Resistance within

Print edition : July 06, 2002

By refusing to serve in the defence forces in the occupied territories, a group of Israeli refuseniks draws attention to the unjust occupation of Palestine.

IN mid-1996, a reserve sergeant in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Noam Leshem, received a letter from the Defence Ministry. After his six months of training, Leshem was now ordered to a base beyond the mountains north of Israel. The base was 12 km inside southern Lebanon, on a hill with 60 soldiers and two battle-tanks. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to strike back at guerillas strafing its northern communities with portable missiles. Leshem was a naval intelligence operative and his main task was to collect information on land and sea-based targets and guide naval fighter jets to bomb them. He exited his base for three reasons: for ambushes, patrols and to go home.

Every three weeks Leshem went home. He bore this routine for two years in Lebanon and in Israel until the end of his three-year conscription. One morning, counting two months on duty, from his post Leshem looked at the mountain range to the south, where his home, Israel, lay, and told a colleague: "Barry, we shouldn't be here."

Lt. David Zonshein (centre) with his lawyer and spokesman for Seruv, Amit Mashiach, outside the Israeli Supreme Court on June 17. The court had ordered the Israel Defence Forces to state why he cannot be allowed his right for a public court-martial.-VIKRAM SURA

Leshem was eighteen and a half years old when he developed doubts about his duties as a soldier in occupied Lebanon. Nearly every day, he explains, he had to hear the wild, flapping, noise of a homing Sagger anti-tank missile or a Katyusha rocket fired either at his base or into Israel's northern towns of Nahariyya and Qiryat Shmona. "Sometimes the firing happens from a house yard, then we bomb the house," he says. In the operations room of the football field-sized base, a big sign hung - Security to the North. "We were not doing that," says Leshem. "We weren't defending, we were creating conflict there."

Even so, Leshem finished his draft and continued to serve for 30 days every year in Israel and the occupied territories; this year, however, he decided he would no longer obey. In Israel, all able men 18 years old must serve three years in the Army, while women serve for two years in non-combat duties.

In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war the Israeli forces captured the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, Jordanian East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Along with the land Israel inherited nearly a million Palestinian Arab and Druze subjects. Israel administered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights with initially benign military governerates. It is citizen-soldiers like Noam Leshem who are the foot soldiers of the occupation.

Sitting in an eatery in midtown Jerusalem, Leshem explained why he joined forces with two reserve officers who wrote a letter refusing to serve in the occupied territories. In their words, they were unable to put up with commands that had nothing to do with the security of Israel.

The two-some, lieutenants David Zonshein and Yaniv Iczkovits, officers in the Gaza Strip, published the "combatant letter" in December in the Israeli daily, HaAretz. They wrote: "We... soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel... shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people..."

In six months, 468 reserve combat officers and soldiers signed the letter when the numbers plateaued. They coalesced under the banner "Seruv" - refusal, in Hebrew. The Israeli media gave them generous coverage. For three months the sarvanim - refuseniks - did not speak to the foreign press. By May, 68 of them were in military prison serving sentences from two weeks to a month. "It is not a movement anymore," noted a commentator. If the total number of reservists was 30,000, the refuseniks numbered 500.

Leshem knows this. "The wonderful celebrity part is over," he says. "I can understand the next guy who says that he cannot go to jail. The social price you have to pay is for most people too high. You have no salary for that month. It took me three years after I left the Army to sign a letter like this. "I wasn't as mature and open-eyed as I am today, unfortunately. A year after I went out, the whole Army withdrew. I felt bad, I felt bad because two friends died there, others were wounded. On the other hand, I forgive myself."

Israeli citizens do not have the right to refuse military duty in occupied land. So Leshem and others consider it a privilege. "It's a privilege I think. It enables me to take a stand publicly even though I'm doing something active against the occupation, something big, something important. Most of the left-wing people today feel very frustrated. I feel that frustration too. At least I don't have to feel guilty anymore serving the occupation."

ISRAELI society has been grappling with the effects of war ever since the state of Israel was established in 1948. The most prominent of such dialogues emerged in recent years with a group of historians, and journalists calling themselves the "new historians", who have challenged the explanations of the birth of Israel that blames the Arab nations of inciting war and the consequent flight of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs. After 1948, the Jewish state fought pre-emptive defensive and offensive wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. However, it was during the Lebanese war of 1982, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon that acts of Israeli military dissent emerged. Writes Howard M. Sachar in the authoritative A History of Israel:

"Colonel Eli Geva at thirty-two was the youngest brigade commander... It was his tank column that would lead any assault on West Beirut... Geva suddenly asked to relieve him of his brigade command and allow him to serve as a mere tank officer. Should orders be issued to lead his unit into the city, Geva explained, he could not as a 'matter of conscience' expose his troops and Beirut's civilian population to the heavy casualties that were sure to ensue." According to IDF statistics, through the course of the Lebanese war some 1,000 conscientious objectors were put to trial.

"We feel imprisonment as one of our moral strengths," says Leshem. "Going to prison is willingness to pay the price for what I believe in. I could go and get myself relieved of duty by psychological, mental and physical reasons... or acting crazy, and I'm not," he says. Indeed in Israel, according to the IDF, draft dodging had increased to 22 per cent from 12 per cent 20 years ago. Also, under Israeli law, Orthodox Jews are exempt from draft duty.

