By It is said that in the first few years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, no one seriously thought of holding on to these territories forever. It was at the time widely assumed, that these newly conquered lands were to be handed back to the Arabs as part of a peace agreement. I don’t remember those days.
I was raised in a different Israel. In my Israel the small fundamentalist group of Jewish settlers has always enjoyed more political power than their relative share in the Israeli population. In my Israel both left-wing and right-wing governments enabled the colonialisation of these occupied Palestinian lands. My Israel paid, and is still paying, a heavy moral price for ruling another nation by the force of the sword. My Israel, built on the founding values of humanism, pluralism and democracy is being lost.
Three months ago an unprecedented petition by reserve soldiers was published in the Israeli press. The signatories declared their intention to refuse to serve the Israeli occupation and disobey any order to go, as soldiers, beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines. The number of signatories (known as ‘seruvniks’ for the Hebrew word ‘seruv’ – refusal) has increased rapidly from 50 in the first petition to 462 as of today. Though refusal in Israel was not uncommon, the scale of this petition is a novelty. Most of the signatories are hardened combat officers and soldiers, and all of them served many years in the occupied territories. Since the launch of the petition, about forty of those who have endorsed the petition have been sent to military prisons as a result of their refusal.
Almost all of the 462 who have signed, among them myself, are between twenty-five and thirty-five years old. None of us can remember a non-occupying Israel. Each and every signatory of the petition has individually reached the decision to spurn the state’s demand that they will employ immoral and inhumane means of control over civilian population. And yet, I was amazed to discover how similar our stories are. How identical our personal transitions from being “good” and obedient soldiers to what our Attorney General described as “dangerous outlaws” have been.
As the legal adviser to many seruvniks – and someone who was incarcerated for three weeks for refusing to serve in the Hebron area a few years ago – I have had the privilege of escorting many of my fellow signatories from receipt of their call up papers, through the trial and, finally, visiting them in prison. Given their biographies, the act of refusal was by no means a natural decision. Rather, it was rather the product of a personal crisis, born out of moral agonies and a sense of deep concern for our country’s future.
One might expect to hear horrifying stories of atrocities that the objectors witnessed before making their decision to no longer take part in the system. The truth of the matter is that most of the conscientious objectors reached their decision simply from experiencing “everyday” life in the occupied territories.
The occupation corrupted Israeli culture, it eroded our code of ethics, and it even contaminated the Hebrew language. In the name of the fight against the murderous and unforgivable terror that struck Israeli cities and towns, we grew accustomed to manning check-points in which thousands of Palestinians are being detained for hours and humiliated by young soldiers. We grew accustomed to pointing our rifles at children and women. We became tolerant to large-scale demolition of houses (‘surface uncovering’ in military jargon). Finally, we accepted a state-sponsored policy of assassinations, neatly labelled by Israeli spokesmen as “focused prevention”. We learned how to distinguish between roads for settlers (Jews) and roads for ‘locals’ (Palestinians), and we were asked to implement discriminatory laws for the sake of the illegal settlements that have trapped our country in an endless messianic war. A war which the vast majority of Israelis never wanted.
As soldiers who witnessed, first-hand, the corrosive effect of the occupation on ordinary Israelis and Palestinians we could no longer bear its destructive implications for what we were raised to believe were Israeli values – respect for human life and dignity. The occupation chiselled out unequal relations between Palestinians and Israelis. It planted in many a seed of racism against Arabs.
Under such circumstances, hundreds of officers and soldiers who were always in the forefront of IDF’s most prestigious units, who were used to risking their lives for the security of the State of Israel, began questioning both the morality of our presence in the occupied territories and the myth of its necessity. People who have no legal background grew to acknowledge that the command that sends them beyond the borders of democracy to rule another people inherently produces systematic human rights abuses and is therefore neither democratic nor legal.
Entering a village and arresting every male above the age of 14 for up to 18 days, as was done in the recent incursion to the West Bank, is inhuman, even if the mission is to find terrorists. Stopping an ambulance that carries a sick man or a pregnant woman is immoral even if you suspect that it also carries hidden weapons. And that is the tragedy of serving in the occupied territories: one cannot go there without detaining suspected ambulances and treating children in a manner that results in more hatred. The soldiers are placed in an impossible situation, coerced by the occupation’s reality to act immorally.
As a lawyer I am allowed to visit these prisoners of conscience. Some arrive in prison filled with pride. Others are shocked by their own deed, and try to explain themselves to their families and friends in long telephone conversations. In prison, most of them discover how angry they are. Angry at the settlers that tangled us in a never-ending war. Indignant at the governments of Israel that enabled them to do so. Vexed at the Israeli Defence Force, which arrogantly took for granted that we would carry out any order.
The seruvniks come from the backbone of Israeli society. They were always seen by themselves and by others, as Israelis from the mainstream of our civic life. “I took seriously the values I was brought up on in this country”, they tell me. We must now ask ourselves whether this was always simply rhetoric, or whether Israel has fundamentally changed. As seruvniks, we have chosen to speak out. To silence our voice would be to marginalise further the basic values upon which our country was founded.
Michael Sfard is a lawyer practising human rights and criminal law in Tel-Aviv. You can read the seruvniks’ petition – Courage to refuse – here http://www.seruv.org.il/defaulteng.asp, and you can write to the author of this piece at [email protected]