by Matt Vogel

REFUSENIK!: Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience
Compiled and edited by Peretz Kidron
Zed Books, Ltd., London, 2004


General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It tramples the forest, it crushes a hundred men,
But it has one flaw:
It requires a driver.

General, your bomber is strong.
It flies faster than the storm, it loads more than an elephant.
But it has one flaw:
It requires a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He knows how to fly, he knows how to murder.
But he has one flaw:
He knows how to think.

–Bertolt Brecht

This poem serves as something of an unofficial credo of the Refusenik movement.

Since the 1967 war, during which the Israeli government invaded Gaza and the West Bank, giving the world the phrase "the Occupied Territories," over 1,000 Israeli soldiers have refused orders that would send them there, and hundreds more have said they would, if so ordered, refuse as well. Fundamentally, these soldiers do not support the continued occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and feel that they cannot, in good conscience, take part. In this short book are stories from many of these "refuseniks," as they have been dubbed, stretching from the early 1970s to today. There are forty-three statements, separated into three historical categories: those from the period following the 1967 war, including the invasion of Lebanon in 1982; from the first intifada, which began in 1987; and from the second intifada, which began in September 2000 and lasts to this day.

Here we read soldiers telling what happened to them, and why they chose the course of action they did, in stories, poems, letters to the editors of various newspapers, correspondence from prison, letters to parents, and public speeches. The editor, Peretz Kidron, himself a refusenik, tells the story of Yuval, an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in a prison housing Palestinian detainees, and Imad, a jailed Palestinian scholar, and how they came to be close friends. In the midst of these stories and statements is a short essay on "The Philosophy of Selective Refusal," and its place in the anti-militarist movement. There is also a short history and description of the work of Yesh Gvul (Hebrew for "There is a limit"–meaning, "there is a limit to what an army can ask of its conscripts"), an organization dedicated to the material and moral support of refuseniks and their families. Altogether, this provides a fascinating portrait of the refusenik movement.

The government of Israel mandates military service for all youth, and the vast majority of the refuseniks come from the ranks of those who are fulfilling this requirement–the reservists. Few are total pacifists–most simply refuse to engage in an assignment they find morally objectionable. This is what is meant by "selective refusal"–rather than an outright refusal of military service, soldiers selectively refuse specific orders. Yesh Gvul advises people to send advance notice of their intentions to their commanders, and to show up and receive their orders, so as to avoid a court-martial for being AWOL. It is upon receiving actual orders that people are advised to refuse.

The response of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), the Israeli government’s military, is, in most cases, not to punish the refuseniks, but to simply give them new orders that they will not refuse. Several hundred, however, have served prison terms for their refusal. Over 200 refuseniks have served prison terms just since the beginning of the second intifada. Until recently, the IDF opted not to court-martial the refuseniks, instead allowing the soldier’s immediate commander to try the soldier–usually resulting in a relatively short prison sentence of a few weeks.

However, in 2002, 62 high school students sent a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stating that they would refuse to be inducted into the IDF for their mandatory service. Eventually, over three-hundred students signed on to the letter. When many of them kept their promise and refused induction, the government, after a series of disciplinary jailings, decided to court-martial several of them. Peretz Kidron writes that the IDF had been reluctant to court-martial earlier because of a fear of courts ruling on the legality of the IDF’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza. He suggests that the government was so threatened by this total refusal of military service that it went ahead with the court-martials despite this risk, in a bid to quash the movement.

Most powerful are the profoundly political, moral and personal statements from the soldiers. They speak plainly, forcefully and honestly about their opposition to the occupation and the military policies that lead to the deaths of both Palestinians and Israelis. The reservists are not only leftist activists, though some certainly are. Some are highly decorated combat soldiers, but many are run-of-the-mill soldiers, doing all the things soldiers must do to keep an army and an occupation going. They come from different segments of Israeli society. We read the words of artists, teachers, writers, students, a banker, small business owners, union members, and journalists, to name a few. Some are married, some are not. There is a member of a prominent right-wing family, and one from a family of one of the founders of the state of Israel. Some are children and grandchildren of survivors of the Shoah. Some are from cities, some from kibbutzes.

