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Four young Israelis refuse army draft in new refusenik wave

In the coming weeks, three young Israelis are expected to go to prison for their refusal to enlist in the Israeli army, and a fourth conscientious objector received an exemption from service yesterday. Together they form the first group of refuseniks in Israel in the past three years. These are their stories.

Since December, I’ve been considering using my refusal to make a statement, but I felt alone, and it felt pointless doing this without partners. When I saw your +972 interview with Noam Gur I felt less alone. I contacted her, and very soon realized it would be best for us to refuse together. We even have the same draft date, or prison date at that. (Alon Gurman)

Two weeks ago, Noam Gur seemed like a sole pioneer, taking on the cause of reviving the refusal movement in Israel. After almost a decade of high school student initiatives against the draft and the occupation (starting in 2001, with a petition I myself co-signed) there have been no such collective acts of refusal since 2009.

Now it appears that Gur is not as alone as she thought. Since the interview was published, Gur was contacted by three more conscientious objectors, and the four have started coordinating their actions. One is resisting the draft because of the occupation, a second was an officer who switched sides and refuses to return to his reserves service and the third a pacifist. While the latter has been exempt from service, the first two will most likely enter prison with Gur.

‘My refusal is an act of solidarity with our Palestinian comrades fighting for freedom, justice and equality’

Alon Gurman, 18, from Tel Aviv was certain that he would enlist until he first went to the West Bank. During his last year in school, he started reading about the Palestinian popular struggle, and went to hear a lecture by “Solidarity” activists.

Alon Gurman in Nabi Saleh (Anne Paq / Activestills)

Alon Gurman in Nabi Saleh (Anne Paq / Activestills)

“I started going to demonstrations thinking that while certain policies might be wrong, they can be changed, and changed from the inside, and so I went on with the pre-draft procedures as expected of me,” says Gurman. “Only after the first time I went to the occupied territories did I realize that I could never be a part of the army. I saw house demolitions; I saw unbelievable levels of violence used against civilian protest, and all in the name of colonialism. I was especially traumatized when I was arrested in a demonstration in Al-Walaja, just as we were starting to disperse. The soldiers were my age, my peers, and I saw the effect of the service on them. You can’t be moral in an immoral situation.”

In recent months, Gurman has been attending the Friday demonstrations in the West Bank on a regular basis, and during the last escalation in Gaza, he organized a protest in Tel Aviv, before and during which he received personal threats. The exposure to all of this violence strengthened his decision to refuse, but it was only after hearing of Noam Gur that he was persuaded to do it openly, risk prison, and not avoid the draft quietly.

In a statement he prepared ahead of his expected imprisonment on April 16, Gurman writes: “My refusal to enlist is not only one to partake in occupation and apartheid, it is an act of solidarity with our Palestinian comrades fighting for freedom, justice and equality… My hope is that by refusing I can have some influence on society, and encourage others to do the same,” he says.

‘I saw officers raping their secretaries, soldiers tormenting Sudanese refugees at the border, and an army setting a city in flames’

Yigal Levin, 25, is far from your typical conscientious objector. Born in Ukraine, Levin’s family has a tradition of combat service tracing all the way back to the Napoleonic Wars. Growing up in Bat Yam, Levin was taught that a man’s role is to protect his family and homeland. “I used to be a Mussolini-styled fascist,” he explains, “not the local kind of religious fascists who want the land because of some divine promise, but the kind who believes that the spoils go to the winner. I knew I would be an officer when I joined the army, and having snipers shoot at me  in Gaza in 2005 made me even more of an extremist.”

Yigal Levin (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Yigal Levin (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

But then things began to change, especially during the Second Lebanon War. “Part of my ideology was that the state has to be wise, responsible, decent and protective. In Lebanon, I saw a war that started for no clear reason, where soldiers died in vain while also committing a massacre against the Lebanese. Reading more about Mussolini, I found out he was a Marxist in his youth, and started going that way.”

