Israel’s Left-wing Continues Debate on Refusing to Serve in Territories

Israel’s small left-wing political community is stirred up over whether to support soldiers who refuse to do their required military service in the administered territories.

The Citizens Rights Movement has split sharply over the issue — while it opposes the Israeli presence in the territories, its leadership draws the line in principle against the refusal of military duty.

Yossi Sarid, a member of its Knesset faction, argued that refusal to serve could undermine the Israel Defense Force and give comfort to Israel’s enemies in Syria and Iraq.

But others in the CRM believe soldiers who would sooner go to jail than fire tear gas or rubber bullets at young Palestinian stone-throwers should get moral support and even honor.

The issue arose after 43 CRM elected officials signed a newspaper advertisement which offered encouragement to a CRM city councilman from Ramat Gan who did just that.

Yesh Gvul, a movement that gives moral and material support to IDF reservists who refuse as a matter of conscience to serve in the territories, welcomed the controversy, because it brought the issue of refusal to serve into the headlines.

The CRM central committee, meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, overwhelmingly adopted a resolution reiterating the party’s “rejection of refusal and of encouragement of refusal.” Nevertheless, Yesh Gvul and many other Israelis of diverse political persuasions believe the much-publicized CRM discussion marks a general aware ness of the refusal phenomenon, which gnaws at a small but important part of Israeli society.

While Yesh Gvul itself is marginal and is not considered an influential source, the CRM is certainly neither marginal nor able to be dismissed. It sees itself, and many observers see it, as part of the political mainstream.

Only five of the 70 members attending the CRM Central Committee meeting favored a clause “expressing understanding for the refusal by individuals who are prepared to pay the price for their action.”

It was proposed in defense of the controversial advertisement that appeared last Friday. During the debate, a former IDF chief education officer, Mordechai Baron, said that if he had been asked to sign the advertisement, he would gladly have done so.

“Every morning, I ask myself what can I do to try to help end this occupation,” said Baron, a former CRM Knesset member.

From Yesh Gvul’s point of view, the episode was a singular success, if only because the sacrifices of the 116 IDF officers and soldiers jailed for refusing to serve in the territories since the intifada began has forced itself upon the public mind.

Sarid continued to argue Sunday that if he and other CRM leaders endorsed refusal, thousands of young Israelis, including many officers, might take their cue from the people they voted for in the Knesset elections and refuse to enlist for reserve duty.

“I am not sure that (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein and (Syrian president) Hafez Assad will see the refusal in the right light,” Sarid said Sunday.

SAP IDF’S STRENGTH

Some independent observers have warned that if refusal took hold as a mass movement, it could quickly sap the IDF’s strength.

They recalled the pervasive and profound problems of morale and discipline during the latter stages of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 1983 to 1984.

An important difference, however, is that at that time, IDF personnel were being killed and wounded almost daily, while in the intifada, that is not the case.

The fact is that after nearly three years of intifada, the number of what are now being referred to as refuseniks is tiny.

Behind them, however, as every reservist knows, is a much larger number of officers and ranks who manage either to be abroad or otherwise engaged when their call-up time rolls around, or who manage, through personal contacts, not to get assigned to the territories.

Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz, in a carefully worded editorial Monday, gave voice to the unease felt by many left-wing Israelis.

“We should not support the spread of refusal,” the paper said. “But it would be proper to point to refusal as an almost inevitable phenomenon in a society which is deeply divided by a dangerous and controversial policy.

“The government’s policy is leading us along a mistaken path. It is this policy which has resulted in the determination of the handful of refuseniks. Their personal and public decision, for which they suffer lawful punishment, must serve as a warning sign for Israeli society: it signals a moral distress whose force and profundity cannot be ignored.”

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