Palestine

Objection to military service in the
Occupied Territories

Women in Black

At a Women in Black demo in Tel Aviv

27 December 2002

In Tel Aviv, I met up with my three colleagues who are in the West Bank while I am in Gaza. Women from the Israeli peace group, New Profile, told us that a number of people refuse military service and many more avoid it. Men are conscripted for three years, women for 21 months. 25% of men of military age avoid the draft by claiming medical or psychological illness. A further 8.5% claim exemption on Jewish religious grounds. 20% more are discharged during their first year of service (after claiming they are having suicidal thoughts, for example). Thus 48% of men of conscription age do not serve at all or do less than the statutory three years. Women are permitted to refuse military service because of conscientious objection, but men are not.

The 52% of men who complete the period of conscription are then liable for a further 60 to 80 days reserve service each year, but only 30% of those eligible actually do this reserve service. Refusal is punishable by a short prison sentence which can be repeated. The longest any reservist has spent in prison from repeated sentencing is 161 days. A number of soldiers have gone ‘away without leave’ which is also punishable by imprisonment.

Military service causes financial difficulty, so parents have to subsidise their children in the army if they are able to do so. Career officers, on the other hand, are very well paid.

Women are not sent to the front line unless they request it. For some women, front line service is a way they think they can show they are the equal of men. They may then try to outdo men in the unkindness and brutality with which they treat Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

The New Profile women are worried about militarisation of education. This often starts in nursery school. Young boys may be asked what sort of soldiers they want to be, what corps they would like to be in. Racist attitudes may be inculcated (stereotypes in a school play were mentioned: "Rumanians steal, English have no humour, Arabs cannot be trusted," etc). The last year at school is largely taken up with exams and preparations for army service (boot camp, learning to shoot).

The women who spoke to us are unhappy that the importance of the military, and military service, reinforce male dominance in Israeli society. One was horrified when she heard a man say enthusiastically at his grandchild’s circumcision ceremony: "Another soldier has been born."

New Profile gives counselling to parents whose sons face the draft, soldiers who want to leave the army, and people liable to go to jail for refusing to do, or to complete, military service. A jail sentence is less likely if a boy says when he is 16 that he is going to refuse military service. This is a young age to have to declare conscientious objection, and consequently risk the ridicule of peers.

Earlier, in Jerusalem, we had met Ram Rahat-Goodman, a member of the refusenik group Yesh Gvul which campaigns against the occupation. Yesh Gvul means ‘there is a limit’ (for the individual), or ‘there is a border’ (originally the border with Lebanon), or ‘I’ve had enough.’ The members oppose military actions which are not for security but for political ends. Yesh Gvul are committed to non-violent solutions. Some refuse to serve in the army because it is an army of occupation, whereas others do not object to being conscripted or doing reserve service in principle but refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

The group started in 1982 by opposing Israeli military action in Lebanon after being appalled by the massacre in Shatila refugee camp. It had its greatest strength at that time and obtained 35,000 signatures of support. 160 refuseniks went to prison.

There are 1000 refuseniks today, most of whom are reservists in their 20s and 30s. A proportion are charged with a disciplinary offence and sent to prison for 28 days. No career military personnel have refused to serve in the Territories. Refuseniks are not court marshalled because they would claim that the military in the Occupied Territories are given flagrantly illegal orders, which the army does not want exposed.

Yesh Gvul was preceded, in 1980, by a letter which high school seniors (sixth formers) wrote to the government, saying they would refuse military service in Lebanon. In Oct 2001 a number of high school seniors wrote to Prime Minister Sharon stating that they would not serve in the Occupied Territories. Many were jailed for many months. There have been other examples of selective refusal, such as Greeks opposed to NATO, Vietnam war refusers in the US, and UK reservists who would not serve in the Korean war.

Ram said that many moderate peace-inclined politicians, and indeed a number of people in the peace movement, regard the army as a sacred cow which should not be interfered with. Although the majority of the Israeli public is opposed to refusal, a poll indicated that a quarter supported the right to refuse military service in the Territories. Israelis, he said, are convinced that the whole world, except for some Americans, is against them.

There is much debate within peace groups, and more widely, as to whether there should be a one state or a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Right wing Zionists want a one state solution with removal of the Palestinians, and presumably also the Israeli Arabs, from Israel-Palestine. Ram personally favours one state in which all have full rights and economic justice.

