The Israeli Refuseniks

At 21, Matan and Adam display amazing confidence, clarity and courage. I frequently come across these qualities in developing world activists, but less so among those of us who grew up in the west. There again, after 2 years in an Israeli jail Matan Kaminer and Adam Maor, along with Shimri Tzameret, Hagai Matar and Noam Behat are possibly the most famous representatives of one of the most famous protest movements of the last few years.

While in High School they formed a group of 62 students who signed the ‘High School Senior Letter’, refusing to serve in the military occupation of Palestine. Refusal has a proud history in Israel, stretching back to the 70s when a few refused to serve in the territories, and to the war in Lebanon, and though the High School refuseniks come from a wide range of standpoints, the signatories were held together by the belief that the occupation is ethically and politically bankrupt. Their ranks rapidly swelled to 400.

From a progressive family Adam explained in his court testimony that he made his decision while watching his 1 year old brother while “In the background the Israeli television reported… Palestinian children throwing stones at monstrous Israeli tanks and being shot at in return… That night I realized that joining the army means robbing these children of whatever I was dreaming for my brother.”  

Some refuseniks only refuse to serve in the territories, but the group of 5 refused to serve in the Israeli army at all as long as the occupation continues. Matan explains that he went through initial military training, thinking he would find a way to serve without becoming dehumanised, or dehumanising others, “But with time, with the worsening of the oppression in the Territories.. I began to understand that my conscience would never make it possible for me to participate, even indirectly, in the work of occupation.”

Whatever their reasons, all of them made one brave decision – not to take the easy way out and claim medical or physiological dismissal. “It’s easy to do” explains Matan “you just grow some dreadlocks, walk in to your recruitment officer, and tell them ‘look man we’re not going to do each other any good’, and they release you. But that’s only about you, it doesn’t change things.”

“I do not think there is any serious person in the world who could claim, from a moral standpoint, that one should never refuse an order. It is obvious that there are orders so immoral that one should not fulfil them, regardless of their legality. The only question is: what are these orders? That is a question of conscience.”

What makes it possible, in a country where many young people fear the draft and oppose the occupation, for a few to stand up? Three of the group of 5 came from left-wing families, and Adam says, he couldn’t have done it without his parents. They formed the High School Draft Resistance Parents Forum. Through their website, they coordinate legal defence, fundraising and solidarity – nationally and internationally – with their children. Matan explains that one reason more people don’t refuse is family reaction – “I know many people opposed to the Occupation. They’ll tell you that they even go on demos to protest, but refusing to serve in the army is such a big thing that their parents would be completely unable to accept it”. 

The latest refusenik facing jail time is a woman, Laura Milo. Israel is the only country in the world that forces military draft on women, though traditionally it has been easier to be released from service. In response to calls of inequality, the government is changing this – rather than making it easier for men to be discharged, they’re making it more difficult for women. A committed social activist, Laura merely asked to be allowed to continue her community work in poor neighbourhoods instead of being sent to fight. As Laura says herself “It’s a simple request that should be acceptable. Why should I have to fake my way”.

Activists like Laura need our support. Matan reaffirmed the importance of simply receiving a letter, “Jail is an incredibly lonely place. Just to know that there are people hundreds of miles away who know about what you’ve done – it makes it bearable”,  

What of the future of the refusenik movement, and hopes for wider change in Israeli society? The High School group isn’t really operational anymore. Matan believes that sending 5 people to prison was a pretty smart move. “Just as many people, actually more, are still dropping out of the army, but in semi-legal ways now – psychological discharge and so forth”.

But that doesn’t mean it’s had no effect. Of course refusal at current rates will have no physical impact, but the psychological effect is different. “Everyone who knows a refusenik questions their own automatic response to joining the army”. In addition people have stopped cooperating more generally, for example giving information to the army. And a range of support groups have been set up  

And the impact is much wider. The disengagement process is heralded as a brave move by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon towards peace. Matan disagrees. Early in October, top Sharon aide Dov Weinglass called the disengagement plan an attempt to put the peace process, in so far as it existed, into “formaldehyde” and continued “when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.” Weinglass admitted that the plan was born from a sense of crisis, with a stagnant economy and the launch of the Geneva Accords, a Palestinian/ Israeli attempt to find peaceful agreement on contentious issues, outside of government control.

But it was the refuseniks who were the last straw. Weinglass said “These were not weird kids with green ponytails and a ring in their nose with a strong odour of grass. These were… really our finest young people,” Now there’s even a Refuser Support Network in the US, a vitally important audience given the fact that most people believe the Occupation could not be sustained without US backing. 

Matan and Adam remain relatively positive about Israel’s future. In opinion polls the Geneva Accords have received significant Israeli support. One poll published in Israel’s daily Haaretz showed 53% Israeli support (with 44% opposed) and 56% Palestinian support. They firmly believe in the desire of ordinary Israelis for peace, and an end to the occupation. But their media and politicians insist that peace is impossible, that the Palestinians are terrorists intent on the destruction of Israel. Palestinians from the Territories are rarely seen – indeed it is now illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian cities without permission. 

The problem, as in much of the world, is the lack of a unified and holistic opposition to the current government’s economic and military agenda. As elsewhere, the progressive domestic agenda is pushed out of sight by politicians stressing the need for sacrifices during the ‘war on terror’.

Last Autumn, Sharon’s government introduced a series of austerity measures in a country suffering its worst recession in since 1953. Matan explained that “there are Israeli’s who are now hungry for the first time”. Over 1 million Israelis – that’s one in five – now live below the poverty line, while 22% don’t get enough to eat. The intifada has seen unemployment rocket and growth measured in negative figures. Not that everyone is suffering – in mid 2003 the five largest banks in Israel announced their combined profits were 130% higher than the previous year. As Matan says “Israel went from being one of the most equal countries in the west, to one of the most unequal.” (figures taken from Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2003).

While protest movements of all kinds have sprouted, effective opposition is stunted by the conflict. Such a situation can take a fascistic, rather than progressive direction, and so our solidarity with movements like the refuseniks is vital. Boycotts, sanctions and arms embargoes are frequent calls of the Palestinian justice movement here. Matan believes that anything that works in bringing an end to the occupation is worthwhile, but it’s more likely to succeed if it isn’t anti-Israeli. “I can’t help feeling, when you see “Boycott Israel” that they’re talking about me, but “Boycott the occupation” is something I feel able to participate in too. Ultimately, you need to make clear that what you’re doing is in the interests of Israelis as well as Palestinians, even if it might not look like that in the short term.” 

Adam summed up the sentiments in his own court testimony: “Colonialism has always engendered protest, which has never stopped till the end of Occupation. Terror affects our lives in every possible domain and causes the deterioration of the Israeli society… I am watching the downfall of the state of Israel and I don’t want to contribute to this downfall. I will not take part in the creation of a place where my brother can get hurt every time he steps out of his home.”

Thank you to Just Peace UK and Jews for Justice for Palestinians ( for organising the refusenik tour in October 2004.
You can offer support – letters and money – to Laura Milo and the other refuseniks at:
War on Want’s Palestine campaign can be found at: or email [email protected] for postcards.


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