Haggai Matar is a 19 year-old Israeli who is one of the founders of the Shministim, an organization of high school seniors who refuse to serve in the military. He has now been court martialed and is facing up to three years of imprisonment for his actions. Haggai gave this interview from prison.
1. Could you give a little background to the court martial trials? Why do you think the IDF has put six young men, including yourself, on trial for refusing to obey conscription?
On the 23rd of October 2002, an army officer sentenced me to 14 days in the Military Prison. This is what they call a “disciplinary procedure.” When I was released, they wanted me again to enlist. I refused, and was sentenced to 28 days in prison. This went on and on, for five times all together. I sat in prison for refusing to enlist five times, every time for a different length (first time: 14 days. second: 28, third: 56, forth: 14, fifth: 14). All together: 126 days. In the past, people would sit about three times, with a total of about 90 days, and get released. However, the policy changed, and when I refused the sixth time – I was taken to a Military Court, in the “criminal proceedings” instead of the army officer in the “disciplinary procedure.” I am now in an army base, under “open detention,” waiting for my trial. I have four friends who are going to be tried with me. The two main differences between the court and the officer are these: First, this is a real trial, with a lawyer and everything. Second, while the officer cannot send you to more than two months in jail, the court can send you to up to three years in jail. So now, all in all, I’ve been four months in prison, and almost three months in detention in this base, and I still don’t know how it’s going to end.
Now – the idea of sending young refuseniks to court is not a new one in the IDF. Two draft resisters have been through this in the past; the first was Amnon Zichroni (1954) and the second was Giyura Noiman (1971). Both were sentenced to a year in a military prison. Since then, no draft-resister got to the Court-Martial phase. We often ask ourselves, “Why now? Why us?” and realize the answer is actually in the question. As far as the IDF is concerned, it had to be now, as Israel is in the lowest point (security-wise, morally, etc.) it has ever been in. Just as Israel is launching a war against the ISM, it’s also fighting us. And it had to be us – only five years ago “refusal” was something you would never hear of anywhere as an option (for young people as well as for reserve soldiers). However, the accumulating effect of “Yesh Gvul” and “New Profile” was boosted by the two letters â€“ one from the Shministim and the other from Courage to Refuse. The two started a public debate, and now refusal is no longer an avoidable subject. Teachers talk about in schools, it’s in the media, people talk about it as a part of day-to-day political debates. Of course – most people are against it, but it’s there. And so â€“ more and more people consider refusing, or avoiding military service. It even affects people inside the army. A few months ago an officer in an elite Intelligence unit refused an order, and thus disturbed a planned air-strike on a Palestinian city – causing the cancellation of that strike. The story started turmoil in the Israeli society, not to mention inside the Intelligence Core. I believe that this story, and others like it, is a direct result of the idea of refusal percolating into Israeli consciousness.
And we are one of the reasons this is happening. “New Profile” and “Yesh Gvul,” as well as the two new movements, are working within the limits of Israeli law. They can’t touch them. But now they have a few of the leaders of these groups in their hands: Ben-Arzi, with his family relations and press-coverage, and me and the others, with the fuss we made about the occupation everywhere, our work with younger potential-refuseniks etc. It’s a perfect opportunity for them to go hard on the whole movement, and make their point clear “once and for all.” However, I do think they’re getting more than they had asked for. They first wanted to have one big trial for Ben-Arzi and one for me. Then suddenly four more guys hopped on-board. And as if that’s not enough, more are on their way. The thought of the Court Martial did not stop the movement at all, on the contrary. We’re getting more media coverage than ever, and we expect a big fuss around the trial.
2. What do you see as the consequences of these trials, both positive and negative?
Well, I don’t know how it’s all going to end, so it’s a bit hard to say right now. It’s good that we’ll have a chance to say what we have in court, and get public attention focused on the occupation (hopefully) through us. I think that for the same reason they’re going to think twice before ever sending another CO to court. The last thing they want is to be our stage! So there’s a good chance they’ll go back to the “three strikes and out” system, making it easy for young boys to refuse again. It may also get more attention from human rights organizations in the world, thus helping both COs, and the more general struggle we’re in.
The two negative effects of this are these: A) It may deter young refuseniks from refusing and send them to avoid the draft in other ways. B) Just the obvious – there’s a chance I’ll go to prison for a long time (not that the seven months I’ve already been here are not “a long time”).
