Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has in the past three years provoked increasingly violent resistance from Palestinians - and vocal criticism from inside Israel. The most outspoken critics are five teenagers who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) because it is an army of occupation.
Thirty-six years of policing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have had a profound effect on the IDF, turning it into an instrument of territorial expansion and colonial oppression. The only people the IDF defends in the occupied territories are the Jewish settlers, and it is remarkably indulgent towards the extremists among them. Towards the Arab population, on the other hand, it behaves with the utmost inhumanity.
In recent months, 28 Israeli pilots and 13 members of an elite commando unit have joined the five refuseniks in protest against the army’s conduct in the occupied territories. Yet it is the courage of the five that is truly astonishing because of the price they are prepared to pay for following their conscience.
The teenagers, known as “the five”, are Noam Bahat, Matan Kaminer, Adam Maor, Haggai Matar and Shimri Tsameret. They were recently sentenced each to a year in prison, and the time they spent in detention pending trial will not be deducted. All refused to serve in the IDF because of the occupation and all were ready to do civilian service instead, but the offer was rejected.
In defence of its draconian sentence, the court pointed out that the five did not refuse to serve as individuals, but rather as a group and with the explicit objective of bringing about a change in Israeli policy in the territories. In this respect, the court ruled, their actions strayed beyond the bounds of classic conscientious objection into the realm of civil disobedience. In support of this ruling, the court cited a letter signed by some of the five while still in high school.
The letter, dated September 3 2001, was addressed to the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and was signed by 62 sixth-formers with Haggai Matar at their head. The signatories protested against “the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army” and gave notice that they did not intend to take part in the execution of this policy. “We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights. Land expropriations, arrests, executions without trial, house demolition, closure, torture, and the prevention of healthcare are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified.”
A year later a second letter to the prime minister, signed by 320 men and women aged 16 to 18, accused Israel more pointedly of war crimes, of trampling over democratic values and of blatant abuses of Palestinians’ human rights. The occupation, it said, is not only immoral; it is damaging the security of Israeli citizens.
The letters, and attendant publicity, prompted a much tougher attitude towards conscientious objectors. Draft resisters were no longer released after a few months, but put on trial.
The five presented themselves at their trial not as pacifists but as conscientious objectors and, specifically, as opponents of the occupation. They insisted that their conscience left them no choice but to refuse to enlist. The verdict of the three military judges was pronounced in a crowded courtroom in Jaffa on January 4. They accepted the argument that freedom of conscience is a right in Israeli law, only to interpret it in a way that undermined its practical value; in essence, they accepted the prosecution’s claim that exemption from military service should be granted only to total pacifists.
The judges found the accused guilty of “a very grave crime which constitutes a manifest and concrete danger to our existence and our survival”. This statement is highly revealing of the mindset of the judges. In the first place, it is suffused with sanctimonious self-righteousness, depicting Israel as the victim rather than the aggressor. Second, it conveys a seriously skewed picture of the military balance of power, casting Israel - the fourth greatest military power on earth - as a little David up against a Palestinian Goliath. Third, it shows that the judges, unlike the accused, are unable or unwilling to distinguish between Israel proper and the Zionist colonial project beyond the green line.
The judges wrote in their ruling that the sentence was intended to serve as a warning to others, especially in the light of the spate of reservists from elite units refusing to serve. In other words, the judges hoped that inflicting such a savage sentence would silence criticism of the army and deter other Israelis. Their reasoning betrayed their provenance as little cogs in a huge and heartless bureaucratic-military machine.
Outside the courtroom, in an impromptu press conference, the refuseniks declared that they were proud of their actions and that they could continue to challenge the occupation until it ends. “We are being punished for saying the word occupation. So here I say it again: occupation, occupation, occupation,” said Matan Kaminer. “They commit war crimes and they expect us to keep silent,” added Haggai Matar. “But we will not be silent. We will speak out against the occupation even when we pay a price.”
The lucidity, wisdom and courage of these young Israelis are impressive by any standard. All are patriots who love their country and are anxious to serve it, but only in a constructive civilian capacity and only inside its legitimate borders. They have chosen the hard way to fight for their ideals when an easy way out was available to them. They are a beacon of honesty, decency and sanity in a society that has lost its soul as a result of a prolonged, brutal occupation.
Ariel Sharon’s brand of Zionism can only lead to more violence and bloodshed, but the refuseniks hold out hope that Israel will return to its senses. They are surely right to single out the occupation as the root of all evil. For the occupation not only negates the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination; it also undermines the democratic foundations of the state of Israel. Young and inexperienced as they are, the refuseniks instinctively grasp the truth of Karl Marx’s dictum that a people that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.
Supporters of the five have prepared a petition to be sent to Sharon, stating that his government is jailing them for their convictions, and calling on him to set them free. To sign this petition, visit www.refuz.org.il - the conscientious objectors’ website. These objectors deserve all the sympathy and support they can get, for their struggle is not for themselves, but on behalf of a much higher ideal: recovering their country’s humanity.
Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at Oxford University and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World