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Four years ago, an international organization that represents conscientious objectors released the results of a comparative survey, which sought to track the method by which various countries around the world deal with the growing phenomenon of conscientious objection. International conventions define a conscientious objector as someone who refuses to enlist in the army because he holds pacifist beliefs that prevent him, for reasons of conscience, from belonging to an organization that acts in violent ways, such as an army.

These conventions differentiate between one type of conscientious objection, derived from the beliefs of the objector and which is absolute and pervasive, and another type that is defined as "selective objection," which stems from political and ideological motives and is expressed through a refusal to enlist in a specific army, or an army that operates in a specific region and/or specific historical circumstances.

Dozens of countries have recognized the fundamental rights of conscientious objectors to be exempted from military service, but only 24 - including Israel - have seen fit to establish organizations and administrative mechanisms through which conscientious objectors can apply with requests to realize this right.

War Resisters International (WRI) once conducted a survey of these mechanisms and the percentage of applicants whose requests are approved. "In Poland, the percentage of approved requests is the lowest of all," the report found. "Only 60 percent of applicants received an exemption from army service." The WRI found that in many countries, nearly every request was automatically approved.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Defense Ministry at first turned down the WRI's request for statistical data and other information on how the requests of conscientious objectors are handled. It took three years, and repeated requests of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel - which were based on the Freedom of Information Law - until the IDF saw fit to provide statistical data on the phenomenon.

During the three years between 1998 and 2000, the data reveals that some 115 applications were submitted to the IDF for exemptions due to reasons of pacifism. Only 11 were accepted, representing approximately 9.5 percent. Only five of those receiving the exemption were young people facing - or already performing - their compulsory service. The other six were reservists. About half the applicants, 53 of 115, were teenagers facing the draft, but only three of them, or 5.6 percent, were exempted from service. Israeli pacifists, it seems, have good reason to envy their Polish counterparts.

The applications of pacifists requesting release from IDF service are handled by an army body officially known as the Committee for Granting Exemptions from Defense Service for Reasons of Conscience, but which is popularly known as the "Conscience Committee." Set up in 1995, its methods of operation had been kept under wraps until recently.

However, three petitions filed with the High Court of Justice in recent months, by three candidates for the draft whose applications to the Conscience Committee were rejected, shed much light on the committee's inner workings, as well as the atmosphere of antagonism directed at those who apply to it, which is often apparent in its deliberations.

No clear criteria

Based on the facts cited in the High Court petitions, it develops that skewed statistics are not the only difference between Israel's handling of its conscientious objectors and that of the other 23 countries polled in the international survey. For example, Israel is the only one of the countries, except for Ecuador, that has delegated the processing of pacifist requests to the army itself; in every other country, these applications are handled by civilian bodies that are naturally more open to accepting the justifications.

Until last month, the IDF's Conscience Committee was composed exclusively of army officers. Several civilians have now been appointed to the committee, some of them high-ranking reserve officers who had served on the committee in the past. Unlike most other countries, there is no chance of directly appealing the decisions of the IDF committee. Pacifists whose requests for exemption from IDF service have been turned down may only appeal to the High Court of Justice.

The three young men who petitioned the court against the Conscience Committee come from similar backgrounds, hold similar opinions and made the same request of the army. Two of them, Yonatan Ben-Artzi and Yinnon Hiller, are 20 years old and were supposed to be drafted two years ago. Ben-Artzi lives in Jerusalem, attended one of the more prestigious high schools in the city, and now studies physics at Hebrew University. He says he is willing to contribute to society in any way possible, except through military service. Hiller lives in northern Israel and during the two years since graduating high school has worked as a volunteer with youth at risk, "in order to prove that the army is not the only way to contribute to society."

Each appeared before the Conscience Committee twice, and each appealed to the High Court, claiming that the committee adopted improper procedures and that its decisions were unreasonable. The High Court has pushed back their date of enlistment until it completes hearing their petition. The third petitioner, Amir Malenky, from the community of Re'ut, is 18. He was supposed to be drafted earlier last month. One week before his draft date, the Conscience Committee rejected his request for an exemption. The court has delayed his draft date until the completion of its proceedings, as well.

All three young men have the full backing of their parents in their struggle, and all three have asked the state to let them perform civilian service in lieu of military service, thereby absolving them of the need to wear a uniform, carry a gun or be part of an army in any way.

Their petitions, which were worded in almost the same language by the same lawyers, state that from a young age they formulated "a pacifist world view, based on tolerance and opposition to all forms of violence, verbal and physical alike." "By definition, any army," wrote attorneys Zivan Tobby-Alimi and Ori Keidar, explaining the viewpoint of their three clients, "is a violent organization that has the objective of fighting, killing and using every means to achieve those objectives and goals that can otherwise be achieved, in the petitioner's opinion, through non-violent means. As part of his beliefs and world view, the petitioner objects to any use of force as a means of achieving military and political objectives, even for the purpose of self-defense."

