A Young Woman Refused to Serve in the Israeli Army. This Is What Happened to Her

Atalya Ben-Abba decided to refuse to serve in the Israeli military, due to her opposition to the occupation and Israeli policy. She tells Haaretz why there are more female than male conscientious objectors and the prices she paid for her decision

Atalya Ben-Abba, the subject of the documentary 'Objector,' last week.
Atalya Ben-Abba, the subject of the documentary 'Objector,' last week. Credit: Emil Salman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

23 year old Israeli Atalya Ben-Abba actually dreamed of becoming a combat soldier. When she was little, she loved to watch the TV show “Xena: Warrior Princess,” to see the fearless Amazon fighting the Greek gods and mythological creatures, and to fantasize about how one day, she herself would become a warrior princess: a courageous heroine who would rescue people and fight for justice.

At a certain point, when she got a little older and had to adapt the fantasy to reality, the closest she could get was the idea of being a combat soldier. But as her draft date drew nearer, the dream began to crumble. Ben-Abba realized that as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, she wouldn’t really fight for justice, but would be required “to help a system that oppresses people, denies their rights and maintains a regime that is racist, discriminatory and belligerent,” she explains. “And if I want to work for justice, apparently [the IDF] isn’t my place.”

Ben-Abba is the protagonist of the documentary “Objector,” which was screened last week at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. It reveals how she arrived at her decision to refuse to serve, as an act of protest against the Israeli occupation in the territories and the violation of the Palestinians’ human rights. The film records her doubts, her visits to the West Bank before forming her opinion, the friends she made there, and her conversations with her brother, who also refused to serve in the IDF for the same reasons.

“Objector” also presents arguments between Ben-Abba and her parents and grandfather, who try to convince her to enlist. It also accompanies her family during the period when Ben-Abba was in prison, and describes her path in the end – after 110 days in a military prison – to receiving an exemption from military service, to volunteer for national service in the community and to become an anti-occupation activist.

Ben-Abba, in a still from the documentary 'Objector.'Credit: Still from 'Objector'

In one of the scenes in the film, after a discussion in which her grandfather tries and fails to change her mind about enlisting, Ben-Abba says: “When my grandfather was my age he saw entire villages of Palestinians loaded onto trucks and expelled. He told me that it broke his heart, but that he thought it was necessary. Those people or their families could have been my friends. So I ask myself, what can I do? What power do I have to change things? And then I understood that I have the power to refuse.”

The idea for the film began several years ago when Ben-Abba’s brother, Amitai, had an American girlfriend, Molly Stuart, who was studying film in San Francisco and came to Israel to shoot a short film. Stuart directed a 15-minute documentary about Ben-Abba’s story of conscientious objection, and when the film piqued interest in the festival scene, she decided to direct a full-length documentary on the subject together with Amitai. “Objector” was released in 2019, and was screened at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

'When my grandfather was my age he saw entire villages of Palestinians loaded onto trucks and expelled. He told me that it broke his heart, but that he thought it was necessary'

When they tried to screen the film in Israeli schools in recent months, many doors slammed in their faces. “The idea was to use the film to start a conversation in Israel about an alternative. Not a conversation that called for people to refuse to serve, but one that presents brave women who took responsibility and paid a personal price for that,” explains Shelly Danosh, who ran the movie’s marketing campaign. The plan was to screen the film in high schools, youth movements, pre-army preparation courses and so on, but they soon learned that it’s no simple task. Danosh says that of about 150 offers to various institutions to show the film and hold a discussion, there were only about 20 takers.

Ben-Abba was born and raised in Jerusalem and is the youngest of four children. Both her parents are architects. When she was 16, her brother returned to Israel after two years of studying abroad with a more critical attitude about Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories. He started talking about the occupation, got into bitter arguments with his parents and decided not to enlist. His younger sister listened to these discussions and arguments, joined him during visits to the West Bank and to Sheikh Jarrah and began to entertain doubts about her upcoming enlistment.

At the time she was living in a commune with other members of her Nahal Brigade core group – a program that combines agricultural work with military service. “In the seminars, they often talked to us about social responsibility and social ethics, and for me that really resonated with conscientious objection,” she says. “Because there are many ways of getting out of the army, but when you refuse to serve you’re making a very clear statement, and that’s something that's really lacking in the Israeli discourse: to be really clear about what you think, and not to hide or downplay it.”

How did your friends react?

“The friends who lived with me in the commune saw the processes I was going through. We used to talk about it a lot, and those who were close to me understood why I chose it. It’s not a choice that they themselves wanted to make, and I didn’t try to convince them. It was understanding it together. But none of them attacked me or were angry at me. But at a certain point after they enlisted I could no longer be part of the group, because their discourse was already too militant for me, or it was simply a discussion about a different life. They talked about the army, and I talked about what I saw in Umm al-Hiran or some home demolition. Then I was no longer a part of the group.”

The choice to refuse to serve excluded you from that group, and later from Israeli society as a whole

'The idea was to use the film to start a conversation in Israel about an alternative. One that presents brave women who took responsibility and paid a personal price for that'

“In a lot of ways, it made me value this outsiderness. After completing my year of national service, I worked for half a year in some restaurant in Jerusalem, and I was incapable of telling them that I was going to refuse to serve. I said that I would have to leave at some point for ‘army matters.’ I was afraid of losing the good relationship I had with my boss. But the truth is that as an objector, I wasn’t alone, but part of a network called ‘Mesarvot’ [Female objectors].

