Refusal for the Sake of Democracy

Last Independence Day eve, I was invited to a party at the home of some friends. On the program was a private torch-lighting ceremony, scheduled to precede the official ceremony on Mt. Herzl.

One young man called up to light a torch said: "I hereby light this torch on the 55th anniversary of the State of Israel in honor of my peers, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who bear the burden of defense with devotion and self-sacrifice, and in honor of my peers who refuse to serve in the territories, reminding us, in spite of punishment and social ostracism, that we are fighting not only for the security of our nation but also for the occupation and dispossession of another people seeking, just as we are, to live proudly in a country of its own. And to the glory of the State of Israel."

To ignore this duality in our lives, as the commander of the Israel Air Force has, is to show that one lacks the tools to understand the reality that has long been confronting our soldiers, and especially over the last few years. To respond with panic and aggressiveness to the letter of the 27 pilots, as Major General Dan Halutz has, is to show that one lacks the qualities a commander needs to motivate his soldiers in complex situations.

Dan Halutz has simple solutions for such complexity. "Did the General Staff sit down for any discussion of the moral issues before reaching the unusual decision to target Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahr together with his wife and child?" Halutz was asked in an interview with Ma'ariv.

"What do you mean 'child'?" replied Halutz. "We're not talking about a 3-month-old baby. Under the laws of the state of Israel he's an adult, and according to the custom there he was a Hamas member. The bodyguard who was killed was no saint either. The guy was a terrorist."

"But still, the son ultimately paid for his father's sins," the interviewer insisted.

"The son is a member of Hamas just like the father," answered Halutz. "I don't know if he has a card with the most up-to-date picture, but he's a member."

One might ask if the attempt on a-Zahr's life was not in itself an illegal order, but there is no doubt that the air force commander's justification for killing a-Zahr's son is criminal. According to no yardstick did this 24-year-old deserve to die. The question of whether it is legal to kill a bystander while liquidating a "ticking bomb" is a complicated matter, but what happens when the target of assassination is not a ticking bomb. Is it acceptable for flight squadrons to discuss such issues? But how can they not, if they don't want to carry out orders that are blatantly illegal?

The pilots who signed the letter of refusal not only challenged the legality of assassination orders. They also pointed out that the occupation drags Israel into committing illegal acts, and that the occupation itself is illegal. They were immediately accused of being motivated by politics and undermining the foundations of democracy. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz branded it an act of political sensationalism masquerading as morality, and accused the pilots of encouraging the enemy.

It is depressing to see that in today's Israel, the political activism appreciated and encouraged by Mofaz and his ilk is the Uzi Cohen and Shlomi Oz variety, whereas the moment political discourse addresses questions of morality and ideology, the defense minister's reaction is entirely negative.

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with a political stance, and under certain conditions, there is nothing wrong with reaching the personal operative conclusions that emanate from it. On the contrary, people who are prepared to involve themselves in politics in a way that is no longer common in Israel today, i.e., activism that brings with it no monetary reward or promise of power, should be encouraged.

Some argue that refusal to obey military commands for political-ideological reasons undermines the democratic process. It is hard to quarrel with this argument, but I wonder if we would have accepted it in the case of a white South African refusenik during the apartheid era. I tend to think not. I wonder if, in spite of the differences between South African apartheid and our situation, there is not also some similarity.

One country inhabited by two populations - one enjoying all rights and protections, while the other is denied basic rights and is controlled by the first. What could be more undemocratic than that? What democracy are we defending when we denounce those who act, according to their ability and understanding, against such injustice? If the duty of a soldier is to protect democracy, maybe it is these defiant pilots who are the ones protecting Israeli democracy.