'Help Us Free Our Boys'

Parents of the five refuseniks serving prison sentences are launching a publicity campaign prior to next month's hearing that will discuss the possible reduction of their jail terms.

Two weeks ago, the refusenik movement in Israel received an unexpected expression of support from Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who openly spoke of his understanding and sympathy for conscientious objectors of all sorts. It provided an ideological shot of encouragement to refuseniks and their supporters. The parents of the five refuseniks now serving jail terms in civilian prisons for their refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces will use Mazuz's statement in an upcoming publicity campaign prior to a June 15 hearing to discuss lightening the prison sentence. The attorney general's statement is quoted in a flyer appearing under the headline "Free the boys."

The parents offer Mazuz's statement as a sympathetic statement by the civilian justice system that acts as a counterweight to the military justice system, which is treating the case in a way that appears to them as being vindictive and lacking proportionality. The message of the campaign is intentionally non-ideological but rather emotional: "Help us free our boys." It is an attempt to enlist support not necessarily from those who traditionally back the refusal to serve, but from the public at large, which can rally around the call to reduce the refuseniks' sentence, a right that is granted to murderers and rapists.

However, immediately after Mazuz made his statements came the week of carnage in Gaza. Although there is seemingly no connection between the two issues, heart and emotion are now being given to the dead sons, but not necessarily to the imprisoned sons. One doubts that the crowd that rose to its feet to applaud the Givati Brigade commander on Yair Lapid's talk show at the height of the Rafah operation would identify with the parents of the refuseniks. "It most certainly makes things harder," says Marit Zameret, the mother of the imprisoned Shimri. "When I was handing out the first flyers with the demand to release them, at the demonstration at Rabin Square, people were telling me that it's safer to sit in jail than to be in Gaza. It's true. Right now, even I'm happy that he's sitting in jail."

Zameret is a member of the Parents of Refuseniks Forum, that includes the parents of the five imprisoned refuseniks at the heart of the struggle: Zameret, Haggai Matar, Adam Maor, Matan Kaminer and Noam Bahat. The parents of a second generation of refuseniks, including Esti and Yehoshua Tsal, whose son Daniel is serving a second prison term in a military prison, have joined the group.

The long road the refuseniks have taken together - the military lock-up prior to the trial, the lengthy legal procedure in military court, the prison sentence being served at two civilian prisons (to which they were transfered due to charges that they constitute a security risk in a military prison) - has helped them, and their parents, to form a close connection.

Refusal commandos

At first, it wasn't this way. Older people, strangers to one another, with varying degrees of political awareness and involvement, were bundled together not out of their own choice but out of a choice made by their children. The story of each individual family and all the families coming together is the story of Israel over three generations. It's the story of founding grandfathers and fighting fathers who became proud supporters of refusenik sons. For instance, there is the story of the grandfather of Matar, Yaakov Ingerman, who was a young Communist in Russia who was sent to spy on a German combat engineering battalion in World War II. His bold act, particularly for a Jew, was documented in the book, "A Jew in The Service of The Reich."

Ingerman's daughter, Anat Matar, who lectures in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, is a veteran political activist in left-wing movements. Haggai joined her in meetings with administrative detainees, which became a formative experience in his political consciousness. Anat and her husband Doron, a software designer, say that Haggai's grandfather firmly supports his grandson. "In terms of the family and what it did or did not dictate regarding what Haggai should do about the army, there was no pressure on him to refuse to serve," his father says. "We don't have the feeling that we put him on any specific track. He is an independent and very assertive young man."

The father of Maor, Alex, who owns a company that markets food additives, also describes himself as a leftist, even though he "functionally" opposed his son's refusal to serve. "I didn't think it was a smart move to go up against the strongest labor union in Israel - the army," Maor says. "All of us, all of the parents, live with unremitting feelings of guilt that we do not do enough, that the children are in prison and that we are enjoying life, that we haven't yet tied ourselves, in their name, to any fence, or have not gone on a hunger strike. The guilt is constantly with us, but there is no way that I can see Adam doing what the soldiers in the territories are doing. If he were there, I have no doubt that I would be doing his laundry on Saturdays, but I have no doubt that it would create a big problem for me."

Kaminer's father, Noam, is no stranger to prison. As a soldier in the Golani commando unit, he served time in prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon. His wife Smadar is the living spirit behind the parents' forum. "My husband's fight, in his youth, was to enlist in the commando unit. Today, being in combat means being in the `refusenik commando'," she says. "I can imagine that if Matan had gone to Sayeret Matkal, I would have supported him, but I have no doubt that he would have woken up from it one day and refused to obey an order."

Bahat's mother, Amira, a special-education pedagogical instructor, says that the lives of the parents currently revolve around one axis - the sons' refusal to serve. "The chief military prosecutor pinned the charge of civil insurrection on them, even though it wasn't in the indictment," she says. "His real anger is actually directed at us, who demonstrated in front of his house. We are the civil insurrection."

Marit Zameret, a clinical psychologist by training, never intended to be part of a civil insurrection. She was the least political of any of the parents, and vehemently opposed her son's decision to refuse to serve. "I did everything that I could to dissuade him of the idea," she says. "When I realized that I had no choice, I decided to support him. Then I also began to be involved in the parents' group. Without the group, it would have been awful." Her son's refusal to serve led to her disillusionment with the system and to a new era of political awareness.

National service in prison

The parents' campaign to have their sons' sentences shortened will feature films about the trial, a new book on the refusenik phenomenon, posters, postcards, conferences and even a public trial in the Knesset. "We are part of the message, too," says Smadar Nahed-Kaminer. "We want to show that we are ordinary citizens, and what happened to us could happen to anyone tomorrow. If the quiet struggle fails, there will be other means. We've already proved that we know how to be bad people," she says.

"To be bad people" in this case means enlisting support from around the world, especially Europe. Doron Matar has already forged close links with the European Parliament, 50 of whose members have signed a petition calling for the release of the refuseniks, who have been adopted by Amnesty International. This week, a plea was disseminated by email to 17,000 people on lists collated by the parents asking for support and funds. The English-language wording of the appeal mentions the shock in the United States following disclosures about actions of American soldiers in Iraq and a comparison between that revelation and what is happening in the territories. The Hebrew-language version opens with a quote from Mazuz.

A public council including artists, academics, lawyers and politicians who will issue a public declaration one week prior to the committee hearing discussing the sentence reduction is being formed.

The campaign's focus on human solidarity given the severity of the sentence rather than the enlisting of political support was proposed by Nissim Douek, a public relations professional hired by the parents. Douek has been linked with the refusenik phenomenon since he handled public relations for the pilots' letter (a letter sent by former IAF pilots criticizing the IDF's assassination policy), and promotes the Courage to Refuse refusenik group.

The parents of the five refuseniks serving jail time say their sons received harsh punishments, while the court also disregarded the year they had already spent in jail prior to the trial. There is no precedent for the high cost of being a refusenik in this case. Now they seek to set aside the principles of the discussion and focus on the right to reduce the sentence, a right that is available to every convict displaying good behavior. And their sons have shown good behavior. Ironically enough, in prison they are given the opportunity to do what they had asked to do as an alternative to national service: they teach, work with weaker populations and help other prisoners.

However, at a time when the army is toughening its stand on refuseniks and exhibiting extraordinary vindictiveness toward refusenik Yoni Ben-Arzi, who was imprisoned even after having received an exemption from service due to "unsuitability," the reduction of their sentence is not certain by any means. It is not even clear what the lighter sentence might entail. The refuseniks were sent to prison by a military court, which ordinarily deducts half of a prison sentence, but they are serving their sentence in a civilian prison, where only one-third of the term is deducted.

It is possible to understand some of the army's intentions given the fact that the committee's session has been scheduled two days after the conclusion of the first half of the prison term. "The head of the Manpower Division, Gil Regev, told me that it is doubtful that they might get the reduction of half of their sentence, but they might get one-third," says MK Roman Bronfman of Meretz, who is in contact with the refuseniks and their parents. "They deserve it like anyone else. I hope that what Mazuz said will change something in the public atmosphere. If a criminal felon is entitled to a one-third deduction, certainly a criminal of conscience is entitled to it."

Presumably, this feeling is not shared by the military prosecutor, who at their trial said: "If they do not serve out of love, let them serve out of fear," a statement that perhaps hints to an intention to call them up for service again after their prison release. The defense attorney, Dov Hanin, replied that that was the same motto used during the Spanish Inquisition.