“Even while I was refusing service, there were two other female conscientious objectors from the north with me. Two of us were in Prison 6, and the third in Prison 4 … It’s true that we’re not part of the hegemony, but it’s not a feeling of loneliness. It’s true that there are many groups that try to frighten and silence anyone who tries to criticize Israel’s policy – and that's been very clear in recent weeks – but for me, part of my activism is to speak. To choose to be here and to speak. Not everyone has to think that I’m right, but let’s talk.”

Ben-Abba, in a still from the documentary 'Objector.'Credit: 'Objector'

Were there moments when you felt like you were paying a price for your refusal?

“Of course. From the start, when I decided to refuse I chose a particular path for my life. I knew that an entire part of the job market would be closed to me in advance. From the start, I didn’t apply to jobs where I knew it would be problematic. At the university, for example, we had a kind of forum in which everyone had to write an analysis of a phenomenon, and one of the students chose to analyze conscientious objection. It was very personal and directed at me. He knew that I study with him and that I'm a conscientious objector, and he wrote why he thinks that what I did is privileged."

Conscientious objection usually does comes from a place of privilege.

"True. But that doesn't make it illegitimate. It's true that I come from a place of privilege, but I could have done many things with the privileges I was born with – for example, to advance in a career for myself. But I chose to take advantage of it to do justice, to take the voice I was given use it to speak on behalf of those who can't. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that I was born a white Jewish woman in Israel means that I have to use that for the benefit of Palestinians."

In the film they note that most of the conscientious objectors in Israel are women. Can you explain why?

"First of all, Mesarvot is a feminist movement, a network whose aim is to help political objectors – and not only those who are opposing the occupation. For example, we help Haredim, Druze and reservists who refuse to serve. In my opinion, this connection is very strong and very interesting, especially in today's very divisive Israeli reality."

'From the start, when I decided to refuse I chose a particular path for my life. I knew that an entire part of the job market would be closed to me in advance'

But why are there more women objectors?

"I think that the feminist nature of the movement is strongly connected to conscientious objection, due to the rejection of militarism and the very patriarchal values that accompany it: violence as the only option for a solution, the oppression that comes with the patriarchy, and the internal violence against women – and men – in the army. And all of these are ideas that are more accessible to young women in Israel. I think that the connection we've created between conscientious objection and feminism draws in more women."

Do male and female conscientious objectors have different experiences?

"Yes. First of all the military prison is different. Because there are far more male military prisoners than women, they're divided into departments according to the severity of their infractions – which doesn't exist for women. And because of that, [a woman] could share a cell with someone who deals heroin, which means that the discipline in prison is stronger.

Ben-Abba. 'I chose to take advantage of my privilege to do justice'Credit: Emil Salman

"So female conscientious objectors are imprisoned in a tougher and more rigid prison, compared to the conditions of male objectors who are held in a low-security prison, and therefore enjoy far more freedom. And the social attitude [in prison] is different. Many of the women say that the girls [the other prisoners] were wonderful, supported them and strengthened them. Whereas the men say that it was harder for them to form social ties."

You spent 110 days in a military prison. In hindsight, how do you sum up this experience, and how did it affect you?

"I made the most of it, to the best of my ability. I arrived in prison with a very sharp awareness – it was clear to me why I was there. As opposed to the other prisoners, I chose to be there and that gave me a lot of peace of mind. For most of the girls, what was hard is the sense of injustice, the feeling that they're treating you like a criminal, but I was ready for that. Mesarvot also prepared me, and there were female attorneys who came to visit me, so it didn’t deeply threaten me. So I had some bad experiences there, and sometimes I have nightmares where I wake up and I'm in prison, but all in all it was a very interesting and instructive period, and I really loved the girls. I formed deep friendships there."

Were there any difficult moments that shook that sense of readiness you arrived with?

"Yes. Solitary confinement. In a military prison, there's a solitary confinement cell just as you would imagine, a small cubicle with white fluorescent lights that are always on. The girls who enter it present a danger to themselves or to others, but they're mainly girls who are a danger to themselves – in other words, suicidal – and that was terrible. Because of course being in solitary confinement like that pulls them down even further.

"The entire time that they're in solitary confinement, someone is with them there, one of the prisoners, in four-hour shifts. I had two weeks when I had guard duty in solitary confinement from 2 A.M. to 6 A.M every night. Then I wouldn't sleep either, and the girl who was in solitary at the time – it was seeing a person at her lowest point. They bombarded her with psychiatric medications, she barely ate, she barely slept. I had a good relationship with her, but it was very hard to see her and to realize that you can't help her at all, because she wants to die. It was very hard."

Four years have passed since you left prison. What have you been doing since then?

"I did two years of national service in a place that provides temporary shelter for teenagers who have been removed from their homes. And now I'm studying sociology, anthropology and philosophy at the Hebrew University. I'm an activist in solidarity with Palestinians against the occupation, and I live in a commune. Since April, when they started to block Damascus Gate, we started to go there – the army is less violent towards us, so we would film things, and the Palestinians would stand with us because they knew that the [mounted police’s] horse wouldn't trample us, but would pass us by."

Left-wing activists aren't very popular at the moment. How did you feel about publicly presenting yourself as an objector and an activist?

"It's a very frightening place, because you're constantly exposing yourself to personal attacks, whether it's on Facebook, in the street, or with people who study and work with you. It's being open to attacks all the time, so it's not a very comfortable place. On my Facebook page, for example, I delete things – I delete responses that I don't like. And some of the things I don't even read. For example, I don't read posts that people send me if they aren't my friends. If you let those responses get to you, it's very depressing. That's why you have to distance yourself from them, you have to engage in self-preservation."