In the years that followed, after he became an officer, he went further to the left. Levin says he witnessed officers raping their female subordinates, soldiers tormenting Sudanese refugees who crossed the border from Egypt, and during operation “Cast Lead” he was shocked to see the army bombarding the civilian population and setting Gaza aflame. These factors broke his faith in making a difference from within the ranks.

After the attack on Gaza, Levin finished his service, and inspired by Lev Tolstoy, he became an anarchist. He joined the Israeli Anarchist Communist Front and toured Ukraine and Germany with comrades. When he recently received an order to show up for his reserve service, he ignored it, and is thus now considered a deserter. Having heard of Gur and Gurman, he decided to turn himself in on the day of their refusal.

“The Israeli army is commonly considered to be ‘the people’s army’, an army of the people protecting the people,” writes Levin in his own statement. “But in fact, the Israeli army is simply a bourgeois army – a tool in the hands of a small clique, which does not give a damn about the people… Not willing to remain a mere tool, a traitor, and a hypocrite, I decided to terminate my participation in it.”

‘Even if we refuse for different reasons – it’s better to work as a group’

Ilya Fox too was not born in Israel, and he too traces his decision to refuse the draft back to Tolstoy. Fox, 18, was born in Belarus, raised in

Ilya Fox outside the induction base at Tel Hashomer (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Ilya Fox outside the induction base at Tel Hashomer (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Jerusalem, and says he never gave too much thought to politics or the army. Ironically, it was his school’s campaign to encourage would-be draftees that pushed him towards thoughts of refusal. “They started giving us basic military training in school [‘Gadna’], classes with soldier-teachers – a whole system of indoctrination that doesn’t even disguise itself as something else,” says Fox. “I felt uneasy with all of it, and decided that if I like living in Israel, I should learn a little about what’s going on around me. I got around to reading all sorts of blogs, and went to a Jewish-Arab youth workshop, where I met people who live 15 minutes from my home but were always late because they were detained by the army. That’s how I started resisting the occupation.”

But Fox didn’t stop with the occupation, and started asking himself bigger questions on armies and violence on the whole, after which he decided to resist all forms of hierarchy and uses of force. “Tolstoy describes the essence of human beings as living and not killing anyone else. I find that beautiful, and that’s how I became a conscientious objector.”

While military authorities deny exemptions to those who refuse because of the occupation, “total pacifists” such as Fox are treated differently. Yesterday (Thursday), three days before his draft date, he was notified that he is exempt from service. “Of course I’m very happy with this decision. The other three and I are in somewhat different positions, but we still cooperate. Even if we refuse for different reasons – it’s better to work as a group.”

Read also:

J’accuse: Israeli youth headed to prison for refusing the draft

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    1. Steve

      Israel defending itself = bad!
      Hamas, Islamic Jihad, other crazy groups forcing Israel to protect itself = SHH, don’t talk about that!

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I presume the reason these postings are made is to indicate that this might be the beginning of some future wave that will sweep the country, and ultimately bring eternal peace and brotherhood between Jews and Arabs in the country.
      As someone who completely disagrees with these people, I am not worried about the pheonomenon they represent.
      When the Constitution of the United States was drawn up, people were worried that if things like “freedom of speech” and “freedom of assembly” were permitted, then dangerous ideas could be spread more easily, thus endangering the whole of society. Those who supported these freedoms based the belief that these bad ideas could be express BECAUSE the majority of people had basic common sense and would reject these dangerous views. This is the whole idea behind universal sufferage in election…that the main body of people will make the right decisions as a group.
      I feel the same applies in Israel. There will always be extremist views such as those expressed by these people who refuse to serve in the IDF (BTW Yigal Levin is quite right in pointing out major defects in the IDF, but I don’t see how his refusal to serve in the future is going to help things). Howver, the majority, the LARGE majority understand the way things really are, the nature of Israel’s situation in the Middle East, the hostility of the surrounding Arab countries and populations and they realize that there is no alternative but to defend ourselves with armed force, unfortunate as that situation may be. There is no alternative and I am absolutely confident that the phenomenon of these who refuse to serve will remain on the fringes.
      If people stronly oppose serving the IDF, they should not be forced to. We are stong enough a society to allow dissident views. A true democracy has to allow such things.

