On Saturday evening, another anti-war demonstration was held in Tel Aviv. A few hundred people marched and chanted and hoped that rumors of a drawdown were true.
With minimal numbers and attention, the demonstrations have had little impact. But there doesn’t seem much else that those opposed to the war can do.
Soldiers and reservists have another option: civil disobedience, refusal to participate.
It is a huge taboo. The idea of avoiding IDF service in a society whose mythical founding narrative is about protection from existential destruction is anathema even in normal times.
To refuse a draft order in wartime is practically incendiary. When I posted a status asking for contacts to refuseniks, a friend shot back “Why would anyone refuse?”
Refusal then and now
Back in 2005, when some soldiers refused service in order to avoid evacuating settlements from Gaza, I thought about when refusal is seen as legitimate.
To use the potentially explosive tool of refusal effectively, while causing the least damage, certain terms need to be met. Refusal challenges the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Refuseniks need to demonstrate acceptance of those institutions in all other matters to preserve their legitimacy. Next, refuseniks should take full responsibility for their actions – undergoing a deeply personal, decision-making process that should be as free and independent as possible.
I revisited those words now, to assess the thoughts of few individuals who refused to participate in Protective Edge. They asked that details about them be kept vague as a condition for being interviewed. Their names have been changed here.
‘You can’t change things from the inside’
Tamir is a 28-year old who served in a combat unit and as a reserve soldier. He fought in the previous Gaza war, Pillar of Defense, in 2012. But his doubts began already during his regular service. “I wasn’t politically active before being drafted. I thought the occupation wasn’t good, but I thought we had to control the Palestinians so they wouldn’t blow up buses. The army caused me to become political, when I was confronted by the occupation in the West Bank, and also when I served in Gaza and saw what happened there.
He thought that it was important to do reserve duty in order to change things from the inside. But “Little by little I realized it doesn’t matter. You can’t change things from inside, only from the outside, by voting or demonstrations. And then I realized that that doesn’t work either.”
By Pillar of Defense, he confronted a growing gap between the portrayal of army missions versus reality. “What was being described in media was not reflective of reality. What is a ‘legitimate Hamas target?’ It can be anything that the IDF decides to blow up: a house, an orchard, a junction. They say, we’ll drop leaflets on neighborhoods so that when you go in, you can shoot anywhere, so that we can drop artillery on neighborhoods.”
When he was called up for Protective Edge, Tamir told his officers that he would not go, and he told them why. He packed a bag for jail, but they simply let him go. Tamir wonders if they somehow relate to the problem. “They have questions themselves. What are we about to do in Gaza? It’s in their DNA to fulfill orders, but I think they understood.” He says he’s not the only one; he heard about four or five others who refused. Together with refusal from the right, he thinks his superiors are familiar by now with the issue.
Zeev didn’t get off so easily. A 32-year old reservist, he did his mandatory service in the height of the Second Intifada – “my regiment was everywhere possible in the West Bank.” He did reserve duty; he fought in Cast Lead. By 2012, he had decided to resist the draft during Pillar of Defense, but he was not mobilized for combat.
For him, refusing is a personal political statement, not about creating a public symbol or movement. “It’s like being a vegetarian, you know you’re not going to save animals, it’s just a political statement. My very own action won’t change anything.”
He tackles the counter-argument sometimes heard among the left, that it’s better to serve so that Palestinians under occupation can encounter more humane individuals and better treatment. “In the end, it’s not the personality of the soldier that matters, it’s the whole pattern around it.”
Still, Zeev straddles a public statement and a completely personal choice. He wanted “to feel better about myself in the future.” He explained: “When I did go for Cast Lead, I gave the army the benefit of my doubt. Now, when I tell people that I took part in it, I feel ashamed.”
The thought process was transitional for him.
It’s a springboard for introspection. I see myself as a law abiding citizen. The participation of citizens in the government and laws is essential. It is after all a democratically elected government that reflects the current political climate in Israel and as someone committed to democracy I have to respect that. I was taken aback by my own radicalism. Looking at myself in the mirror and saying, ‘wow, I’ve really done that.’ It’s contrary to the way I was brought up and what I believed in.
Zeev has a family and a two-year old. He knew the army could either ignore him or imprison him. After five days of communication with the army, his superiors told him to report to his unit within one hour. Instead, he left for Europe and when the IDF went to his home, he was already gone.
I spoke to a third refusenik, Roni, after he had been released from nearly three weeks in prison.
Roni, 31 years old, was also a combat soldier in his mandatory service. Over the years he realized he did not want to be part of the system. It wasn’t a matter of one specific incident or turning point. “The whole thing was arbitrary violence, senseless violence against a civilian population.”
For him, personal reasoning spills over into social responsibility.
From my service in the Second Intifada, in the West Bank the whole time, as an officer, no one can tell me that what’s happening there is moral and that it’s a matter of security for Israelis. It’s not moral and it’s a system of control. It’s not something I can erase. I just can’t. It’s beyond my personal responsibility, I have a responsibility to my society, Palestinian and Israeli – we have to stop.
