IDF Refuseniks

Among the more than 60,000 people demonstrating for peace May 11 in Tel-Aviv, was a 44-year-old Israeli who has served two jail terms for refusing to do military service in the occupied territories.

It was Yuval Lotam’s first time in many years at a rally. "I always mean to go, but somehow I never get moving in time," he said sheepishly.

Lotam melted into the crowd of demonstrators. As a young soldier, he served three years as a paratroop officer. Then he experienced an about face of conscience, and for the last 20 years has refused reserve duty in the land occupied by his country.

Sometimes, his refusal resulted in transfer from unit to unit. The army "just didn’t know what to do with an officer like me," he said. But in 1993, and again in ’97, he was sentenced to 30 days in a military prison.

Although loosely associated with a movement called Yesh Gvul, the modest, soft-spoken Lotam is essentially a loner. "I am probably the most selfish refusenik ever," he claimed. "The only reason I do it is for myself, so I can bear to look in the mirror."

Lotam is much more loquacious on the subject of friendships with Palestinians, which evolved from his actions. In 1997, Lotam’s imprisonment stemmed from his refusal to perform guard duty at a prison housing administrative detainees. In a continuation of British policy from the Mandate, Israel holds security suspects in detention for renewable intervals of up to six months without bringing specific charges against them.

Immad Sabi, a Palestinian administrative detainee at the prison Lotam refused to guard, saw a small newspaper notice reporting Lotam’s imprisonment and wrote him an open letter. Sabi’s letter, eventually published in The New York Times, touched off a friendship between the two men. Now a graduate student living in Holland, Sabi has hosted Lotam at his home several times.

After his release in ’97, Lotam helped initiate a program of personal correspondence between Israelis and administrative detainees. He is still in contact with several.

On May 11, standing near a stark granite slab, which marks the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 at a peace rally, Lotam listened to the speakers.

Ala Shainskaya, a scientist who immigrated from the former Soviet Union 12 years ago, hesitated when invited to speak — until people asked her if she wasn’t afraid participation might jeopardize her job at a prestigious scientific institute. "That decided me," she said in heavily accented Hebrew.

"I came here from a totalitarian regime," she pointed out. "I refuse to let this happen to our democratic country." To Shainskaya, the emphasis on "togetherness" at any price may engender suppression of dissent. "What does ‘togetherness’ mean?" she asked. "That we all must think alike and march alike like robots?"

Similar thoughts 20 years ago motivated Lotam to begin his selective refusal of duty. This year, 450 Israeli army officers have engaged in a similar action by singing a public petition, bringing the number refusing to serve in the territories to over 1,000. Eighty-five have been imprisoned this year.

David Damelin was student called up for reserves this spring. The 28-year-old philosophy major was a regular at peace demonstrations, but when his activist mother urged him to sign the officers’ petition, he declined.

Damelin reported for duty and was killed in a Palestinian attack on an army checkpoint. Exactly 60 days after his death, Damelin’s mother somberly addressed the rally, saying: "The suffering of Palestinian mothers and Israeli mothers is the same. Put yourselves in the other’s place."

On her son’s fresh gravestone are carved the words of poet Kahlil Gibran: "All the earth is his birthplace, and all mankind his brothers."

Lotam listened, nodding. He left the rally as anonymously as he had come. "I’m no kind of hero," he insisted.