter a terrible reality. We see people who are humiliated and frustrated, who are poor and sometimes hardly have anything to eat. Then you get your orders, which are meant to push them even further into that humiliation and poverty. If you have even a grain of humanity in you, you say: 'How can this happen, how can I do this?'"

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, reacted to the protest movement harshly, claiming that the protesters had a political agenda, not a moral one. "If some of the officers have ideological motives and are trying to advance those by means of the IDF, it's much worse than refusing to serve. It's mutiny," Mofaz said. Many other reactions were also negative -- predictably so, in a country where the army is still seen as the only guarantee of survival, as a melting pot and as representing all that is best about the Jewish State. When objectors accuse the army of committing war crimes, it jars with the notion of "purity of arms" -- a concept most Israelis still believe in. But the Israeli public is deeply conflicted over the refuseniks: Although the hard-line administration of Ariel Sharon still commands high poll numbers, between 20 and 25 percent of the population sympathizes with the objectors.

The television and newspaper testimony of some of the refuseniks may have something to do with that. Some claim that Israeli forces shoot Palestinian children without justification. "There is a procedure for firing warning shots at Palestinian children," one refusenik was quoted as saying in Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. "When a child is 100 meters away from the outpost, a soldier must fire 50 meters to the child's right or left. However, IDF soldiers do not always observe this procedure." Another said, "People say that 'the Palestinians shoot first and we just respond.' This is untrue. One officer there told soldiers doing guard duty in the lookout posts: 'If things are too quiet or if you don't feel certain about the situation, just let off a few rounds.' Shots were fired every night. We would start shooting and they would fire back."


Another soldier charged that soldiers receive orders that result in indiscriminate killings. Reservist Ariel Shatil was quoted as saying that in response to Palestinian mortar fire, his squad was supposed to fire heavy machine guns at a Palestinian town. "The gunfire penetrates thin walls and windows, and that kills people, and you don't know who you're killing," Shatil said.

The refuseniks' tales illustrate the growing harshness of the occupation since the outbreak of the intifada. Palestinian villages and towns are largely closed off from the outside world and each other. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem estimates that since the beginning of the intifada at least 22 people, including three babies, have died at roadblocks because they needed emergency medical care, even though there is a standing order to let urgent cases through immediately. "The abuses at the roadblocks are systematic. It is hard to estimate how many cases there are because Palestinians have gotten used to it. They don't complain about a slap in the face anymore -- that is normal by now," said a B'Tselem spokesman. So far, just three soldiers have received mild sentences for mistreatment of Palestinians.


The sacrosanct status of the Israeli military, and Mofaz's claim that the refuseniks were acting out of political motivations, has forced the activists to move carefully. The support from the radical left, and the explicitly political nature of Saturday's demonstration, clearly posed a dilemma for them. Until the demonstration, they had studiously avoided identifying themselves with any political movement, saying that they objected on moral and legal grounds. They don't talk to foreign journalists, on the grounds that "this is an internal matter." They have even declined, thus far, to align themselves with the veterans' organization of army objectors, Yesh Gvul -- Hebrew for "There Is a Limit," which can also be translated as "There Is a Border." That organization sprang up at the beginning of the divisive 1982 Lebanon war, which Ariel Sharon, at that time defense minister, masterminded. Since then Yesh Gvul has assisted countless others who objected to serving in the occupied territories, particularly during the first intifada from 1987 until 1993, when some 2,000 people opted out.

Both the Lebanon war and the first intifada ended in Israeli pullouts, which Yesh Gvul likes to take part of the credit for. "It is part of a cumulative effect that makes people realize that something has to change, along with demonstrations and other actions," said a spokesman.

But the peace camp, which has become smaller and more marginalized as Israelis have moved to the right after the collapse of the Barak peace initiative, is divided over the refuseniks. The mainstream peace group, Peace Now, the Israeli Labor Party and the more liberal Meretz Party all declined to join last Saturday's rally and will hold one of their own this weekend instead. Although it is not openly admitted, it seems that the stumbling block is the refuseniks issue. Yossi Sarid, a veteran peace campaigner and chairman of Meretz, has even come out against them.


Tamar Gozanksi, a member of parliament for Hadash, which includes the Communist Party, did attend the rally in Tel Aviv and commented on the divide within the peace camp: "Meretz and Peace Now may say something else, but they refused to participate because of the rally's support for the soldiers' petition. They are in favor of serving." A Meretz colleague, Naomi Chazan, stood nearby. Making it clear that she was there only in a personal capacity, not an official party one, she was diplomatic: "It is not so much the refuseniks that are important as much as the reasons behind their refusal. That is what we have to address."

If the mainstream peace groups keep their distance from the petitioners, so do some of the more radical leftists. "Some of the people who came to us declined to sign the petition because it is too Zionist," said the spokesman for Yesh Gvul. The Courage to Refuse statement opens by saying that the petitioners are "reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it."

