Objection to military service
At a Women in Black demo in
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
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
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.
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.