      Reply to Comment
    3. “Levin says he witnessed officers raping their female subordinates”
      This is an extremely serious charge. If he is willing to be imprisoned for refusal of military service he should be willing to provide testimony on this charge.
      It is not easy to go to prison and face the distancing to ostracism of those one once knew. One’s material life may be much worse thereafter, for networks of support may vanish, support for likely jobs, friends, even mates. To evoke the right of conscience can well be a form of self immolation; it is kin to Gandhi’s fasts.
      But there will clearly be no wave of refusal. Most people do not think that way. Some, who might a bit, cannot, will not bear the cost. Few will face the world solely with their conscience. Those that somehow can and do–we should try to understand why, to take what vicarious lesson we can.

      Reply to Comment
    4. rose

      maximum respect for these guys. if you a soldier and you are obliged to go in the OT you simply become an accomplice in the oppression of millions of people

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bassel araj

      We support u .. From walaja

      Reply to Comment
    6. joe

      I agree with Greg – Levin, you have a responsibility to report rape even if nobody believes you and if it makes your life more difficult.

      I also disagree with Greg – we have no idea of the effects of such acts of moral witness.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Bill Pearlman

      So, the “hero” witnesses multiple rapes and what, walks on by. And massacres. I’d be interested in 972 verifying his service record because he strikes me as being very similar to “vietnam veterans” who witnessed the same things but never went west of California.

      Reply to Comment
    8. joe

      For once, I agree with Bill too.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Heather K.

      These guys are hero’s! “You can’t be moral in an immoral situation”, so true!!!

      Reply to Comment
    10. Boris

      These guys are heroes! They fight for non only their freedom and intedependency but for freedom and intedependency of all people around the World.
      An individual freedom is the base human value! There is not an social institut, which can cut an individual freedom! People should understand this fact – in this case all wars will finish.
      Give me Freedom or I take death! (C)

      Reply to Comment
    11. We stand in solidarity with you and honor your valor and integrity to remain true to solid morals and tru human values. Your courageous stands speak volumes about the cruelty, inhumanity and criminal state of Israel’s military in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Our admiration and love to our brave & honorable Israeli youth! In solidarity for an end to Israeli war crimes!

      Reply to Comment
    12. Gary

      The difficulty arises from the dual mandates of the army: defend against outside enemies and actively enforce and entrench a colonialist occupation of 45 years.

      I realized, starting as a young tank commander in the 1982 war, that the goal of maintaining and deepening the occupation had become paramount. Even when one realizes this situation, the personal price of resisting is significant, though nowhere near the cost paid by Palestinians.

      While these individuals are praiseworthy (from my point of view), colonialist policies exhaust themselves only when their cost exceeds their benefit. Israel’s unique geo-political-historical circumstances give a lot of power to those wishing to maintain the occupation. This may portend a tragic repeat of the Algerian-French bloodbath before any significant public opinion shift happens.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Charles

      Great to hear of a rise in refusal. And… question: why isn’t there an existing group of
      Shministim active, welcoming, etc.? What’s the status of New Profile activism in this space? Where is Yesh Gvul? Why are these brave kids not fully in touch with previous generations of refusers?

      Anyone know?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Michael H

      What good does not serving really do? Why not serve but try and make a difference. Be the good soldier, keep your comrades in line and report abuses to the relevant authority. To take the needless prison sentence just seems well…pointless. It doesn’t change anything, really. Were I Israeli I suppose I could deal with the jail time of not serving, but I imagine that would look very bad for future job interviews etc. To be honest, I would really feel more of a sense of accomplishment if I had reined in an excess or prevented something violent from happening than just sitting in jail.

