Background / When Israelis say, 'Hell no, we won't go'
Refusal to serve in the military, and attitudes toward those who refuse, have long functioned as a sensitive barometer of Israeli society as a whole. Clearly, in the three years of the war in the territories, something has changed.
Its simply chilling name has a distinct ring of George Orwell, but when the army of the one of the world's most military-conscious nations creates a conscience committee, nothing is that simple.
It has been eight years since the IDF conscience committee was set up. But the need for a such a body has deepened dramatically amid the moral complexities of the war in the territories and a consequent steep rise in the awareness of the pilots, elite commandos, grunts and draftees who have come forward - some quietly, some openly - to say that hell no, they won't go.
Although pacifism and refusal to serve have been in evidence since Israel was born in war in 1948, the issue has always been of extreme sensitivity in a country in which formally universal military service has left an indelible mark on the development of language and culture, on the conduct of commerce, and on the vocabulary and practice of statecraft.
The issue came to the fore once again this week, as the army continued to struggle in myriad ways with its relationship to its "sarbanim," a term ill-rendered into English as "refuseniks."
Refusal to serve, and attitudes toward those who refuse, have long functioned as a sensitive barometer of Israeli society as a whole. When Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit), a movement of sarbanim, arose during then-defense minister Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, those who refused to fight in protest over the controversial war were widely condemned as traitors, their manhood was questioned, and their act was interpreted as granting aid, comfort and encouragement to Israel's enemies.
Clearly, in the interim, and especially in the three years of the war in the territories, something has changed.
"When you speak to the young, you see that for them, refusal has become an option," says Haaretz commentator Lily Galili. "This one wants to be a pilot, and this one wants to refuse. It is nearly the same level of choice - either this or that.
"This legitimacy seen in the act of refusal is something new in Israeli society," Galili says.
If the climate has changed, many of the arguments against refusal have not. As in 1982, when members of Peace Now took a "serve now, protest later" position that included reserve duty in Lebanon interspersed with participation in anti-war demonstrations at home, many leftists oppose refusal on principle.
Their arguments are many, including the strong impact that individual officers and soldiers have on the moral behavior of the army as a whole, especially in their contact with, and treatment of, Palestinian civilians.
They note that in many areas of the territories, the IDF effectively operates as an amalgam of countless local militias, whose behavior can be exemplary or execrable, depending on the attitudes and actions of on-site commanders and troops.
Leftist opponents of refusal have also voiced fears that if the government undertakes wholesale evacuations of settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, right-wing soldiers could embrace refusal as well, declaring their opposition to participating in any action aimed at harming settlements.
Apart from Arab legislators, only two leftist Knesset members have gone on record as supporting refusal: Zehava Gal-On and Roman Bronfman, both of Meretz.
At the same time, the wider left, led by academics and some political activists, as well as the public at large, have softened their former blanket opposition to refusal. "A majority still opposes refusal, but there has begun to be a recognition of a democratic right to refuse, a difference in nuance, but a difference nonetheless," says Galili.
"People say that they view the phenomenon of refusal as dangerous, but that they understand that the right exists in a democratic society."
That right has increasingly been put to the test.
At the outset of the intifada, when Ehud Barak's Labor government broke historical precedent by sending battle tanks and helicopter gunships to attack Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza, there was a sharp rise in the number of Israelis declaring their refusal to serve in the territories.
It has been argued that the refusal movement was later blunted by the spate of suicide bombings aimed at the hearts of cities in Israel proper.
But the course of refusal can more accurately be described as cyclical, with a number of peaks, such as during the 2002 Defensive Shield operation in the West Bank, Galili observes.
More recently, the issues raised by refusal, and the sensitivity to its possible consequences, riveted the Jewish state when 27 Israel Air Force pilots signed a letter of protest declaring that they would no longer participate in targeted assassinations. The air strikes, while directed at terror warlords, have claimed large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties.
The army said this week that of the 27 pilots, 15 no longer do reserve duty, two or three have retracted their public declarations, and the remainder have been dismissed from reserve duty.
In late December, 13 reserve soldiers and officers in the army's ultra-prestigious Sayeret Matkal unit signed a letter declaring their refusal to serve in the territories.
"We say to you today, we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians," read the letter addressed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise."
On Wednesday, Yoni Ben-Artzi, convicted of refusing an order to enlist in the IDF, was summoned to appear for a fourth time before the conscience committee, charged by the army with determining the sincerity of potential conscripts who refuse to serve on the grounds of pacifism.
Formally, Israeli law as interpreted by Supreme Court decisions recognizes across-the-board pacifism as grounds for refusing army service. The conscience committee has been little inclined to accept claims of pacifism as genuine, however. In eight years, out of some 180 applicants to the committee, only six have been recognized as pacifists.
Although the great majority of conscience hearings have been held without public notice, the Ben-Artzi case has received particular attention, as the defendant's aunt is Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife, Sara.
The military tribunal that convicted Ben-Artzi included in its ruling a rare and acrid criticism of the conscience committee, which had accepted a military prosecutor's description of Ben-Artzi as having "feigned pacifism."
A year ago, in response to criticism by the High Court of Justice, a civilian - a philosopher by profession - was added to the formerly all-military panel.
Much more common than youths who declare themselves pacifists are those who choose selective refusal. These fall into two general categories. The first are those who are willing to serve in the army, but refuse to serve in the territories. The second refuse to be conscripted at all unless and until the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza comes to an end.
The army this week ordered that five youths in the latter category, who have served more than a year in military prisons, be transferred to a civilian prison, a step that their lawyers and parents have hotly contested, disputing the army's claims that the sarbanim are dangerous, and arguing instead that it is the civilian jail that holds the most danger.
By far the most widespread form of the phenomenon is entirely unrecognized by army statistics, Galili says. This is "gray refusal," in which sarbanim quietly find means within the army to serve as they choose. This category may include transfers or changes of role within the IDF, or military discharges or exemptions for youths and reservists declared "inappropriate for service."
IDF Major General Gil Regev, head of the army's personnel division, sparked controversy this week when he testified before a Knesset committee on the issue of refusal, which he acknowleged had spread over the past three years.
Taking as his unit of measure the number of soldiers jailed for refusal, Regev said Tuesday that there had been a marked drop in refusal over the past year. In 2002, 100 reservists and 29 officers were sentenced to jail terms for refusing to serve in the territories.
Last year, by contrast, only 18 reserve officers and eight officers did jail time for comparable refusal, Regev said.
The figures were quickly and hotly disputed, however, in part because they did not reflect the fact, acknowledged by Regev, that many individual soldiers have discreetly received consent from their commanders to be relieved of specific duties or transferred away from duty in the territories.
The Yesh Gvul organization, which backs sarbanim, countered that Regev's figures were plain wrong. According to the group, the army jailed a total of 76 people, 11 of them officers.
The group also said that said that 79 soldiers and 18 officers had added their names to the Courage to Refuse [service in the territories] letter in 2003, and that the number of high-school sarbanim had risen to 500.
Has the phenomenon of refusal had a substantive impact on Israeli policymaking, and of the conduct of the war and the occupation?
The question is a difficult one to answer definitively. However, Galili states, "Over the recent period, we have all taken notice that there have been fewer 'liquidations' [assassination missions] launched by the air force.
"Under no circumstances can I state a cause-and-effect relationship as a result of the pilots' letter, but in practice there has been a drop."
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