Articles Mast

From Draft NOtices, May-June 2002

Israeli Refuseniks Raise a Powerful Dissenting Voice

- Marion Morgan

In recent months, a growing number of Israeli soldiers dubbed "refuseniks" are refusing to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories. As the violence in the current Intifada has escalated, more young men are stating their opposition to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem by refusing to carry out their compulsory military service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in these areas. And while pundits on both sides argue about whether their actions represent the heroic stance of conscientious objectors or a dangerous aberration that cannot be tolerated, the significance of their resistance -- and the attention it is garnering -- cannot be denied.

The movement's growth was marked by an announcement published in Israeli newspapers on 25 January. Signed by 52 reserve soldiers and officers, the notice stated that the IDF's current military maneuvers had more to do with bullying the Palestinians than protecting Israeli security. The signers stressed that they were not pacifists and were willing to serve IDF to defend the state of Israel, but "not in the task of oppression and occupation of the Palestinians." As of early May, the number of signers to the refuseniks' petition of Ohmets Lesarev ("Courage to Refuse") had grown to 447, while total refuseniks are now over 1,000. The petition reads in part:

We, combat officers and soldiers who have served the State of Israel for long weeks every year, in spite of the dear cost to our personal lives, 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;

We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the Territories, destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;

We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of IDF's human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society;

We, who know that the Territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;

We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.

We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.

We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces 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.

An ad published by the refuseniks in Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in early April continued this theme. "The mobilization of reservists for a new reoccupation of the territories is not an operation destined to defend the interests and borders of Israel, and we won't take part," the ad said. "The Israeli government has unleashed a destructive operation whose magnitude and consequences are difficult to estimate. It's a fool's war conducted by an administration that prefers to bury its head in the sand and drag the Israeli army through the mud of the territories."

With the IDF comprising more than 200,000 troops and reservists, many sneer at the refuseniks as politically insignificant. Yet the importance of their actions is clearly greater than their small numbers suggest. As Israeli peace group Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit!") notes, "Refuseniks do not evade the consequences of their challenge to legal authority: defiance of the military hierarchy is overt and direct, accepting the painful personal consequences. Their willingness to pay the price imbues the refuseniks' protest with a moral and political effect out of all proportion to their number." Similar actions by past refuseniks led directly to the IDF army command's decision to call off the 1982-84 Lebanon war, and refusals to serve during the first Intifada "helped convince Israeli leaders they could not crush the Palestinian uprising by military means, leading to recognition of the PLO and ushering in attempts at a political solution."

Political leaders are also clearly aware of the potential disruption resulting from such a movement. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon noted that soldiers' refusal to carry out the decisions of an elected government signaled "the beginning of the end of democracy," and the army's chief of staff Shaul Mofaz promised disciplinary action against any who refused to serve.

Some view the refuseniks' movement as part of a larger erosion of Israeli military morale. IDF statistics show that 22% of all Israeli males eligible for the draft now request exemptions, up from 12% 20 years ago. Even greater attrition exists within the reserves, with only a third of men eligible for reserve duty actually completing it. Moreover, during the first six months of the current Intifada, the number of reservists asking for deferments doubled. Though it is impossible to ascertain why most of these so-called "gray refuseniks" are actually avoiding service, anti-occupation supporters believe it is at least partly due to tacit rejection of current Israeli policy.

While the IDF is generally considered fairly lenient with conscientious objectors, many of the refuseniks have been jailed or otherwise penalized for their decision not to serve. Prison sentences for soldiers average 30 days, with officers facing suspensions and investigations as well. Awareness of such penalties -- as well as potential ostracism and criticism from their families and peers -- is reflected in the statements of those who have signed, making it clear they have not made their decision lightly.

According to various online sources, the movement and its proponents are slowly growing, despite some media reports to the contrary. Weekly rallies outside the northern Israel military prison where refuseniks are being held are regularly joined by relatives and other supporters of those imprisoned. An Israeli radio poll conducted in February showed that 31% of Israelis supported the initial group of refuseniks.

Various American support groups have also rallied behind the refuseniks. For example, a Chicago-based campaign called Courage to Refuse -- sponsored by Jewish peace group Not In My Name -- has gained 638 signers to its online petition as of 3 May, and has raised thousands of dollars in support of the refuseniks' efforts. Accessible at, the group is sponsoring tours of refuseniks throughout the United States to tell their stories along with other activities designed to "build support for and visibility of the growing ranks of courageous Israeli military refusers."

Additional information on the refusenik movement and how to support it can be found at,,, and

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


About Us - Articles - Draft NOtices - Youth - Militarism - Publications - Products - Links - Contact - Home