Refusal to Serve: An Israeli Phenomenon and its Implications
The call by IDF officers and soldiers in January 2002 to refuse to fight beyond the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border, for the purpose of dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people (the Palestinians) was signed by a total of 52 reservists. At the time of writing (October 2002) the number of signatories to this call, named "Courage to Refuse", is about 500. The whole "refusal community" which includes all those Israelis who have refused military service for whatever reason since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, numbers about 1,000. One hundred and seventy refuseniks have been imprisoned, some more than once. Similar numbers were jailed during the Lebanon War and the first Intifada.

In looking at the history of the refusal movement and the motivations behind it, the most important question of all is - what affect have "refuseniks" had on the Israeli political discourse? Apart from satisfying their own consciences, have they succeeded in challenging the protracted domination of Israeli society by the military and its values?

It is significant that in their original call under the heading "There is a Choice", the 52 stress that while they oppose the perpetuation of our domination over the Palestinian people, 'they have been brought up on Zionism, self-sacrifice and contribution to the Israeli people and the State of Israel' always 'serving in the front line and having always been the first to carry out any mission' in defense of Israel. Their protest appears, then, to be more moral than purely political or ideological. In this they differ from the older Yesh Gvul movement (the Hebrew means both "There is a limit" and "There is a border") that arose in 1982 in protest against the Lebanon War.

This outspoken, political anti-war movement rejected the views of the larger mainstream Peace Now, which had been founded in 1978 and, while opposing the war, supported, and still supports, continuing to serve in the IDF so as to obey the law and "influence from within".

Selective Service

However, a common denominator between the refuseniks of 2002, who strive to avoid marginality in Israeli society, and the radical Yesh Gvul, is their adherence to the principle of selective service. This is not the classical pacifist refusal to take up arms in all circumstances, but the refusal to serve in particular cases like the Lebanon War and the occupation. In the Israeli reality it is understandable that, while there are some conscientious objectors, selective service has a wider appeal. Though formally it is claimed that refusal is "illegal", a judgment in the 1956 Kafr Qasem case indicates otherwise: on the eve of the Sinai Campaign, soldiers killed 49 Arab farmers who, on returning from their fields, broke a curfew of which they were unaware. The judgment held that an order issued "under the black flag of illegality ... suspends the soldier's duty to obey and charges him with criminal responsibility for his actions". It is this black flag that the refuseniks believe has been hoisted by the Israelis over the Occupied Territories, resulting in what they see as the "corruption of the entire Israeli society". Thus in a message for the Jewish New Year to members and supporters at home and abroad in September 2002, Courage to Refuse declared that in the past year, "we stood up and said 'no more'. We will not participate in these actions that are against our conscience and against all the values we believe in. For the love of Israel we will not serve in the Occupied Territories and support the moral deterioration of our country".

Since the establishment of Israel, the IDF has enjoyed a unique status in the public eye as a sort of holy cow. This is both because of the priority of security in the life of the country and because as a people's army largely maintained by reserve soldiers, for years the IDF appeared in a sense to embody the whole people. True, its prestige has been eroded over the years, especially since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Yet the Israeli political system is still, to a disproportionate extent, dominated by those who serve or served in the military establishment. Four of the last five prime ministers came from the army or the security sector. The sensitive security situation and a high degree of military hegemony over civilian life does not provide an encouraging environment for a movement opposing IDF service.

A Fleeting Episode?

Now, as in the Lebanon War, the numbers of refuseniks are probably greater than the official figures because the IDF is not interested in filling the jails with them. While they are all first invited to a discussion with their commanding officers and warned that they will be removed from their posts, some soldiers, be they high ranking officers or sergeant-majors, may be quietly redirected, as long as they keep their views to themselves, to tasks they can accept.

Those who are not ready to compromise are imprisoned and there are already examples of soldiers, mainly reservists, who are serving their fourth sentence of a month in a military prison. They are sentenced not in military tribunals (where they could at least argue their case) but in disciplinary hearings. They come from Courage to Serve, Yesh Gvul and other organizations, or are unaffiliated; some are conscientious objectors who must appear before an IDF "conscience committee", Israel and Ecuador being the only countries in the world where a military, rather than a civilian, body deals with such cases and under a ruling from the 1980s, selective refusal is not seen as valid conscientious objection; however, a lawyer defending one of the original signatories of the refusal letter said that for his client, "an order to serve in the territories is like ordering a religious person to eat non-kosher food."