      Reply to Comment
    15. directrob

      Be a true hero like Hugh Thompson and his crew? Michael, I fear you are dreaming. Joining the army is the first step in compliance.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Joe,
      Going to prison is more than an act of moral witness. As to the effect of such acts–measured only though individuals unassayed. You are right, we generally have no idea of such effects, if any. But then, why be afraid of them? No need to condemn what cannot matter.
      Perhaps a definition of faith is that mattering may come all sudden.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Haggai Matar

      Quick replies:
      @XYZ – “I presume the reason these postings are made is to indicate that this might be the beginning of some future wave that will sweep the country”. You presume wrong. There will most likely not be a wave of the sort, surely not one that will sweep the country. But these are new voices, interesting voices, unique voices, of people who are trying to do something different. That’s why they’re brought here.
      @Greg, Joe, Bill – several interesting things about what you’re saying: 1. you’re assuming he hasn’t reported what he witnessed. 2. you’re only willing to consider something “reporting” if it’s done through military police, not – for example – via testimony to a journalist. 3. you’re shocked by the notion of rape, but apparently less so by massacre. Why is that?
      @Charles – Ther Shministim have always died out to make room for the next generation. Some Shministim activists became active in New Profile. And indeed, both New Profile and Yesh Gvul are supporting this new group.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Bill Pearlman

      Two things, after the Jenin massacre that wasn’t. And given the fact that everybody has a camera. And the fact that in Lebanon in 2006 you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a UN functionary I simply don’t believe him. If the IDF was marching through Lebanon like the Mongol hordes we would have heard about it.

      And what kind of man just walks on by multiple rapes. I’ve been to Israel more then a few times. Soldiers are armed. He couldn’t have feared for his life. And he didn’t say he reported is and nothing happened. Did he.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Haggai,
      Raping an Israeli might well have a lower threshold of acceptable notice than massacuring defined hostiles. Moreover, those raped are an independent source, potentially. Hostiles never get to file complaint.
      It is quite possible for someone refusing conscription to lie. That doesn’t mean this man is. But the charge that the Israeli military does not police internal rape has a high bar, especially given its long history of sexual intergration. Political opinions expressed do not in themselves convey sainthood. It is possible you have been played; it is also possible otherwise. Instead of attacking me for my lack of political correctness–investigate, journalist.
      US female military in Iraq have reported harrassment, and I suspect some rapes have ocurred. I am certain not all charges are made, or heard if made. How many of those events were “witnessed” by third parties, well, that’s another matter.

      Reply to Comment
    20. How are people here imagining rape? Someone grabbing hold of a woman suddenly and assaulting her without warning? An officer who coerces a female subordinate into sex is also a rapist, and this is a recurring problem in any military. Levin hasn’t identified something that’s rare or unique to the IDF. The military has a rigid hierarchical structure that means people often don’t feel safe in challenging others, especially over something as personal as sexual assault and especially if the assailant is superior to them. They’re too intimidated, and they may also get to the terrible point where they view objectification, harassment, and worse as the army norm. The fact that soldiers take advantage of this climate shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This is rape, even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype of woman being attacked in dark street by total stranger.
      “And the fact that in Lebanon in 2006 you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a UN functionary I simply don’t believe him.”
      Those UN functionaries (UNICEF) found that Lebanese children under the age of thirteen accounted for 30% of all Lebanese people killed. The overall civilian death toll continued to climb even after the war’s end, due to the IAF’s use of cluster bombs within the last few hours of the war. It seems that you would only be prepared to accept that massacres happened if the IDF spokesperson announced the fact over Army Radio.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Bill Pearlman

      Vicky, I do admire your verbal gymnastics. According to this guy there is a rape epidemic in the IDF. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But by his own admission he just let it go. What kind of man does that? And your proving my point. If the IDF was going through Lebanon like the Waffen SS believe me it would have been all over the world media. A Palestinian doesn’t get a hangnail with it being front page in the Guardian and lead story on the BBC.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Vicky,
      All that may have happened. But then it needs be articulated. Unsubstaniated charges don’t necessarily help. If we a prori taint everything Israeli as bad, we walk right into hasbara logic. There will be times when charges are fake. I know not here, but the level of detail given is inadquate; and, as much as I do not approve of IDF actions at times, I suspect there are many in the force who would take charges of rape seriously, as there are in the US military.
      On another, postive note, this thread is in the red comment wise. A good thing, as there are four refusers reported, not one.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Wadi

