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Conscientious Objector Groups Have New Life As Intifada Drags on

January 16, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Trudging up a craggy hill with red mud sticking to their boots, the group of Israelis broke into chants.

“We don’t cry, we don’t shoot!” they yelled. “We refuse to be murderers!”

The 50 or so demonstrators had arrived at a hill overlooking Military Prison No. 6 near Atlit, where conscientious objectors are detained.

“It is a soldier’s duty to disobey illegal orders,” explained Peretz Kidron, a white-haired activist. “When Israeli troops commit war crimes and say, ‘We were just obeying orders,’ they use the same excuse as the Nazis did.”

The conscientious objectors, often called “refuseniks,” represent a growing number of Israelis who either refuse to do reserve military duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or who reject outright any conscription into the Israel Defense Force.

Reserve Maj. Ishai Menuchin, director of the conscientious objector group Yesh Gvul, stands on the steep slope with a bullhorn in hand.

“We are talking about 20,000 soldiers who do not show up for reserve duty, which constitutes a huge chunk of the reserve pool,” Menuchin said. “The fact is, fewer and fewer grown men are willing to risk their lives protecting some God-forsaken roadblock near Nablus.”

The Israeli army says Menuchin’s figures are ridiculously inflated.

“Their claims are, frankly, bullshit,” Lt. Col. Olivier Ravich, an IDF spokesman. “Anyone can manipulate the reservist numbers to prove their point.”

In any case, only a fraction of those who duck reserve duty do so for ideological reasons. The trend long predates the intifada, reflecting the belief among some segments of the population that peace was just around the corner after the Oslo Accords were signed.

As Israeli society became increasingly bourgeois in the 1990s, many Israelis preferred to spend their time traveling abroad or joining lucrative dot-com ventures rather than heading off to the reserves.

The IDF won’t give numbers of conscientious objectors, but says they are anomalies among a population that increasingly considers the Palestinian uprising an existential threat.

The army insists that morale remains as high as ever.

“In fact, an increasing number of draftees and veteran reservists have volunteered for combat units in recent years,” Ravich says.

Still, the turmoil of the intifada has given groups like Yesh Gvul a fresh sense of purpose.

Yesh Gvul’s name — a Hebrew phrase that means both “there’s a limit” and “there’s a border” — reflects the group’s origins in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the first war that some Israelis saw as one of choice rather than necessity.

The phones at the organization have been ringing off the hook in recent months, Menuchin claims. Since the intifada began in September 2000, his organization has helped over 400 men to avoid reserve duty, including 36 people currently jailed at Prison 6.

Most Israelis have at their disposal countless ways of avoiding reserve duty — for example, taking a trip abroad, getting a doctor’s note or even injuring themselves to downgrade their physical profile. Only those who specify that they refuse on ideological grounds face the possibility of jail time.

Jail terms are about as long as the reserve duty would be — generally, 14 to 26 days — and rarely do the objectors suffer negative consequences in the workplace or elsewhere when they are released.

“When I was a conscript I enjoyed being in the Tapuach area” of the West Bank, near Nablus, “telling stories back home about my artillery unit,” said Reserve Lt. Ishai Sagi, 27. “But when I got sent back to the Tapuach area not as a boy but as grown man, it reminded me of the terrible things we do there. I then told my commanding officers that I am not willing to give my soldiers the orders that I was forced to give, and that this is the last time I would serve there.”

Less than six months later, Sagi received an order to return to Tapuach. When he refused, he was jailed for 26 days at Prison 6.

Reserve duty has become so undesirable in recent years that 41 percent of Israelis believe only “suckers” show up, according to a recent poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper. Of the total pool of some 250,000 potential reservists, just 13,000 serve the full reserve term of 26 days a year, the daily Ma’ariv reported.

The Israeli army announced in September the establishment of two new brigades, signing on conscripts for extra terms of duty to reduce pressure on the reserve system.

For the army, the reservist dilemma is less ideological than budgetary. Many reservists have careers and families and demand more of the army than do young conscripts.

The army pays reservists salaries roughly equivalent to those they receive in the private sector. Furthermore, after several reservists died in action, reserve officers and their units organized to demand expanded benefits.

If they don’t provide added benefits, higher pay and better hours, the army will continue to have problems convincing reservists that they aren’t suckers for answering the call of duty, said Tzvika Weshler, spokesman for Baltam, a reservist advocacy group.

The army has met some of Baltam’s demands, earmarking some $17 million in bonus pay for combat reservists who serve more than 26 days, renovating bases where reservists train and making scheduling more flexible.

In the long term, says Reserve Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former deputy of the IDF’s planning division and currently a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the IDF will have to restructure so it doesn’t rely on reservists, Brom said.

In the short run, however, Brom expects few changes: Fewer reservists want to serve at a time when, because of the intifada, the IDF is using five times more reserve battalions than before.

Nevertheless, Yesh Gvul continues to canvas bus and train stations to inform soldiers of a clause in the IDF’s code that allows them to disobey illegal orders.

The law stems from the ruling of a committee of inquiry charged with investigating the Kafr Qassem massacre in 1956, when soldiers killed 49 Arab civilians who weren’t aware of a curfew imposed at the beginning of the Sinai War. Ultimately, the presiding judge ruled that following an illegal order is a criminal offense.

Since then, peace activist Kidron said, the army has never court-martialed a refusenik.

If it did, the trial would bring up tough questions about the IDF’s laws, including those claiming that the IDF’s legal code incorporates all international conventions Israel has signed.

Yesh Gvul members say they support the army — but as a defensive force only.

“The myth is that pressuring the Palestinians will protect us,” Kidron said, “but it is the trigger to more violence, and cannot provide us with security.”

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