Al-Ahram Weekly – 7 February 2002
Fifty-two reservists in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) signed a letter in the press last week saying they would refuse to implement government policies in the occupied territories — or, as they phrased it, “take part in the war for the peace of the settlements.”
“We will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line [Israel’s 1967 border with the West Bank] in order to rule, expel, destroy, blockade, assassinate, starve and humiliate an entire people,” they said. The soldiers, emphasising their commitment to Zionism, said they were still prepared to take part in missions to defend Israel.
The reservists’ letter has prompted the first national debate about the legitimacy of the occupation — and the methods being used by the army against Palestinians — since the start of the Intifada 16 months ago.
By Wednesday, the number of reservists signing the letter had risen to 188 and the army’s chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, was sounding rattled. He called their actions “an incitement to rebellion.”
On Israel Radio he hinted that the group might be politically motivated rather than taking a moral stance, a theme taken up by other senior officers. Mofaz said: “Should, heaven forbid, it turn out that an ideological campaign has produced this phenomenon then I will view it not as draft refusal but rather as subversion.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also expressed concern. The failure of his hard-line tactics to curb terror attacks has seen his popularity ratings slide from 57 per cent to 48 per cent, according to the daily Maariv newspaper. Sharon said that if soldiers were able to choose whether to carry out government orders it would be “the beginning of the end of democracy.”
At the age of 18, most Israelis are called up to serve in the army: men for three years and women for two. The ultra- Orthodox and the country’s Palestinian minority are exempt. Until they reach their forties, men continue to serve for about a month each year in reserve units.
The army does not publish figures for the number of conscientious objectors, but hundreds of teenagers are believed to have refused the draft since the Intifada erupted. In September, in the first group protest, more than 60 wrote to Sharon expressing their moral qualms at serving in the Palestinian territories.
However, the reservists’ letter has struck a nerve because most of the signatories have already served in the West Bank and Gaza. A counter-petition published in newspapers over the weekend and signed by 140 soldiers which labelled the reservists “draft dodgers” appeared far from convincing.
Some of the reservists’ objections are based on their personal experiences during the Intifada. Although the group leaders have refused to talk to the foreign press, saying they do not want to fuel anti-Israel sentiment, they have given interviews to the Israeli media detailing transgressions they claim to have witnessed.
In one interview, Yaniv Itskovich, a 26-year-old lieutenant in the paratroopers, said he had seen a soldier shoot at the figure of a distant man in Gaza just because he feared he might be armed.
Another officer said he had witnessed Palestinian bystanders being ordered to fetch suspect packages near checkpoints to see whether they exploded.
The reservists have set up a petition on a Web site which they hope will attract the signatures of 500 soldiers. The site is registered to Ariel Shatil, who was court-martialled last October for refusing to fire a machine gun towards a civilian area of Gaza.
Support for the reservists has come from unexpected quarters. Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet security service, said he felt “a lot of empathy” for them, adding that soldiers were being asked to carry out “blatantly illegal” orders.
“As far as I’m concerned, too few soldiers are refusing such orders,” he said. “To shoot an unarmed youth is a blatantly illegal order. I am very worried by the number of Palestinian children shot in the last year.”
There has been rising criticism of the IDF for failing to investigate cases of possible misconduct. Numerous incidents of Palestinians being unnecessarily detained at checkpoints — even those urgently requiring medical treatment — have rarely led to disciplinary action.
In a possible sign of the IDF’s growing sensitivity to such accusations, it opened an inquiry this week into the deaths of two Palestinian newborn babies after their mothers were unable to reach hospitals because of roadblocks around Jenin. The cases occurred in December but only came to light after an Israeli newspaper highlighted them two weeks ago.
The question now hanging over Mofaz is what action to take against the reservists. In the past the IDF has preferred to deal quietly with soldiers refusing to serve to avoid generating public sympathy for them.
For the time being Mofaz hopes to isolate the officers believed to be behind the letter. Four have been suspended from their duties and the others are to be interviewed by their commander in the coming weeks and put under pressure to withdraw their signatures.
Those who refuse will be reassigned to guard duty and other non-combat roles. According to military sources, any who refuse to serve will be court-martialled.
Meanwhile, the IDF is reported to have begun a campaign against the reservists. Aviv Laurie, the correspondent of the daily Haaretz newspaper, said the counter-letter published at the weekend had been coordinated by the army high command. He also quoted sources as saying that the army was hoping to find a few “rotten apples” among the reservists to discredit the rest.
The top priority for Mofaz and Sharon will be stopping the protest gathering momentum. Both are likely to remember the lesson of 1978, when 348 reservists launched a campaign to urge the government to support peace overtures from the then Egyptian president, Anwar El- Sadat. The group later evolved into Israel’s biggest peace movement, Peace Now.