Public interest was aroused by the refusal of three reserve Air Force pilots to bomb non-military targets in Lebanon and to reject unthinking compliance with orders for indiscriminating bombing. The Air Force Commander, Dan Halutz, was strongly criticized for responding that "he had no qualms, military or moral, over the deaths of civilians as a result of an assassination operation, that he slept well at night and the only thing he feels when he releases a bomb is a slight jarring of the airplane" (Ha'aretz 27.9.02).

Yet apart from particularly "newsworthy" events like the original 'Courage to Refuse' call and appeals to the High Court of Justice, the media tends to ignore the refusal movement. In what has been called "a conspiracy of silence", the chairman of the popular TV Channel Two ordered reduced coverage of the movement so as "not to inflate a phenomenon which is a fleeting episode and a marginal manifestation".

History's Verdict

Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that in spite of everything, the movement exerts a wider influence than the Establishment likes to admit. In two public opinion polls taken in February 2000, 20-23 percent supported the refuseniks outright while an even larger percentage disagreed with them but backed their right to act as they did. It was only following their accusations against military misconduct that the judge advocate saw fit to publish a series of orders on norms of behavior that were meant to obligate soldiers in the occupation army.

It is noteworthy that many of the personalities supporting refusal, and their reasoning, break new ground since they had no previous association with the peace camp. Take for example Israel's attorney general from 1993 to 1996, Michael Ben-Yair, who wrote that, "since 1967 we have become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories ...the Intifada is the Palestinian people's war of liberation and no nation is prepared to live under another's domination." He associates the occupation regime with, "the killing of little children fleeing for safety; the executions, without trial, of wanted persons ... and the encirclements, closures and roadblocks that turned the lives of millions into a nightmare." He sees refusal to serve as, "an act of conscience that is justified and recognized in every democratic regime. History's verdict will be that refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone" (Ha'aretz 3.3.02). These are startling views coming from a former senior official who was always considered a pillar of the establishment.

Another significant comment expressing sympathy for the concept of refusal was made on television by Ami Ayalon, a former head of both the Israeli Navy and Israeli Intelligence. Ayalon said that soldiers should not obey orders that are "blatantly illegal". He added that, "as far as I am concerned, too few soldiers are refusing such orders. For example, an order to shoot an unarmed youth is a blatantly illegal order. I am very worried by the number of Palestinian children shot in the past year." Such comments are not usual on TV, but they take on special significance when made by such a respected ex-soldier on his own initiative. These examples merely purport to show that if the IDF thought, as people like former chief of staff and now Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz intimated, that the refusal phenomenon was a passing phase involving only marginal leftist elements, they misread the situation.

The refusal letter also caused some disarray in the dovish opposition Meretz party. Like Peace Now, MK Yossi Sarid, the official leader of the opposition, has always opposed refusal. A number of Meretz MKs challenged the party line and expressed sympathy with the refuseniks: the leader of the Knesset faction MK Zehava Gal-on even paid a solidarity visit to the prison where some signatories were serving time. It is important to note that Shulamit Aloni, a veteran human rights activist who enjoys universal respect, also supported the refusal letter. Prominent peace activist Uri Avnery of the Peace Bloc came out in support of the refuseniks and he was backed by a coalition of smaller radical groups like the women's peace movement, Bat Shalom.

Voice of a Singer

Yet the impact of the refusal letter upon public opinion was best shown, unexpectedly, neither by politicians, demonstrators, generals, journalists, or academics, but by a singer, 76-year-old Yaffa Yarkoni. Known to all Israelis as "the singer of Israel's wars" because since the 1948 War of Independence she has been appearing before the troops with songs expressing patriotism, love of the homeland and nostalgia. This year, as every year, she was scheduled to broadcast a message on the eve of Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers. An Israel Prize laureate, she was expected to pay a tribute to "our wonderful soldiers", then play one of her famous songs, such as, "Have faith, the day will come".