Another development that we can’t be sure as to where it’ll lead to is the issue of female COs. Up until recently, women would see the CO committee and get released without being hassled too much. It didn’t matter if they said they refuse taking part in any army, or just in the IDF (because of the occupation, or any other reason). When, in one of our court sittings, our attorney accused the army of discrimination and proved that occupation-refusing women were released, the prosecution said it was a mistake. So, from now on, the committee will no longer give releases that easily. This will cause a problem for both the girls in our group and the army â€“ which won’t know what to do with them. So this is something that’ll have long-term effects, we just don’t know what they’ll be. Whatever happens, this helps us put female-refusal back on the public agenda, which was hard to do when they were given releases so easily.
3. You face up to three years in prison for refusing to serve. Why have you decided to take such a risk?
Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that there is no other way. I have to be involved. I see what’s going on in this area, and I feel like I have to act. The long answer is too long to write. I will be talking about my history of activity and about the occupation as I have seen it when I give my testimony in my trial. I have 18 written pages about it, but they’re in Hebrew. I think it’s going to be translated soon. What I can do is give you a short summary of what I’ve seen. I’ve been in the Occupied Territories many times. I’ve seen many terrible things: Mounds of earth in the main entrance to a village, stopping people from getting in or out of it with their cars. House demolitions. Water deposits that the army destroyed â€“ taking away the only water source for a population in the desert! Soldiers attacking peaceful demonstrators. A Palestinian village that was invaded by illegal Jewish settlers, who destroyed the water and electricity supplies, causing the villagers to run away, go into exile, and leave an empty village. These, as well as the accumulating effects of militarization on Israeli society, and many other things, are my reasons for refusing â€“ these, and the need to make people hear and understand these things.
4. You’re a co-founder of The Shministim (High School Seniors). What led you to form this group?
As peace activists in an always-deteriorating situation, we always look for new ways of acting and of getting public attention. The Shministim letter was one of these ways. We were successful in this, and got a lot of public attention. It also helped to get more young people to consider the draft and not take it for granted. For people who knew they don’t want to enlist, it showed that there are others feeling like them â€“ and that refusal is an option. (I personally know a few people who didn’t want to enlist, but they thought that there is no other way. The Shministim Letter helped them make that big courageous step). One of the most important things about the letter is creating solidarity with Palestinians. In this sense, refusal is the most powerful measure today. We’ve received countless letters of support and gratitude from Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, some of them mentioning that for them our refusal is a reason to stop supporting terrorists and to move the struggle for liberation to other means.
5. How would you suggest that American peace activists help the refuser movement to end the occupation?
I liked the way you phrased your question. The question is, indeed, how to help ending the occupation, not how people can help us. A few weeks ago, one of my friends in detention was asked by his parents what they could do to help get him out of prison. He answered, “I didn’t go to jail just so you could go and find a way of getting me out of here.”
So this is the point – resist the occupation. There are many alternative information sources on the web. I wish Americans would spread information about what’s really going on here, and what the occupation is really all about. I think that they could use the refusal movement in Israel as a way of showing that being anti-occupation is not being anti-Israeli-society. They can use Ta’ayush – the Arab-Jewish Partnership, to prove that there is a way of living and working together. Just spread the word, and create an anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement in the U.S. made of Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, and anyone else who’d like to join in. This is, of course, just to add to what I see as the duty of Americans to resist the U.S.-led wars and globalisation – all having very close connections to Israel’s on-going occupation.
Interview with Anat Matar, mother of Haggai Matar
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you’re doing on behalf of the refusers.
My name is Anat Matar, I’m 46, a philosophy lecturer at Tel Aviv University. I am married and have two sons, Haggai (19) and Oren (15). I was raised in a leftist family and was involved in the past in all sorts of political activities. For example, I was active in the movement “The 21st Year” (1988 – 92), “Open Doors” (later 90s, acting for the release of Palestinian administrative detainees) and now Taayush and The Campus is Not Silent.
A few months after Haggai was first jailed (actually, when Matan Kaminer, Shimri Tzameret, Adam Maor and Noam Bahat joined him in jail) we formed the Israeli COs Parents Forum. We hold weekly vigils in front of the military attorney general’s home, we try hard to make our kids’ deeds known to the public, we meet representatives from European embassies and consulates, etc. Yesterday we put an ad in the newspaper Ha’aretz informing the public (which otherwise isn’t informed) about the days each of our sons has spent until now in prison. We also, naturally, try to raise money for all these activities.