So when he received a call-up order for Protective Edge, he reported only to say that he would not accept the draft. His officers told him: “’If you’re here you need to go.’ I said I won’t. He said, ‘you know what that means.’”
Roni was sentenced to 20 days and was put in a prison with 15 other people from mandatory service who were there for various problems, not related to ideology or politics.
The prison staff knew the reason he was there, but otherwise, he kept it to himself. “The other prisoners didn’t know what I was in for. I decided ahead of time that if I had to sit with 15 soldiers in mandatory service I wouldn’t get out of it…I couldn’t get involved in the whole militarist conversation…they would just say with total conviction that we have to kill women and children, and it was clear that I couldn’t share this with them.”
Aside from the experience of imprisonment, humiliation, lack of freedom, and toilet-cleaning, Roni chafed under the mentality.
It was a pretty desperate experience. All we got was [the free right-wing newspaper] ‘Israel Hayom.’ The soldiers only knew the Israeli narrative. It was the most militarist, aggressive, racist narrative that I ever confronted. If we read internet comments and Facebook comments, and ask if they reflect the views of the people… I came out of prison with very serious concerns.
Roni sounds sadder than the other two as he describes the social isolation of refusing. His family is full of men who served proudly in combat – from his grandfather down to his brother. They accepted any direction of his political thinking, except for this. He clashed with his older brother. “It’s one thing to be a good Israeli, but to be a good family member, you have to go. It’s the most basic thing.”
The Left and the law
For other left-wingers, these arguments don’t hold. Some who are critical of Israel’s policies and even actively opposed, do not believe in refusing a call up in wartime, or at all. They had no problem being identified in full.
Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of Peace Now but also a combat soldier and reservist (although he was not called up), told me that he sees several reasons why those who are critical of Israel should in fact serve. The first is simply – as Zeev pointed out – that in a democratic society, people must fulfill legal obligations. Such participation also gives credibility to the left-wing claims against right-wing refusal.
“The government is sovereign. Just as we sometimes ask soldiers and the army to evacuate settlements or territories, we must do this. The way to influence policy is not through refusal. In a democracy, the elected level makes decisions.”
He believes critical individuals who serve should be a check and balance on the army’s conduct.
“Soldiers have a very meaningful role in asking questions about orders, not to fulfill illegal orders, and to influence how the orders are undertaken. If we decide it doesn’t suit us and we leave the field for those with other opinions, maybe they’ll be more trigger-happy and commit worse crimes.”
Moreover, Oppenheimer is concerned that refusal will fail to generate political change – and it may have the opposite effect. “In the end, we have to realize that policy change won’t come from refusal. The opposite: I think it can make it irrelevant. [Change] can only come from the ballot box and public discussion around and during the operations.”
Uri Zaki, 39, has been an active member of the left-wing political party Meretz for over a decade. He has devoted his life to political activity – he was head of the youth faction, and was number ten on the Meretz candidate list. He spent nearly four years as the representative of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem in Washington, D.C. He is struggling to reconcile the terrible circumstances of the war and the deep problems he sees with refusal.
I’m very, very disturbed and I hope that Israel will investigate itself over …the targets, private homes, and attacks on schools and hospitals and media outlets. Still we are talking about an attack on Israel that we can’t ignore. I don’t think Israel is in a position to give up on IDF – the ‘defense’ part. You can’t ignore Israel’s right to respond when missiles are being fired at it. We can’t just turn the other cheek.
The war is distinct from ongoing occupation, in his eyes. “The West Bank is not at all about defense, no matter how much they try to sell it,” he says. “Maybe to some extent it’s defense of settlements, and of course [settlers] are citizens and they deserve protection. But that creates many more questions for me about whether to serve, to maintain the number one danger to the State of Israel.”
Perhaps the most compelling part of Uri’s story and his personal grappling, is how his mandatory army service transformed him. When he was drafted, he was not only right-wing but he was actually a young member of the Likud party. During his service, “I really served the occupation.” He worked in a prison holding Palestinians convicted of “light security offenses,” such as stone-throwing and membership in Hamas. “I realized that we are a foreign occupier and I am part of a machine whose whole role is to suppress legitimate demands for freedom. As a Zionist, who believes in the right to self-determination, I realized I was part of a system of both national and daily suppression.”
One common thread of these men’s experience is that their service as combat soldiers led them to critical conclusions about the policies that brought them there, though they reached differing answers about how to change them. But there is no easy conclusion from this observation. Uri says:
Do I say you should serve the occupation in order to change your political colors? Not necessarily. Some became more militaristic, they started out left-wing and became more skeptical, more right wing. If they were to call me to reserve duty in the West Bank today, I suppose I would go out of personal obligation to the system, but I’m not sure. I would have lots and lots of deliberations. I can’t say definitely. And I’m normally a very decisive person.
What is clear is that the number of refusals is very small. It turns out that W. H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” – “When there was peace, he was for peace – when there was war, he went” describes the very well-known citizen-soldiers of Israel. Those who don’t go remain far lesser-known.