Refuseniks in the Ranks

The “officers’ letter” came out on Jan. 25 in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper — 52 reserve army officers declared that they would not serve in the West Bank or Gaza for moral and political reasons.

They detailed acts of brutality — refusing to allow pregnant woman to pass through barricades to go to hospitals, blowing up houses of civilians, shooting at civilians, including children, who posed no threat to their lives. Beyond the individual incidents of brutality, the officers argued that the occupation was inherently brutal and unjust, and catastrophic not only to Palestinians, but to Israelis and their country.

The army derided the “refusenik” officers as “marginal.” But within 10 days, the number of soldiers signing the letter more than tripled.

Meanwhile, the army launched a counteroffensive, pledging to remove all officers who signed the letter from their command. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz raised the suspicion that the letter was organized and financed by left-wing political groups, adding that if this was true, the letter would amount to “incitement to rebellion.”

Yaniv Itzkovich and David Zonshein, two reserve soldiers who are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were suspended by the Israeli army after organizing the advertising campaign.

A group of anti-refusenik officers, calling themselves “Privilege to Serve,” got up 500 signatures in favor of service in the territories, regardless of one’s political opinion, in a couple of days.

The refusenik movement is definitely a minority phenomenon among Israel’s reserve soldiers. But it is not “marginal” as the army would have it. Beyond the 170 or so officers who have signed the letter, another nearly 400 consulted with Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit), Israel’s veteran refusenik movement, about their intention to refuse to serve in the territories, said Yesh Gvul spokesman Peretz Kidron.

Since the intifada began, 46 soldiers have gone to jail rather than serve — either in the territories or in the army altogether, said Sergey Sandler, a pacifist of the anti-military group New Profile, who served two month-long jail terms rather than join the army.

Of some 20 reserve soldiers who’ve served in the territories who were interviewed at Tel Aviv University, opposition to the refuseniks ran about 2-1. “With all my misgivings, the next time I get called to serve in the territories, I’ll go. Even though I disagree with the government’s policy — it’s not leading anywhere — this is still a democracy, and sometimes I have to do things that aren’t to my liking. I don’t like paying taxes either, but I pay them,” said “A.”

But “B,” who served near Bethlehem last year, said he isn’t sure if he’ll answer the call next time. While he didn’t witness the beatings and needless shootings noted in the Yediot article, he said the “occupation is inherently brutal,” telling of how his unit made daily life difficult for a Palestinian farmer because his orchard was near the handful of settlers’ mobile homes “B.”‘s platoon was sent to guard. “I have a moral problem with risking my life for something that I not only don’t believe in, but which I am morally opposed to,” he said.

A number of soldiers — it’s impossible to gauge exactly how many — engage in “gray” refusal to serve in the territories. They get medical deferments, or mental-health deferments, or arrange to be out of the country at the time of their call-up, when the real reason behind their deferment is determination not to serve in the West Bank or Gaza.

“I got out of going to Gaza last June by going to the doctor, telling him I had a heart problem, and in five minutes he gave me a deferment,” says “C.” Now he is trying to get out of the army altogether — again for bogus health reasons. The real reason, he says, is “I don’t want to shoot anybody, I don’t want to beat anybody, and I don’t want to oppress anybody.”

“But officers are given their stripes to make sure that their soldiers act the way they’re supposed to act. If they see acts of brutality being committed, they’re supposed to stop them, and if they don’t, they’re to blame,” said “D,” commander of an elite platoon.

Nearly every soldier who opposed the refuseniks said they knew of no soldiers in their unit who ducked service in the territories.

Conversely, nearly every soldier who identified with the refuseniks said they knew other, like-minded soldiers in their platoon.

Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief army psychologist, now director of the Carmel Institute for Social Studies, says the refusenik movement is bound to grow. “Without any question, there will be more refusniks, more letters, more protests until you see 250,000 people in Kikar Rabin,” he said.

Many reservists have grown dispirited because the war is dragging on; it is directed mainly against civilians, with the destruction of houses and killing of civilians being key elements of the fight; and because there is no move for a political solution to the conflict.

Now comes the refusenik movement to give dramatic expression and direction to that discontent, and Gal believes it is going to force the government towards ending the war. Every interminable Israeli war — from the War of Attrition with Egypt, to the first intifada, to the Lebanon War — led to extreme public discontent, which bore protest movements, which led to peace agreements. “This story has a foregone conclusion,” he said.

It began with 52 army reserve officers who said “no.”