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Obeying the Conscience

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Conscientious objectors Tamar Alon (left) and Tamar Ze'evi.
Conscientious objectors Tamar Alon (left) and Tamar Ze'evi.Credit: Rami Ben Ari

This week marks a total of 100 days of imprisonment since two conscientious objectors, Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, were first incarcerated. Since declaring at the National Induction Center their refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, because they are opposed to the occupation, they have been sentenced to five successive terms in prison.

At the end of each imprisonment, the two young women are released and sent home, called up again and sent once again to jail. They are entitled to one weekly visit of 30 minutes and to one phone call a day of 10 minutes. They are allowed to volunteer to wash pots or to work in the prison’s sewing workshop, a right that they both exploit as often as they can.

Not content with simply incarcerating them, the military prison system occasionally aggravates their conditions, possibly in an attempt to break their wayward spirit. When small-scale demonstrations of support began to be held outside Military Prison 6, where they were being held, they were moved to MP 4 and then brought back the next day. The two young women, who coordinate their actions, say they were told that this would be the procedure every time a demonstration of support was held for them.

Then they were separated. Since then, Tamar Ze’ev has been held in MP 6 and Tamar Alon in MP 4. Alon was also harassed one day by being transferred to MP 6 and then back again to MP 4, without any explanation or reason given. These are practices often used with security prisoners and detainees.

In the case of Alon, a new record was set recently: She was taken, handcuffed, for a medical check-up at an army base. When she asked the guards why handcuffs were required, she was told that her “risk level had risen.” We’re talking about a gentle, normal young woman of 18.

These days, the whole country is preoccupied with the trial and fate of the so-called Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, with the terrible suffering his noble family is undergoing, with his being a victim or a hero. The cases of Alon and Ze’evi – who in the meantime have been joined by a third conscientious objector, Atalya Ben Aba – are being ignored. Other than their families and a handful of friends and supporters, hardly anyone is interested in them. Politicians and public figures back away from conscientious objectors as if they had the plague; in the current political climate, any other response is tantamount to career suicide. It’s an explosive issue, one of the major taboos in Israeli society.

Of course, Jewish girls are allowed to refuse to do military service for reasons of conscience – all they have to do is declare that it’s a religious conscience. They can also easily evade service on the basis of medical or mental unfitness, or just undergo a fictitious marriage. Only one thing is anathema: to declare moral opposition to the occupation and to refuse to take part in the cycle of blood it creates.

One need not identify with the ideas expressed by Alon and Ze’evi, or even to support the step they took. It’s also clear that they decided with a clear mind to carry out a political act, in the knowledge that they would pay a price for it. Nevertheless, every decent person, irrespective of his opinion about the occupation and the conflict, has to wonder about the intensity of the assault on them by a supposedly democratic state. After all, they are young women of principle who have declared their willingness and readiness to contribute to the country and the society in other ways. True, they are undercutting basic conventions, but they are being driven by ideals and good intention. They did not execute a wounded person lying on the ground the way the medic Azaria did, nor did they perpetrate a series of serious sexual offenses like Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris – who was sentenced to serve 100 days less in prison than Alon and Ze’evi (so far).

There is no mass movement involved here and no real danger to state security and public safety. The army, as we know, is not suffering from a dearth of female inductees; in some cases it has a hard time providing them with meaningful service or just plain protection from sex offenders and harassers. Isn’t the regional superpower, the cyber empire that will soon send a robot to assassinate Hassan Nasrallah in his bunker, capable of finding a more reasonable and more humane solution for dealing with a phenomenon of such minuscule proportions? A democracy is measured precisely by the way it preserves human dignity and civil rights in extreme cases, those that shake tranquility and the consensus.

Within a few days, Alon and Ze’evi will be released from their latest terms in jail, and will report again to the induction center for trial. On March 9, finally, at their request, they will be brought before the IDF’s conscience committee, a controversial body – in terms of its very existence and how it operates – that rarely convenes. It isn’t yet known if they will be taken there handcuffed. Their prospects of gaining an attentive ear are not great. In the case of Tair Kaminer, the record-holder to date among imprisoned female conscientious objectors, it was stated, in the wake of her hearing before that panel, that “no difficulty of conscience that prevents her from serving was found.” She was finally released after serving a total of 159 days in prison, with the great and powerful IDF explaining her release like a scolding kindergarten teacher: “Unsuitability, and bad and grave behavior.”

When will it end?

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit stated in response to my questions on the subject: “As a rule, requests for exemption on grounds of conscience are made before induction into the IDF. Tamar Ze’evi and Tamar Alon went through a standard classification procedure, during which no request of this type was made. After they refused to complete induction processes for ideological reasons, the two were sentenced to prison and since then have gone through a number of disciplinary procedures for systematic refusal to be drafted and for being absent from service.

“The transfer of prisoners between detention bases is done solely for professional reasons, with the status of the detention changing from time to time in accordance with the progress in the trial. There is no basis for the allegations of discrimination and abuse, as all prisoners receive identical treatment. As for the handcuffing of Tamar Alon, that was a one-time, mistaken incident, which will be examined thoroughly and dealt with accordingly.”

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