      After 2700 Years of wandering. Being driven out of countries into other countries. Working hard for generations to create businesses, to settle land, to make homes for their children and grand children; just in a moments time, to have all that swept away by an attacking force. The Jews finally have their own land, won by their own hands, govern by their own people. A land where they are free to pursue their own dreams in the comfort and knowledge that they are the ones who won their land and are protecting themselves. Yes, Israel will have to take all of Judah and Sameria, plus Gaza for itself in order to survive. Making sausage is not a pretty thing. The alternative is going back to enslavement, and the Jews are Wise not to trust other people with thier freedom. 2700 years of experience proves that. Let these young men leave Israel and live in Russia, or Europe for a while. Let them experience Anti-Semetism in all it’s glory.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Rape is an extremely common crime, to the point where I wonder why talking about it still generates such scepticism. (The same scepticism emerged in the thread on sexual harassment suffered by Israeli activists at left-wing demos.) It stems from the false belief that rape is really something very rare, and that the authorities can be relied upon to deal with it when it gets reported. Neither is true.
      On average, one in twenty women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime (and in certain areas, the figure is much higher than that – the estimate for London is one in six). There is no evidence to suggest that the military is a haven where rape allegations are taken seriously and are easier to report – quite the opposite. Rape in the US military was placed on the public agenda with the establishment of the Military Rape Crisis Center in 2006 – but that centre was only established because its founders (all soldiers who had been assaulted) hadn’t been able to get justice within the military system. In testimonies compiled by the MRCC, available through the website My Duty to Speak, soldiers describe being ostracised as sluts and liars after reporting assault (especially if their assailant was popular). Some received official punishments for speaking out, such as demotion. These cases never went before a court, military or civil.
      In a booklet of women soldiers’ testimonies compiled by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli soldier describes being greeted by yells of ‘fresh meat, fresh meat’ as she and another woman soldier arrived at Ketziot. Reading that, my first reaction was not pity, but confusion at their shock. Of course there are individuals in the military who take assault and harassment seriously, but to do so they have to fight against military culture itself. This is why so many anti-militarisation charities in Israel and abroad are feminist (New Profile, for example). They identify the militarisation of society as a primary contributing factor to violence against women. The two things go together.
      We can’t know what Levin did with his info based on a very short testimony outlining his reasons for refusal. He might well have reported what he knew to his superiors, to no result – as so many of the soldiers testifying with the MRCC found. Or he may have decided that the army simply can’t be trusted to protect its soldiers, so that reporting rape to the military police is useless. Or he may have thought that sharing such info without the consent of the assaulted soldiers could have made their lives in the army much worse. Reporting rape is not straightforward; there’s a reason why it is the most under-reported of all violent crimes. I hope that now he has turned his back on the military, Levin will put his knowledge to good use with New Profile or a similar group.
      Of course, there is also the possibility that he is lying – it’s only logical – but people here seem to be basing that conclusion on the assumption that what he says about sexual violence in the army is just too outlandish to be real. It’s not. I also struggle to see what he stands to gain from making up such a story.
      Bill, the carnage of Second Lebanon was pretty well-documented, and Israel’s use of four and a half million cluster bombs gave tremendous impetus to the campaign to ban cluster munitions internationally. (Unexploded munitions continue to cause death and serious injury in South Lebanon today.) South Lebanon got carpet-bombed, so Levin’s description of cities ablaze is accurate. Whole neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble, and thousands of people left homeless. In 2006, the commander of one IDF rocket unit stated, “What we did was insane and monstrous.” (Ha’aretz, 12/09/06) You don’t seem to have read about it, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t there, or that it didn’t happen.

      Reply to Comment
    25. joe

      Just to clarify, Vicky, I am making no assumptions about rape in the IDF. I don’t tend to take anyone’s word for anything, even if they are ‘on-message’. If this guy has evidence of wrongdoing, he should have reported it, if he hasn’t already – and even if the proper authorities take no notice of the reports. This is because ends do not justify means – you can’t just go around making unproven/unreported allegations about anyone, even those you oppose.

      Reply to Comment
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