Refuseniks provide a glimmer of hope

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A friend of mine who recently spoke on a panel on the Israeli-Palestinian issue suggested that one of the problems faced by Palestinians is that they have been unable to universalize their plight. The anti-apartheid activists did a wonderful job in this quarter. Once they succeeded in putting their plight on the radar screen of leading international and local human rights groups and activists, it was game over for the apartheid regime.

With the ruthless invasion of the Occupied Territories and the high profile resistance by a growing number of Israeli youth and reserve soldiers, the “refuseniks”, the Palestinians now have a great opportunity to push forward their plight more than ever before.

“There will never be a military answer to suicide bombers. They are the result of the despair produced by the occupation,” wrote Sarah Shartal, a former member of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). “People with hope for the future do not blow themselves up.” She continued in a letter to the editor last month published by the Toronto Star. “Palestinians need land, work, bread and dignity. This cannot happen without an end to the occupation. But, instead, we invade and terrorize.”

This was the same message delivered a few weeks earlier in Toronto by nineteen-year-old Israeli Matan Kaminer, one of the 62 high school seniors who last fall signed the widely publicized letter to Ariel Sharon expressing their refusal to take part in Israeli Defence Forces operations in the Occupied Territories.

The September 3rd letter, the brainchild of Matan and five other students, addressed to the Israeli PM, the Defence Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, stated:

“We the undersigned, youths who grew up and were brought up in Israel, are about to be called to serve in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces]. We protest before you against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and to inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy.

We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights. Land expropriation, arrests, executions without trial, house demolitions, closure, torture and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified.

These actions are not only illegitimate; they do not even achieve their stated goal é increasing the citizens’ personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.

Therefore, we will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions. We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army and reserve service soldiers to do the same.”

Born and raised in Israel until the age of seven, his family moved to California and then back to Israel when Matan was fourteen. Currently doing a year of service with the Re’ut Sedaka movement for Jewish-Arab coexistence, he says within a few years of his return he began to think about what he would do when it came time to serve in the army. All Israeli men must serve three years with the IDF, and then must report for reserve duty until they reach the age of 40 for about 30 days each year.

“I knew I could not serve in the Occupied Territories, it was wrong and I could not enforce the occupation,” said the articulate teenager to thunderous applause at the packed Victoria House auditorium in Toronto.

With this principled decision, Matan followed his father’s footsteps to join the refusenik movement which got its start during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The movement began to lose momentum after Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the signing of the Oslo accords, as many felt that it was only a matter of time when Israeli troops would withdraw from the Occupied Territories. In what some commentators suggest is a tacit rejection of Israeli policy, the number of reservists who sought to defer their tour of duty doubled in the wake of the current intifadah triggered by Ariel Sharon’s march to the Al Aqsa mosque.

“Many women in the peace camp would be pleased if their children refused to serve in combat units,” says Matan’s mother, Smadar Nehab. “I’ve been blessed by a son who has chosen not to serve in the territories,” she recently told Haaretz. “This is the strongest possible statement against the occupation. My son, Matan, is a patriot. He prefers not to serve there so that the state will continue to be able to exist.”

Such courageous words and actions appear to have had some effect. In fact, within the IDF itself, a mini-revolt by 52 reservists, who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories in January of this year, has grown to more than 400. The outspoken refuseniks appear to be gaining momentum as support groups pop up within and outside Israel. Most recently, in response to Operation Protective Wall, Israel’s largest military mission in 20 years, for which the IDF has called up 30,000 reservists, the refuseniks and their supporters took out an ad in Haaretz early this month.

“The mobilization of reservists for a new reoccupation of the territories is not an operation destined to defend the interests and borders of Israel and we won’t take part,” announced the ad. “The Israeli government has unleashed a destructive operation whose magnitude and consequences are difficult to estimate. It’s a fool’s war conducted by an administration that prefers to bury its head in the sand and drag the Israeli army through the mud of the territories,” the ad continued.

Echoing the position of Matan and the other students who signed the “Seniors’ letter.” The reservists, in their own “Officers’ letter”, take the position that they “will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line [separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip] with the aim of pressing, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people.”

Matan believes that this movement is targeted at the very evil within Israeli society é militarism. Displaying wisdom and insight beyond his age, he argues that the military is the sacred cow in Israel. The Israeli establishment relies on the military and military in turn benefits from unequivocal establishment support.

The initial reaction from the Israeli establishment was hysterical and confrontational. When this backfired, the government and the media tried to keep quiet about it, says Matan. The Israeli government dismisses the opposition as being a tiny fringe movement. In fact, the Israeli consul general in Toronto told this author during a televised panel discussion that these refuseniks are simply “leftists” and “communists”. The facts appear to contradict this. A poll conducted by Israeli radio last February revealed that 31 percent of Israelis supported the refuseniks.

Moreover, Matan pointed out that the movement is getting support from various quarters and he urged all peace loving people to show solidarity with refusenik support groups such as New Profile (www.newprofile.org) and Seruv (www.seruv.org.il).

“This is a strong social statement,” says Gor Ziv of New Profile, the Movement for the Civilization of Israeli Society. “Our young people are voting with their feet and it is worth paying attention to their voice. The trend of non-conscription is on the rise. This is the spread of a broad resistance movement that the military-governmental system is trying to blur.”

The Refuseniks appear to have also energized the Four Mothers movement é a group of military mothers who believe that the Occupation is unjust.

There is also some evidence to suggest that this most recent refusenik crisis is not the only worry for the IDF. Over the years, according to IDF’s own numbers, a record of 22 percent of all Israeli males eligible for the draft are granted exemptions. This is up from 12 percent 20 years ago. In addition, only one- third of all men eligible for reserve duty complete their tour. The recent allegations of war crimes and serious human rights violations is bound to make it worse for the IDF.

During his brief visit to Canada, Matan called for solidarity with the Palestinian people “who have been deprived of their basic human rights” and the refuseniks. He also urged people, wherever they lived, to put pressure on their elected officials to end military aid to Israel, particularly from the U.S. He concluded by reminding the audience that criticizing Israeli policies is not the same as anti-semitism. “Ending the occupation is in the best interest of Israel and the Jewish people,” says Matan.

Palestinians and their supporters must do all they can to promote and support this growing resistance from within the occupation army. And perhaps the gory images beamed into our homes from the Occupied Territories and the principled and courageous resistance of Matan, and those of his ilk, will force each of us to initiate or join the campaign to bring dignity and justice to the Palestinians.

Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

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