Alongside the recent military escalations in the Occupied Territories, a new voice of conscience is rising inside Israel, loud and clear. Previously marginal, this voice now offers the country hope of breaking out of the past 17 months of crisis. The new voice permeates reports from the Occupied Territories, and it has begun to mobilize Israelis on a scale inconceivable since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. Two consecutive rallies on February 9 and 16 drew crowds of thousands. But the salient expression of the new voice is the public declaration of young Israeli army reservists on January 25 that they will not serve in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The intensity of the reactions—both negative and positive—to these new “refuseniks” reflects the depth of the political challenge posed by the soldiers’ conscientious objection.

The refuseniks’ statement read (in part): “We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel… We, combat officers and soldiers who have served the State of Israel for long weeks every year…have been on reserve duty all over the Occupied Territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides…hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this war of the settlements. [W]e shall continue serving in the IDF in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose, and we shall take no part in them.”

Growing Movement

The movement of the conscientious objectors is growing rapidly. Within four weeks of January 25, the number of signatures on their petition increased from 53 to 270. Yesh Gvul, the veteran refusenik group first organized in July 1982 during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, collected and published 200 signatures on a less far-reaching statement, part of which read “we will have no part in the continued repression of the Palestinian people.” Veteran reservist officers wrote their own petition, as did wives and parents of soldiers, and university professors. Former Attorney General Michael Ben Yair declared his support for the soldiers’ objection as a legitimate act emphasizing the illegality of the occupation.

Even reserve Gen. Ami Ayalon, former commander of the General Security Services, argued in a TV interview that the IDF performs illegal actions daily and that soldiers must refuse to obey illegal commands. Ayalon called upon the objectors to serve in the Occupied Territories, but simply to refuse individual orders. The young refuseniks answered that there is no practical way to disobey concrete orders, and that the daily activities of the military—as well as the settlements and the occupation itself—are illegal.

Dissonant Reactions

Substantial media coverage of the conscientious objectors has provoked intense public debate, in the Knesset and within political parties and peace organizations as well as on editorial pages. Yediot Aharonot dedicated the front page of its weekly magazine to the soldiers’ petition. Channel 1 interviewed the refuseniks’ leaders on the popular Friday evening news. Polls showed support for the positions in the soldiers’ letter ranging from 15 to 33 percent of the Jewish population. But while large portions of society agree with the refuseniks’ letter, politicians from right to left immediately condemned the young objectors.

Splits in the “peace camp” itself at its two rallies captured the dissonance between society’s changing views and most views represented in the Knesset.On February 9 a large coalition of peace movements that attracted new activists in the last 16 months succeeded in gathering nearly 10,000 demonstrators under the slogan “The Occupation Is Killing All of Us.” Speakers called for supporting the conscientious objectors, including Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, former MK Shulamit Aloni and prominent writers and professors. The Arab speakers at the demonstration, Jamal Zahalka, Nabila Espanioly and Abed Anabtawi, attested to the deep impression made by the reservists’ letter upon Palestinian citizens of Israel. Also among the speakers were three representatives of refusenik organizations, including Yshai Menuchin from Yesh Gvul and secondary school student Noa Levy, who will refuse to serve when drafted next year. Especially applauded was the speech of Yshai Rozen Tzvi, a young religious reservist who served 14 days in jail in 2001 and now speaks frequently on behalf of the conscientious objectors. Rozen Tzvi was interviewed on a prestigious program on Channel 2 for more than 30 minutes, impressing even opponents.

But the establishment of the “peace camp” has been unable to adapt its attitudes to the rhythm of the new voice of conscience. At a second, larger rally of 15,000-20,000 on February 16, organized by the “Peace Coalition” led by Yossi Beilin of Labor, Yossi Sarid of Meretz and Peace Now, only one speaker expressed respect for the conscientious objectors: MK Roman Bronfman from Democratic Choice, a splinter group of Natan Sharansky’s Israel Bealia. Bronfman’s words were heartily cheered by the rank-and-file activists in the demonstration, while Meretz, led by Sarid, appeared as a conservative party, more committed to the military establishment than to the struggle against the occupation.