2. How did you get involved in this work?
Haggai started his series of imprisonments in October. In December, as I said, four more friends joined him and the others who already were in different stages on this journey. We felt that the usual behaviour of the army with COs has changed and that they don’t intend to release the COs after three to four months in jail as they used to. So we decided to try to work together in order to make this affair known as widely as possible to the public, and also in order to help each other. The periods of imprisonment are quite hard on the families, and it’s soothing to have co-travelers.
3. Could you give a little background to the court martial trials? Why do you think the IDF has put six young men, including your son, on trial for refusing to obey conscription?
At the end of February, the army decided to bring Yoni Ben Artzi, after having finished seven imprisonment periods, to court martial. Yoni is a pacifist, unrecognized as such by the army. A week later, when Haggai finished his own term of imprisonment and got back to the induction base, expecting the next term, he was told he would be taken to court martial as well. The other four joined him “voluntarily” since they understood that this was the procedure now and didn’t want to reach it only after so many days in jail. There are two different trials since Yoni’s case is based on the armyâ€™s denial of his good faith, while in the case of “the five” the prosecutor declared he does believe their conscientious motivations. However, he argues that these can’t serve as a basis for exemption from the army according to the IDF decisions, being “political,” rather than “private.” This distinction we’ll challenge in court.
This explains the IDFâ€™s reasons to put these boys to trial. It is true that the number of draft resisters is growing, partly as a result of the 12th Grader’s letter, indeed, but mainly, of course, because the crimes of the IDF are beginning to penetrate to more and more minds, conscripts and others. The more brutal their behaviour is, the harsher they will be with their daring critics.
4. What do you see as the consequences of these trials, both positive and negative?
I’m not sure I can tell. I hope the affair will be widely covered by the press, but I do not delude myself too much. I hope this will entail the refusal of more conscripts. I also hope that our Palestinian allies will hear about the trials and will know that there is a dissenting voice inside Israel. But I’m not sure what will happen. I don’t think there’ll be severely negative consequences in terms of the refusal movement â€“ on the contrary. But it’s true, that a harsh punishment may intimidate some potential refuseniks. And of course, there is the trivial negative consequence that is possible â€“ a long term of imprisonment for our sons, which, as I said, is a hard experience.
5. How do you feel about the risk that Haggai is taking?
Adding to the above, I’ll only say I’m very proud of him. I don’t believe the punishment will indeed be three years â€“ I hope not. But I know he’s doing the right thing, both because this is indeed the right thing to do and because it is for him the right thing to do. I can’t imagine him serving in this army, and it’s not like him to get a release on a fake basis. It’s simply not like him. I’m not at all against people who choose this way of avoiding the army. But I do think that the Israeli army has reached such a stage that serving in it is immoral.
6. How would you suggest that American peace activists help the refuser movement to end the occupation?
Your support is extremely important. When Haggai started his imprisonment, his declaration on that day was spread widely, and he got wonderful supportive letters â€“ that was great and helped a lot. Please help us spread the word as widely as possible â€“ via internet, but not only â€“ on radio talks, TV shows, documentaries, talks in schools, etc. Financial support is also welcome, of course.
As for ending the occupation itself, I’m far from being optimistic. But of course, pressure on the U.S. government, boycotting Israel in all sorts of ways â€“ in short, making manifest the similarity between Israel and Apartheid South Africa â€“ all these could perhaps change something. I’m not sure about the short run. But slowly, slowly this should be understood by more and more people.
7. Do you have anything that you want to convey to other mothers who also care deeply about the lives of their own children?
First and foremost, be critical and suspicious of any official position, warning, etc. Don’t buy easily the slogans about “security measures” which are “needed” and then actually take more lives, in America, Israel, Iraq, everywhere. Secondly, expose your children to those who suffer, to the pain inflicted on them, to what our government does â€“ donâ€™t hide these facts, fearing that your sensitive kid won’t sleep well.
8. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Yes, that the voice of protest is essential even if it is not effective “pragmatically.” Don’t despair by the fact that you’re ineffective. We live in a merciless period; who knows what will bring a change. But meanwhile, keeping alive the spirit of protest is vital! Don’t let the crimes pass without even being pointed at.