Take Itai Haviv, who is a captain with an artillery unit, and received a 21-day jail sentence for refusal on March 14, 2002. Clearly not a pacifist, Haviv vividly discusses the day-to-day activities of an occupation:

"As a combat officer in the IDF, I have served all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I am not naive… On behalf of the state of Israel, I have chased children who threw stones at me. I have patrolled the alleyways of refugee camps. I have banged on their tin doors in the small hours of the morning. I have searched among their mattresses for propaganda material. I have heard babies crying. I have hauled people out of bed to erase slogans daubed on walls. I have imposed curfews. I have dealt with Palestinian flags fluttering from power pylons. I have halted vehicles. I have confiscated identity cards. I have conveyed handcuffed prisoners in the back of my jeep. I have fired at rioters. I have halted hundreds of vehicles at roadblocks. I set up an outlook post on the roof of a cake shop in the main street of Gaza. The routine of occupation. Everyday. Every hour. Thirty-five years.

"I believed this was a war of no-choice…

"We have built over 100 settlements. We have sent 200,000 settlers to live there. We have lost soldiers, children, mothers. All for the sake of the security of the state. For the sake of peace. To stop the next suicide bomber. For 35 years, a black flag has flown over our heads, but we refused to see it.

"No more."

"A black flag" refers to the 1956 trial of some Israeli soldiers accused of killing 47 Palestinians. The court found that there are certain orders that ought not be obeyed, saying that "the black flag of illegality" flies over them.

These soldiers’ courage, clarity and willingness to sacrifice give us hope. And we can be hopeful, because, despite the Israeli government’s intransigence, the ranks of the refuseniks have grown. We, even now, see high school students refusing to serve in the army in any capacity. The occupation continues, and more and more are saying no. Here is an excerpt from a letter young David Haham-Herson wrote to his parents. He is one of the high school students refusing to enter the IDF:

"All the terrible reports appearing daily in the press, I read here in Military Jail 4. No pictures, no soundtrack. I see only barbed wire fences, but the pain from outside goes deep. Revenge in return for revenge, killing in return for killing…What is the source of the Israeli sense of pride, why is the act of killing considered so great in our eyes?

"I am a soldier in the Israeli army, imprisoned for refusal to take part in repression, arising from a sense that it is out of the question to be a Jew, the son of a people of refugees, and yet repress a people of refugees… I am a God-fearing Jew, and as such forbidden to take part in denying freedom and serving in occupied territory….

"I am concerned because I know that the terrible hatred towards me is justified. The hatred has led to horrifying and perverted manifestations, like the young suicide bombers, but we create the conditions that lead to this monstrosity. I am concerned because I know that the cries of exultation over the killings drown out the sobs of numerous victims, Jews and Arabs, of the widows and orphans, of the cripples who will suffer for the rest of their lives because of that pride and callousness.

"This is a concern unlike that of most Israeli people. For this concern demands correction [tikkun], whereas the other concern merely calls for more destruction. I am a prisoner, yet free, but the pain runs deep. I hope my imprisonment, and that of others, will lead many in our society to contemplation–contemplation of the Palestinians, and by way of them, contemplation of ourselves. I regard my imprisonment as the true way to participate in present-day Israeli society. I don’t think my imprisonment releases me from responsibility. Even if I weren’t serving in the army, I’d continue to share responsibility for these actions. I’m not the victim. On the contrary; precisely because I regard myself as sharing responsibility, I refuse to take part in the repression…."

Their words lend us strength, strength to continue our resistance to militarism and strength to ask ourselves how much we are truly willing to sacrifice to resist the works of war.

We must listen, though. These are indeed lessons for us, embroiled as we are in the War on Terror, mired as occupiers in Iraq. These are words for us and for those who are or would be in our military. Peretz Kidron states that, by the summer of 2003, over 1,000 Israelis had declared that they would refuse orders sending them to the Occupied Territories. Relative to population size, this would amount to 40,000 US soldiers, according to Peretz Kidron–a powerful thought. What would happen today if there were hundreds of soldiers refusing to go to Afghanistan or Iraq?


This review originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Catholic Worker, 36 East 1st St., New York, NY 10003


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 10, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution