Opinion

The Conscientious Objectors Threatening the Israeli System

It would have been easy for three young women to avoid military service. Instead, they're taking a prinicipled stand against the occupation.

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

Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi have been incarcerated in a military jail for over 100 days, after refusing to be inducted into the Israel Defense Forces. They were recently joined by a third conscientious objector, Atalia Ben Aba. You might think they are the only three in their age group who are not doing military service. But the truth is different: more than a third of all prospective draftees do not serve.

In other words, Alon, Ze’evi and Ben Aba are exceptional not because they decided not to join the army – everyone knows it’s very easy to avoid military service in Israel – but precisely because they decided to enlist in the service of publicly exposing the principal apparatus that inductees serve: Israel’s violent rule over the Palestinian people.

Why is the army not releasing them? After all, even if there were 100 or 200 like them (and not just three), that would be a negligible number for the IDF. One reason the army continues to keep them locked up is simple: they pose a threat to the mechanism. If the three had decided to get married, or to seek an exemption via a mental health officer, they wouldn’t pose a threat and they wouldn’t have been jailed.

A complementary reason is that there is no effective support in the Knesset for ending the occupation. There’s no major political party that understands it has gone too far, and that even if there is no obligation to verbally condemn the occupation, it is possible to support those who decide not to be part of it.

How different all this is from the effective ultra-Orthodox representation – and from Likud and its satellite party, Habayit Hayehudi – which obtain exemptions for countless women and arrange easy service for yeshiva students. And the reason, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said in a different context, is that they – the potential MK supporters – are afraid. The left is afraid that open support for refusal to take part in the occupation will scare off the few voters that still remain.

Refusal on principle to serve in the IDF is a privilege belonging to members of strong population groups, which are generally not endangered economically or socially by unconventional behavior. “I consciously choose to refuse, knowing that not every young woman has the possibility to choose like I can,” Alon wrote. “I know that in military prison I may meet young women who did not have the privilege and freedom to choose to refuse.”

Fifteen years ago, after four years’ service in the Maglan special forces unit and six years of reserve duty, I decided to refuse to serve in the territories. I was one of the founding nucleus of the Ometz Lesarev (Courage to Refuse) movement. After 35 days in prison, I and a colleague in Ometz Lesarev met with a retired IDF major general, a holder of the Medal of Valor, for a conversation about the reasons we’d refused to serve in the system we’d entered with such gung-ho determination 10 years earlier.

Toward the end of our meeting, we asked the general to publish in the press the courageous things he told us. “I’m afraid to,” he replied. I asked him how someone like him, who’d left the service some time before and had risked his life many times in the face of the enemy, could be afraid to speak his mind. I will never forget his answer: “It’s easy to risk your life with a whole nation behind you; it’s a lot harder to tell that nation what it doesn’t want to hear.”

Alon, Ze’evi and Ben Aba are offering Israeli society a different path. They are not burying their heads in the sand and leaving the tough moral decisions for a future on a distant horizon. They have no effective political force behind them, apart from a handful of Knesset members. They are in prison because they want people to listen to what they have to say. It’s my fervent hope that many Israelis will hear them out.

Human rights activist David Zonsheine served as a captain in an elite IDF unit. He was imprisoned for 35 days after refusing to serve in the territories.