He thinks that the peace groups are having only a small influence in Israel, but Palestinians can see that there are moderate Israelis who are standing out against the injustices occurring in the Occupied Territories. There is a lot of cooperation and support between the peace groups. A member of Yesh Gvul was in the UK recently and was sorry to see how polarised the pro-Palestinian groups which he met are.

Though not a pacifist, Ram is strongly opposed to professional armies which he regards as a sin against humanity. There is no such thing, he said, as a moral army, and he admits that the Israeli army is doing unconscionable things to the Palestinians. He thinks things would be even worse if the army had only professional soldiers, without conscripts and reservists. Professional military do as they are told to a greater extent than the non-professionals. The Vietnam war ended when it did, he thinks, because the majority of GI s were conscripts.

Members of Yesh Gvul talk to soldiers at bus stations on their way to the Territories, pointing out that Israeli society is becoming brutalized and that the occupation is having a dire effect on the economy of Israel.

After the meeting we joined a Women in Black demonstration against occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A number of people from abroad were at the demo, including a French woman, who had worked as a doctor in Gaza, who quoted from Khalil Gibran: "La terre est ma patrie et l’humanité ma famille."

28 December 2002

We stayed at Neve Shalom, a small village where both Jewish and Muslim families live. The mayor, Abdessalam Najjar, told us that in the village school the teaching is in Arabic and Hebrew and the children learn about both cultures. Most of the 250 pupils come from surrounding Arab and Jewish communities.

At Neve Shalom’s School for Peace, groups of Israelis and Arabs and people from abroad come to explore the subject of conflict. Unfortunately the Israelis no longer permit groups to come from the Occupied Territories. The visitors are helped by facilitators who aim at conflict management rather than conflict resolution.. A feeling of weakness, Abdessalam believes, leads to lack of self confidence, fear, violence and fundamentalism.

It is helpful, he said, for people to start by reflecting on their own needs and how they may be met. The Jews want security, and the Palestinians want independence without domination. Does the killing of Israelis and the demolition of Palestinian homes achieve these aims? Hamas and right wing Jews do not come to Neve Shalom but, according to him, there is something of them in all of us. 25,000 young people have attended School for Peace discussions, and more than 300 adults have received training in conflict management.

There was a concert in the evening featuring an Israeli band. A Palestinian band was also billed, but two of the three members had been refused permission to travel from Bethlehem so the band could not perform.

29 December 2002

In Tel Aviv we went to the university to meet a political analyst, Mark Heller. It was valuable to hear the views of an informed Israeli whom we reckoned to be in the centre of the political spectrum. He thinks that the main political concern of the Israeli public is the stopping of terrorism. Every one knows someone who has suffered loss, or knows someone who knows someone . . . Hence the election of Liqud and Sharon. Over the last two years empathy for the suffering of Palestinians has lessened. Many in Israel think that the Palesltinians have brought it on themselves. He admits that the army is now doing terrible things it would not have done before the start of the present intifada. They may be committing war crimes, but Palestinian terrorist bombings are also war crimes, he said.

Heller thinks that the Palestinian leadership has condoned violence in the hope of gaining a stronger bargaining position when talks are held. "As they are using violence, we have a right to use violence." He thinks that Arafat has encouraged violence by Fatah and Hamas because Hesbolah’s violent tactics appeared to pay off in Lebanon, but now Arafat has lost control of the activists.

He does not agree with the building of the security wall inside the West Bank, sometimes as much as six kilometres inside. It is planned to be 600 - 1000 km long. It costs $1 million a kilometre to build and a further 20% will be required to maintain it, but there has been budget approval of only $100 million.

Israel is opposed to an international monitoring force and has no faith in the UN. Heller thinks that the Oslo accords should be more than monitored by an international force; there should be an international trusteeship, like there was in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, which would have ultimate responsibility for such things as the media, school curricula, and government organizations.

He suggests that a solution to the refugee problem would be to give the refugees a choice of repatriation, living in other countries, and/or financial compensation.

How does he see the future? Prospects for negotiations are poor, he thinks. Israel will not accept the right of return of refugees who are now in other countries. The experience of states with a large minority of Muslims has not been good, in his opinion.

I suggested to him that there might be a certain amount of paranoia about the risk of terrorism in Israel. He replied that even paranoids have their human rights.

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