But this time Yaffa Yarkoni broke ranks. She told Army Radio; "I justify anyone refusing today to serve in the territories after what is being done there. My son-in-law is among the refuseniks. This is their opinion and it is their right to do what their conscience tells them to do." She said that all the territories conquered in 1967 should be returned to the Palestinians in return for peace. Recalling past wars to secure our existence, she asked - what are we fighting for today, for territory? "We have again reached a situation where the whole world is against us. We are a people who went through the Holocaust. How are we capable of doing such things: when I saw young (Palestinian) men being led away with hands tied behind their backs, I said this is like what was done to us and to our children in the Holocaust". She was particularly upset at seeing soldiers inscribing numbers on the arms of Palestinian suspects. Earlier in the interview she said that if the position doesn't improve, she would recommend to her grandchildren to leave the country. "Why should they suffer? Why should they go through what we went through?"

The headline in the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot read, "Yaffa Yarkoni: scenes from the territories look like the Holocaust"; Amnon Dankner, editor of Ma'ariv, wrote that Yaffa Yarkoni, "has joined the new anti-Semites in Europe"; a professor of chemistry called her "a Holocaust denier". With the cancellation of her scheduled performances in various parts of the county, the powerful Union of Performing Artists (EMI) canceled a planned gala concert in Jaffa celebrating her 50-year career and 1,000 recordings. The boycott was strongly attacked by the Minister of Science, Culture and Sport, Matan Vilnai, who disagreed with her views but demanded "an end to the devils' dance against Yaffa Yarkoni". In an article called "Banning songs, burning books", Tallie Lipkin-Shahak wrote in The Jerusalem Post that, "McCarthyism is expanding and we are going out of our minds. How else can you explain the furious reactions to any expressions of a different opinion, any word of criticism against the government's policy and the IDF's operations? It is like burning books" (26.4.02).

Desmond Tutu's Comparison

The protestors were, of course, in the minority and the last two years have witnessed an atmosphere of growing intolerance toward dissenting views, and stronger measures against freedom of speech, justified by the needs of the fight against terror. A telling example of this is the campaign for legislation aimed at silencing Arab Knesset members. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, most Israelis still believe that Prime Minister Sharon's policies are dictated by the country's predominant security needs. Detailed reports of wholesale denial of human rights and horrific IDF policies in the Occupied Territories published regularly by organizations like B'Tselem don't change the picture.

Sometimes, for example over Sabra and Shatila, people abroad see things in a different and clearer perspective than those at home. Thus in an article called; "Build moral pressure to end the occupation" (International Herald Tribune, 14.6.02), Nobel Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of; "the relevance of the South African experience to the current (Middle East) conflict. In a region where repressive governments and unjust policies are the norm, Israel is certainly more democratic that most of its neighbors. This does not make dismantling the settlements any less of a priority". Tutu goes on to say that, "the growing Israeli refusenik movement evokes the small anti-conscription drive which helped to turn the tide in South Africa. Several hundred decorated Israeli officers have refused to perform military service in the Occupied Territories. If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined".

The Occupation is Illegal

This is a more hopeful perspective than dissenting Israelis usually permit themselves. Eight IDF combat officers and soldiers have petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice to recognize their refusal to serve in the territories as legal because in the last two years "it is the Israeli occupation and IDF activities which are illegal". Whereas the state accuses the refuseniks of "civil rebellion", the petition refers to the occupation as "a system which consists entirely of collective punishment of a civilian population that today numbers over three million ... the State of Israel and the IDF have in recent years entirely absolved themselves of their duty according to international (and Israeli) law." The petition speaks of war crimes such as targeted assassinations where dozens of innocent passersby have been killed, the destruction of homes and orchards, abuse at checkpoints, and economic ruin and unemployment resulting from curfews and closures. "Illegality has come to dominate all the strata of military activity in the Occupied Territories and makes the occupation as a whole illegal."

One can hardly expect that Israel's highest judicial body will declare the occupation, and the whole range of IDF activities which enforce it, to be illegal. Yet whatever the outcome of the petition, the refusal movement has succeeded in placing these life and death questions firmly on the national agenda. In the coming period they will become increasingly decisive in shaping Israeli policies in the conflict, and in determining the whole Israeli future. Forcing Israel to face this predicament is perhaps the primary significance of the refusal movement.