Israel’s Army of Peace

By Even the most stoic of Israelis are beginning to feel scared. The sight of a single family – father, mother and two daughters, one aged seven, the other a toddler – wiped out on a busy Jerusalem street has shocked those who thought they could be shocked no more.

Even the Israelis who live in a kind of internal exile – avoiding the news, listening only to music stations on the radio, steering clear of reality – were jolted by that Saturday bomb, aimed deliberately at a crowd of mothers, children and babies in pushchairs.

And the attacks have not let up. Yesterday saw another killing spree: a restaurant shooting in Tel Aviv, a suicide bus bombing in Afula, a drive-by attack in the West Bank and a mortar raid on Sderot – not a settlement, but a town inside Israel-proper.

At times like this, Israelis are not much in the mood for criticism. They feel desperate, the victims of a relentless war which makes targets of the most vulnerable: burger bars, buses and babies.

So now is not an easy time for Israel to be told of the errors of its ways; the wounds are too raw. It helps that any critics can be dismissed so easily. If they are Palestinian or Arab, they are enemies of the state. If they are outsiders they are, at best, meddling know-nothings or, at worst, anti-semites implacably hostile both to Jews and their aspiration to have a place of their own.

If they are Jews from outside Israel, they are “armchair” snipers, sounding off from the comfortable sidelines. The less charitable version says any Jewish critic of Israel is, simply, a self-hating Jew.

But now there is a group who cannot be dismissed. They are not outsiders, do not sit in armchairs and hate no one, least of all themselves or their country. They are Israeli soldiers – battle-scarred combat veterans including a number of senior officers – engaged on perhaps their toughest ever mission. They are the “refuseniks”, and their mission is peace.

It began with a newspaper ad, signed by 50 army reservists, declaring that when they were called up for their annual month of military service they would refuse to serve in the occupied territories. In the month that has passed, the ranks of Ometz Le-Sarev have swelled.

There are now 314 signatories to that original declaration, with 200 more refuseniks allied to a similar group: 500 recruits to Israel’s army of peace. Thanks to the central place of Israel’s conscript army in the nation’s life, they ooze credibility. Not only have they all worn the country’s uniform, but they are the men in their 20s and 30s the Israeli army regards as its new generation of commanders.

Nor are they fringe lefties outside the Israeli consensus: more than 10 of the early refuseniks wear the crocheted skullcaps that serve as the badge of religious Zionism. All are avowed patriots, who insist they are happy to do their regular reserve duty but who refuse to act as occupiers on the West Bank or in Gaza. They adamantly believe in a Jewish state – they just want no part in ruling over another people.

All that makes them impossible for their fellow Israelis to ignore. Opponents can throw none of the usual accusations. They know these men are not cowards: they have risked death before and their current stance exposes them to the prospect of at least a month in jail. Three are already behind bars.

Even their critics have to concede that these men are motivated by love of country. If they merely wanted to avoid the personal agony of a West Bank tour, they could fly abroad or develop a convenient health problem – both familiar techniques. Instead they are taking a stand in public and on principle. Lest anyone accuse them of providing succour to the country’s enemies, they refuse to give on-the-record interviews to the foreign media: it is Israel they want to persuade.

And so Israel has to listen. The refuseniks tell their personal stories, explaining why they can no longer serve in an occupation force, and no one can wave aside their testimony as anti-Israel propaganda. Uri Dotan of the Nahal Infantry Brigade wonders if his personal breaking point was “the pregnant woman that my soldier did not let through the roadblock in Hebron because her stomach was not big enough. She later gave birth to a stillborn child in the crooked paths she followed in order to skirt the checkpoint on her way to hospital”.

Noam Ziv, a paratrooper, tells of one night when he was sent in to Nablus to arrest a terror suspect. The man had a four-year-old boy at home and, realizing they could not leave the child alone, the soldiers took the boy along with his father. But “because the orders are to cover suspects’ heads with sacks, at dawn I found a four-year-old boy sitting in the detainees’ shack next to his handcuffed father, both of them with sacks on their heads. They didn’t hesitate to put a sack over the head of a four-year-old”.

No one can close their ears to this testimony, crying media bias or anti-Semitism. These are Israel’s soldiers speaking, in their own words. And so the refusal movement has had a seismic impact on Israeli society. It has dominated the comment pages and the phone-in shows. High-level backing has come from writers, politicians and retired military brass. Israel’s former attorney-general, Michael Ben Yair, says: “History’s verdict will be that their refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone.” Perhaps the greatest compliment has come from Ariel Sharon: he blamed the latest wave of terror on the refuseniks, suggesting they have got even the warrior PM rattled.

I admit, I initially had my doubts. My first thought was that, one day (soon, I hope) a progressive Israeli government will order the army to withdraw from the occupied territories and to evacuate, by force if necessary, the Jewish settlements on those lands. That will be a great test, as the Israeli state turns on thousands of its own citizens. My fear was that the current resistance would set a precedent – allowing rightwing reservists to defy the orders of a future, peace-making PM.

I have been won over – by the desperation of the times, by the enormous moral impact this protest is already having, and by the sheer immorality of the occupation. In a democracy, the elected government has every right to demand the obedience of its army. That rule still applies, and should, where Israel remains vibrantly democratic – inside the pre-1967 borders. But in the West Bank and Gaza no democracy has applied for 35 years; to demand citizens enforce a military occupation in the name of democracy is a logical absurdity.

So now I regard these men not as traitors, as their enemies allege, but as exponents of the very best in Jewish and Zionist tradition. Their protest is an act of great bravery, and they – every last one of them – are nothing less than heroes.

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