Why No Army Response?

For his part, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz sharply criticized the refuseniks, defaming them as destructive of Israeli security. But the general staff, despite discussing the objectors’ letter several times, has yet to reach a definite conclusion on how to deal with them. This hesitant reaction may signal disagreements within the IDF command over the conduct and goals of the occupation. Mofaz represents the hard-right wing of the army; other generals feel quiet moral qualms about IDF treatment of Palestinian civilians. These generals prefer not to confront the refuseniks openly, but to endeavor to convince them privately that their tactics are wrong.

An echo of these internal IDF differences sounded in an exchange between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer. Ben Eliezer argued that the army should give the objectors “a stage to express themselves.” Sharon retorted that they don’t deserve a stage, and that they are a “national weakness” which indirectly instigates Palestinian “terror.” But it does appear that core elements within the security establishment take the conscientious objectors’ claims very seriously, and even partially agree with them.

Explaining the Impact

The letter of the 53 combat soldiers is not the first act of conscientious objection in the last 17 months. During this period 25 reservists and 8 regular soldiers were sentenced to prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, and 10 refused to be drafted. According to Yesh Gvul records there are also close to 400 “gray refuseniks”—soldiers who have refused service but were not sent to jail. Yesh Gvul and another organization, New Profile, have been active supporters of conscientious objection, and a group of 80 secondary school students, expected to be drafted next year, have signed a petition avowing that they too will not serve in the Territories. The question is why the 53 reservist soldiers have made such a deep impact upon Israeli public debate.

The first reason is precisely that these soldiers, as part of the core reservist combat forces, have already served in the Occupied Territories during the second intifada. They concluded that they must refuse further service only after witnessing, with their own eyes, crimes committed by the military and the absolute lack of political (or military) logic to the occupation. They were especially shocked by the cruel treatment of unarmed Palestinian civilians by friends in their units, and by the absurdity and impossibility of protecting a few isolated settlements in the midst of a hostile Palestinian population. They began to understand the Palestinians’ frustrations and motivations to fight.

The second reason is the overall political context. After 16 months of widespread consensus, Israeli public opinion has begun to change. On December 3, 2001 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was besieged in his Ramallah headquarters, symbolizing the situation of the Palestinian people under occupation. Arafat declared a ceasefire on December 16 that was accepted by the armed units of Fatah and later also by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The ceasefire was not complete, but the general feeling among Israelis was marked relief. This feeling was broken by the IDF’s demolition of more than 50 Palestinian houses in Rafah on January 10 and the “targeted killing” of Ra’id Karmi, a Fatah leader in Tulkarm, on January 14. These two acts were followed by three Palestinian suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 Israeli citizens. Though hundreds of Palestinian homes have been demolished and tens of militants killed since late September 2000, the events in January 2002 shocked Israeli public opinion. For the first time it seemed clear to many Israelis that Israeli policies which humiliated, hurt and killed Palestinians were producing Palestinian counterattacks.

A New-Old Voice

The third reason is the challenge to the dominant discourse presented by the new voice expressed by the soldiers, the voice of conscience. The voice’s intensity and growth potential stem from its clarity and unambiguousness. You cannot tell the voice of conscience that “we” want peace but “they” don’t, because daily abuse of the Palestinians and the provocation of the “targeted killings” are clear for all to see. In terms of conscience, arguing that Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David in July 2000 does not justify war crimes committed by Israeli occupation forces. It may now be harder to recruit soldiers with the militaristic argument that “we must win this war,” because the refuseniks have said that occupation is not a war forced upon Israel. Winning this “war” means maintaining the occupation.

The new voice of conscience finds echoes in the Jewish and humanistic tradition on which most Israelis were brought up, and this is the dormant voice now awakening. This new-old voice may be powerful enough to tear down the protective wall of blind militarism that demands national unity, and create an atmosphere for negotiations and coexistence. It is the voice of new hope.

How to cite this article:

Lev Grinberg "In Israel, A New-Old Voice of Conscience Awakens," Middle East Report Online, February 22, 2002.

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