Says Leshem: "Israel does not accept conscientious objection, but it accepts religious objection. Religious young people do not have to serve in the army. But my refusal is not accepted by the law! But, it's still a democratic country. It doesn't make people sit years in prison just for refusing. It's still only a month in prison.

"The refusal is an instrument for us and people with a political conscience to come out with what we believe, and object to what the government is doing in the occupied territories - and to our country. The occupation is damaging Israel.

"These taxes that I'm paying the government are going to the settlers. They have tax reductions. That's not democratic, that's not moral. And for what? And should I go there in my reserve duty and defend these people that endanger me, that take my money?"

Leshem studies comparative literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and occasionally travels to Prague to teach and discuss Judaica with Jewish students. He refuses to force his ideas upon his younger brother who is soon due for military service.

When Leshem and seven of the refuseniks met with the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, they politely declined an offer that would have belittled the state of Israel in their eyes; the South African government was ready to pass a Parliament decision condemning the occupation and supporting the peace movement in Israel.

Leshem's tour of duty in the Gaza Strip begins in July. He has refused and he now waits to serve his sentence in military prison. Leshem's mild and calibrated manner of speaking, his pardons polishing off inadvertent rough edges, his acknowledgement of criticism that the refuseniks were taking Israel down with them yet not trying to impress an outsider with his version of events, despite the frustration he said he felt, projected an image at variance with the avant-garde rebel the refusenik has been characterised as.

The following day, a muggy Wednesday evening in a Tel Aviv University auditorium, the Seruv group gathered to mark a small victory. Forty faculty members from the university had signed a petition supporting the sarvanim who turned down duty in the territories during Operation Defensive Shield in April. When Israel's Minister for Education threatened action, 200 more professors and teachers from various universities joined in. In all 312 signatories, among whom was an Israel Prize winner, expressed support for the refuseniks. Their statement read:

"We, faculty members... wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories. Such service often involves carrying out orders that have no place in a democratic society founded on the sanctity of life..."

The Tel Aviv meeting, in addition, was to express solidarity for refusenik, Lt. David Zonshein. A decorated paratrooper with a chubby face and a dolphin's smile, 27-year-old Zonshein did more than just co-author the combatant letter. Instead of allowing his commander to try him, a disciplinary proceeding that would have resulted in a maximum 35-day prison sentence, Zonshein demanded a public court-martial. The demand took the IDF by surprise. This was the first time that a refusenik insisted on a court-martial. If the military judges found Zonshein guilty, he would spend three years in jail. The IDF declined his request.

As in India, where the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court shelters enforcement of fundamental rights, in Israel a similar provision exists. Zonshein took his appeal to the Supreme Court of Israel, demanding that a military court try him, in front of which he could explain his action of refusal. He even agreed to serve double time in Israel instead of in the territories. Now Zonshein was unwilling to stay in prison silently, said his lawyer.

The Tel Aviv gathering pepped up the refuseniks for the court hearing the following week.

"...We are here not to challenge the law," Lt. Yaniv Iczkovits, the co-author with Zonshein of the combatant letter, told the audience, "but to defend it. What we have here is fear. Most Israelis know that refuseniks are right. They know that refusal is the only sane force in the political market today.

"The whole occupation has become a non-story," said Lt. Ishai Rosen-Zvi, also a refusenik. Sporting a yarmulke, or 'skull-cap', at the lectern, he continued: "The biggest threat to refuseniks are not the right wing but the bourgeoisie ethicists. They define the rules of the game and it freezes the picture. It says don't exaggerate, stay a middleman. There was a time when closures (of Palestinian cities) were news. But how quickly we got used to that. How simple is the next operation going to be?"

First Sergeant Amit Mashiach, the spokesman for Seruv, who is a ten-year IDF veteran, said that the problem posed by settlers was uppermost in his thoughts. "You go there and realise what you are doing is not protecting home but the settlements," said Mashiach. "We put all our time and energy into the (West) Bank and the Gaza. Here in Israel we fall apart: economically, educationally. Israel, more than any other country in the world, cannot allow damage to its moral infrastructure. Zionism is about morality. It is unfortunate to have reached a situation where refusal actions are considered revolutionary.

"You also have to add the existential fear most members of Israeli society feel today... Fear to send your children to school, fear to go to the mall, fear to sit in a coffee place, fear to do anything... It almost takes over you... Most people feel that to do anything besides fighting the cause of their existential threat is a privilege. It's a privilege to talk about law, a privilege to talk about the future. Our act of refusal is the first thing we do to stop this circle of bloodshed."

Mashiach said that he was disappointed that the Palestinians have not responded to their actions. "No, unfortunately no. That would mean a lot. We could sit with them today. But they are in a far worse situation, so it's much more difficult for them."

In the sunlit chamber of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Monday, June 17, a sprightly assortment of Israeli and Western media persons elbowed one another to cover Zonshein's appeal. In anticipation of the judges' arrival the photojournalists especially choreographed Zonshein's parents to shift this way and that in the pews. As a three-judge bench led by a woman judge questioned the lawyers, David Zonshein's parents, admirers and the Seruv group watched silently. Zonshein, in olive green military uniform, stripped of decorations by Army rules, sat in the defender's box. For the refuseniks, the judges' announcement was a small victory. The Supreme Court had ordered the IDF to furnish reasons why Zonshein cannot be given his full right to a public court-martial.

Trial by court-martial could well focus unnecessary attention on the IDF. However, Zonshein might also be found guilty and sentenced to three years. Said Mashiach: "Putting him on trial is by definition trying the occupation."

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