The Conscience Committee heard and turned down all three applicants, on the grounds that the pacifist world view they presented was not sufficiently "sincere" or "articulated" and that their request for an exemption from compulsory service in the IDF stemmed from motives and considerations other than pacifism. The committee did not elaborate on what they might be.

Attorneys Keidar and Tobby-Alimi base their petition against the committee and its decisions on two primary reasons. One, that the objective of the committee is to determine the degree of sincerity and commitment to a pacifist world view by the individual appearing before them, but that it operates without any clear and objective criteria that might enable it to make that determination. Two, that the committee members lack the requisite knowledge to decide whether the world view presented to them is indeed a legitimate, acceptable and familiar pacifist world view.

Not even to enlist

The committee before which Ben-Artzi appeared consisted of four army officers: the head of the draft authority, the head of the movement and placement section at the central absorption and classification base, a psychologist from the behavioral sciences department of the manpower division, and a lawyer from the Judge Advocate General's office.

"There you have it," wrote Ben-Artzi's lawyers. "All of the committee members are career army officers, and they did not include even a single representative who would be considered well-versed and expert on the issue of pacifism, its scope, attributes, the various streams of thought that exist within it, and so on and so forth."

In a committee whose declared role is to determine whether a certain pacifist world view is "sincere and well articulated," the petition argues, "one might expect it to include an academic who is immersed in the doctrine of pacifism - a philosopher, a political scientist, a historian, an expert on constitutional law, or similar."

The petitions offer examples extracted from the official transcripts of the committee sessions. Ofra Ben-Artzi, Yonatan's mother, who testified on his behalf before the committee, related that her son has been known since his elementary school days as someone who stubbornly stands up for his principles, and that this trait had drawn him into numerous disputes with his teachers. In response, the officer from the behavioral sciences department noted that "an individual who stands up for his opinions with such strong-mindedness cannot be a pacifist."

The committee also completely disregarded a written opinion submitted to it by Professor Chaim Gans, an expert on philosophy of law, and the historian Professor Michael Har-Segor, both of whom met with Ben-Artzi for lengthy conversations. Both men expressed their view that his beliefs were consistent with the doctrine of pacifism.

All three petitioners claim that the committee sessions took place amid an antagonistic atmosphere. The committee members, say the three, made no effort to understand their viewpoints and invested most of their energy in the attempt to argue with them. This is especially evident in the transcript of a committee session that took up Malenky's request on January 17 of this year. Malenky, who was asked at the start of the session to explain his beliefs, only managed to utter a single sentence ("I have always been revolted by violence, and I kept my distance from it whenever I saw people hitting each other") before being cut off by a member of the committee. The name of that individual, like the names of the other committee members, is not recorded in the transcript. On the other hand, it does record the following exchanges:

Committee member: Do you think the State of Israel is in a situation in which it can afford not to protect itself?

Malenky: The State of Israel is not a good example.

Committee member: Let's take the State of Israel as an example. Ben-Gurion didn't have intentions of causing anyone harm, but there was no choice.

Malenky: This is a historic debate I prefer not to get into.

Committee member: Nazi Germany, which attacked countries, for instance.

Malenky: You have to examine what led Germany to be such a country.

Committee member: And what about Poland, which it attacked?

Malenky: There are situations in which the prevention stage works, I don't know what stopped them from doing it beforehand. There are some situations you simply can't do anything about.

Committee member: Let's move on. Suppose that this committee wants to help you out. What do you think it should do?

Malenky: Give me an exemption as they do in other countries, and as they do with girls. I refuse to serve for reasons of conscience.

Committee member: And what if it does not let you?

Malenky: I will explore other avenues. I would also go to prison, if I had to.

Committee member: You benefit from the State of Israel, you studied in its educational institutions and so on, and there are obligations in a state ... You are disregarding the idea of equality.

Malenky: And what about Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox?

Committee member: In my opinion, that isn't right either. The principle of equality says that everyone should give.

The IDF proposes to assign all three of the young people whose cases are to be heard by the High Court of Justice to civilian positions ("without guns, without uniforms and maybe also without basic training"), but on condition that they agree to be drafted and go through the enlistment process. The three are willing to serve three years in civilian positions, but only on condition that they not be compelled to enlist.

The IDF steadfastly refuses to give in on the need to enlist, and the High Court, which heard arguments regarding the case two weeks ago, at which time it consolidated the files of Hiller and Malenky, gave the two sides four months to reach a compromise. If they are unable to reach a compromise solution, the justices will rule.

The petition of Ben-Artzi, which also raises fundamental questions regarding the work of the Conscience Committee, will be judged separately. The High Court of Justice decision on his case, therefore, will affect the future functioning of the committee.

The IDF Spokesman chose to provide a matter-of-fact response to the details and allegations presented in this article. "Yonatan Ben-Artzi," the spokesman stated, "has petitioned the High Court of Justice against the decision of the committee that considers applications for conscientious objection, and the petition is still pending in the High Court. The IDF will relate to the allegations as part of a response that it will submit to the Supreme Court."