Secular National Service Group Won't Help Refuseniks

Shlomit, the non-profit organization that helps arrange national service instead of army service for secular women, has ceased offering its services to those who refuse to serve in the army because they oppose the occupation.

Shlomit's secretary confirmed the change in policy Monday, saying that "lately, we've stopped placing refusenik girls in national service programs."

But the NPO's director general, Haya Shmuel, denied that it's a new policy and defined the change as "a decision recently made by the administration to examine each case on its merits." Shmuel said that, since January, the service had noticed a rising number of young women who arrived with draft deferments but who specifically wanted to do a form of national service that "would help Palestinians." However, she added, "I don't think that is the job of our service. I have no problem with the desire to help Palestinians, but there are things that have higher priorities. We, and not only the girls, have issues of conscience."

Shmuel added that Shlomit is now paying closer attention to the motives of those turning to the organization, to filter out those who only want to get the benefits from the service or who want to promote their political agenda through the service.

Shlomit was established a decade ago to help secular young women who received draft deferments for health or other reasons, but nonetheless wanted to make a contribution. Some 8,000 teenage girls, including some 250 Arabs, have been placed by the organization.

Sources in the refusenik movement said that Shlomit does not want to appear to be indirectly supporting those refusing to serve in the army because of their objection to the occupation. In the last three years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking and receiving deferments from the army for reasons of conscience, so much so that the army has decided to toughen the criteria for deferments on grounds of conscience.

Refusenik groups are now examining whether it is legal for an NPO to take punitive action against someone who was legitimately given a draft deferment by the army.

Ella Yedaya, who received her draft deferment on grounds of conscience last year, was placed by Shlomit as a volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights, though the NPO says that the arrangement is for Yedaya not to be involved in work directly related to PHR's dealings with Palestinians. Referring to Shlomit's new policy, Yedaya said, "It will be a shame if society loses the girls with the highest level of social commitment because of this change in policy, those who chose to get out of the army in the most difficult way and then ask to serve society. The NPO is now joining forces with those who want to regard us as illegitimate."

Several dozen refuseniks have signed a petition against Shlomit's change in policy.