This patriotic rhetoric is meant to make clear that the refusal to serve is based on a criticism of the immoral aspects of the occupation, not the army itself. But the distinction is lost on many soldiers. Brigade Cmdr. and reserve Col. Ron Shachner said in the left-leaning Israeli daily Ha'aretz, "They ought to be thrown out of their units. They can't be officers and then decide what missions they'll take and what they won't take. Those who refuse to serve should be thrown in jail." That is the straightforward view taken by many who serve in the army. Most commanders prefer, though, to deal quietly with the issue and not create hundreds or thousands of refusenik martyrs. For every 10 objectors, estimates Yesh Gvul, one gets sent to jail.


When asked how the refuseniks would be punished, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, the army's foreign press spokesmen, said, "Every case gets judged on its own merit." Unlike chief of staff Mofaz, Rafowicz did not use the words "rebellion" or "mutiny" when speaking about the refuseniks, but he did call their action "undemocratic." "The army only carries out orders from the political echelon, which has been democratically elected." He acknowledged that the occupation is not always pretty, but laid blame for that on the Palestinians. "But as long as we are there and are ordered to be there, we do the best we can. We don't always like it, but we don't have a choice. What is happening now is counterproductive in the long run; it is not our goal but it is imposed on us by the other side."

A former chief of military intelligence, Shlomo Gazit, warned of dire consequences if everybody decided for himself what orders to obey, raising the specter of right-wing Israeli soldiers refusing to obey orders to close down settlements. "Anyone who creates a law for himself and refuses to serve in the areas of Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and the Gaza Strip for reasons of morals and conscience is encouraging his comrades to refuse orders issued by the elected political echelon that go against their conscience -- for example, if called upon to evacuate settlers and settlements or end the occupation and leave the territories. Stop and think -- don't you understand this is the beginning of the end? Renege, without giving up the contents of your protest," he wrote in the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

The objectors reject the undemocratic label. They call the occupation itself undemocratic and say they have a duty to resist it. The army is used for deeply political purposes, asserted Edan Landau, a 34-year-old reserve captain from Tel Aviv who refused to serve in the territories last year but did not sign the petition. He said his objection to serving in the territories was both moral and political, explaining, "To secure settlements and settlers is a political task."

Landau served in the army during the first intifada and said his views have changed over the years. "We had to round up people in the middle of the night, accompanied by secret agents who would point out the suspects. We took kids and had mothers run after us. There was always a soldier who would find it necessary to beat the suspects and then they would be thrown in the jeep. Sometimes the interrogation would start on the way, with the secret service people twisting the suspect's limbs or ears." Landau said he never wanted to be part of that again, and was prepared to go to jail last September when he was called up. His service record and the proximity of the Jewish holidays saved him from the jail sentence the army first wanted to impose, he thinks; instead he served 10 days doing "boring jobs" at an army base in the country.


Landau also dismissed another argument put forward by people on the right and left who oppose the refuseniks: that officers and soldiers who have moral qualms should serve precisely in order to prevent excesses and make the occupation more humane. "The whole occupation is wrong -- why make it more humane?" he says. He does not believe in the power of one person to change things on the ground, either. "If you're in the middle of things it is much harder to object to certain things or refuse an order if you think it is illegal. It is better to stay out altogether."

Unlike many other Yesh Gvul objectors, Landau is not from a highly politicized left-wing family. "My parents and brothers are still coming to terms with it," he said. "They all served in the army but now they support me." At work, as a university lecturer in linguistics, he does not talk much about his refusal to serve. "It is not the taboo it once was, but politics does not go well with the workplace." Like most objectors, he doubts that his refusal to serve will have an impact on his career, as it was once bound to have.

Some of the potential objectors face a real dilemma, though, when their conscience clashes with their family and their career. A student of medicine from Tel Aviv in his early 20s who asked to be identified only as Shmuel said he was inclined to refuse to serve in the territories when his time came. The army has partly paid for his education, and in exchange he has to do five years of army duty, instead of the usual three. He has had basic training and has been doing stints of reserve duty but has not yet served in the occupied territories. "There could be a severe price for me to pay. The army could give me some other job than doctor and that will severely harm my career," said Shmuel. "My family doesn't agree either. They say we are fighting for our survival. But this last year, with everything that has been going on, I feel it just has to stop, I cannot be part of it."

Survival, together with the string of horrible Palestinian attacks in Israeli cities, is the strongest argument the army and the opponents of the refusenik movement have. "If we didn't do what we are doing in the occupied territories we would have thousands of Israeli casualties from terrorist attacks, not hundreds," asserted Olivier Rafowicz, the army spokesman.


The refuseniks respond that if there were no occupation there would be no terrorism either. However true this might or might not be in the long run, few Israelis are willing to bet their life on it today.

At the peace rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday, the religious refusenik Yishai Rosen-Tzvi skirted the politically loaded question of what to ultimately do with the territories. But he did make it clear that he believed that continuing the occupation was no solution -- indeed, that it was making things worse. "The occupation is a greenhouse for humiliation and anger," he said. "The army is creating a greenhouse for terrorism."

Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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