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
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
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
We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the
loss of IDF's human character and the corruption of the entire
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 www.couragetorefuse.org, 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
Additional information on the refusenik movement and how to
support it can be found at www.yesh-gvul.org,
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org)