Reservists’ Refusal to Serve Shakes Israel’s Top Leaders

For decades, they were Israel’s shadow heroes, staging daring operations in places such as Entebbe and Lebanon and emerging into the limelight only when it came time to take top civilian posts.

But now even Sayeret Matkal, made up of these elite military figures, has been touched by a new moral unease in the Israeli military after three years of conflict with the Palestinians.

Thirteen reservists from Sayeret Matkal — the General Staff Reconnaissance Company — went public on Sunday with a letter they wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announcing they would refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Their move has shaken — and has been roundly condemned by — the political upper echelons to which the elite unite answers directly.

“We will no longer be party to an oppressive rule in the territories and the disregard for the human rights of millions of Palestinians,” wrote the reservists, ranging in rank from sergeant to captain.

“We will no longer serve to advance the Settlement Crusade.”

In a nod to the heavy secrecy under which Matkal operates, the petitioners signed only the first letters of their last names and, when making television appearances, insisted their faces be obscured.

It served as a slick inversion of the mystique surrounding Israel’s version of the U.S. Army Green Berets or the British Special Air Service, further enhancing the 13 reservists’ appeal.

Israel’s government and military top brass, still smarting from a similar declaration by 27 reserve combat pilots in September, was united in condemning the move.

Each of the signatories “will be called in to talk to his commander, the gravity of the situation will be explained to him and he will be given the chance to recant,” Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, himself a former Matkal officer, told Israel Radio on Monday.

“If he doesn’t, he will be thrown out of army reserve duty.”

His sentiments were echoed by a slew of fellow Matkal veterans, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and National Religious Party head Effi Eitam.

Even lawmaker Avshalom Vilan, who served in Matkal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and whose liberal Meretz Party is outspoken in its criticism of Israel’s countermeasures against Palestinian terrorism, called the letter “inappropriate.”

Rarely referred to by name and devoid of official insignia, Matkal is the elite of Israel’s elite, activated directly by the General Staff and its chief executive, Sharon.

Its activities in the West Bank and Gaza have been limited to top-priority swoops against terrorist leaders, but the reservists’ sweeping critique of Israeli policies in the territories carry enormous political weight.

“We thought coming out in this way, rather than joining the grey ranks of conscientious objectors whose protest consists of simply not turning up to the next tour of duty, was better,” a petitioner named only as Avner told Channel Two television.

Disobeying orders in Israel’s military is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment, but so far the Judge-Advocate General’s Office has made do with handing out much milder penalties in dealing with the so-called refuseniks.

When 27 reserve helicopter gunship pilots vowed in September to no longer take part in track-and-kill operations against Palestinian terrorists, several were dishonorably discharged.

According to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman, Yuval Steinitz, that set a precedent that encouraged further insubordination.

“Refusing to serve is an ideological felony and should be treated as such,” he told Israel Radio.

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