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Friday, October 27, 2006

Eileen writes in praise of the Refuzniks

Alex Cohn, 19, is a Jewish Israeli conscientious objector and peace activist. Alex refused to serve in the Israeli army and was jailed for five months. He now guides a youth group about militarism.

He wrote the following article and stated:

"The issue of refusal and the war in Lebanon also affects me personally. I chose to refuse to serve in the Israeli military when I was first inducted when I turned 18 years old.

"I chose to refuse after I saw the occupied Palestinian territories and realized that the occupation is not only unjust and unnecessary, but also horrible and destructive for both people. I had already served five months in jail for my refusal and been permanently released from military duty when the war in Lebanon began, so I was not faced with a decision to refuse. Regardless, this war made it clear to me on a political and personal level how important it is to struggle against Israel’s aggressive military policy.

"My parents, who live in north of Israel, were threatened by the rocket fire from Lebanon. My brother was stationed in the military at Israel’s northern border and I feel he risked his life for no reason. Throughout the war there was anger inside of me against the government and the army that played with human lives and sent Israelis to fight Lebanese and Palestinians.

"The recent war made clear to me again that the problem in Israel is not just the military presence in the occupied Palestinian territories, but the racist and militaristic thought which leads the decision makers. Militaristic society observes reality through the sight of the gun: everything is us or them, life or death, kill or be killed. In this way every act of resistance to Israel becomes an existential threat. I see the Israeli refusal movement, in which I include the Palestinian citizens of Israel who do not have the chance to refuse, as an alternative to the militaristic way of life that leads Israel from one war to another."

By Alex Cohn
American Friends Service Committee
October 2006

`Someone has to be the first to break through the false consensus around this war`, Itzik Shabat announced before he became the first refusnik of the second Lebanon war. Shabat, 28, refused to serve in the West Bank where he was being sent to replace active duty soldiers who were being sent to Lebanon. Shabat explained that he felt that `refusing to serve in the military is the only way to end this madness, and break the false feeling that the whole country is united in supporting this unnecessary war`.

On July 12, 2006 Hezbollah killed 8 Israeli soldiers and captured 2 soldiers in a border skirmish along the Israel/Lebanon border. It is widely believed that Hezbollah carried out this attack in order to arrange a prisoner exchange with Israel for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel. A similar exchange had been brokered in 2004. Instead Israel responded with an aerial attack that signaled the beginning of the second Lebanon war. Israel declared that its goals for the war were to release the captured soldiers, to disarm Hezbollah and to reinforce the deterrence power of the Israeli army. None of these goals were achieved during the five week war. However, 1,187 Lebanese citizens and 44 Israeli citizens were killed, over one million Lebanese were made refugees, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese houses were demolished and much of the Lebanese infrastructure was destroyed.

It is widely believed that the Israeli peace movement supported the war, but this is not entirely accurate. In order to understand what happened within the peace movement, it is important to know the Israeli left is traditionally divided into two general camps: the Zionist left and the radical left. Although this separation is simplistic, it is significant. The Zionist left shares a belief with the Israeli right that Israel needs to be an ethnic-Jewish state, their disagreement concerns the best way to fulfill this vision. The political differences between the Zionist left and right usually disappear in moments of crisis such as the beginning of the first Lebanon war in 1982, or in 2000 when the second Intifada started.

In general, the Israeli radical peace movement is characterized by an objection to the Zionist ideology. This is seen in several ways, but the most profound is the understanding of the root causes of the current conflict. Whereas the Zionist left traces the current conflict back to the 1967 Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the radical left believes that the conflict extends back to the beginning of the Jewish colonization in mandatory Palestine.

When the war began many in the Zionist left stood with right-wing political parties in support of the war and created the `false consensus` which Itzik Shabat referred to. This coalition in support of the war helped obscure the efforts of thousands of Jews and Palestinians who demonstrated against the war week after week in Tel-Aviv; the two thousand demonstrators in the Israeli-Palestinian city of Tira; the activists who blocked the entrance to the Israeli Air Force base in the north; and the decision of many Israelis to refuse to serve in the military.

`No chance I`m wearing uniforms`

Itzik Shabat wasn`t the only one to refuse to serve in the Lebanon war. Zohar Milchgrub, Amir Pasteur, Itamar Shapira, Daniel K., Nir A., A.A, Y.D. (only their initials were made publicly available) and others spent time in jail because they refused to serve the war. Dozens of others refused - most of them have been sent back to their homes, and others will be judged in the future for desertion. Still many others avoided reserve service by receiving medical exemptions or leaving the country.

The feminist movement New Profile which deals with the issue of militarism in the Israeli society runs a counseling program with soldiers who want to be released from military service. New Profile reported that it worked with 600 soldiers who did not want to serve in the Lebanon war. Currently, there are still over 100 soldiers who refused to report to their units during the war and face the possibility of time in military prison. In addition, it can be assumed that not all the soldiers who avoided service in Lebanon contacted New Profile for help, so the real numbers of refusers may be much higher.

The feelings of many refusers was summed up by the well known air force pilot refuser Yonatan Shapira. In an interview to the Israeli newspaper Ha`aretz, Shapira explained `there is no chance that I`m wearing a military uniform in any situation in this war while the military is doing what it is doing`. Shapira acknowledged that Hezbollah had violated Israeli sovereignty, but felt that Israel had turned the conflict into a `macho fight` and that Israel had `destroyed Lebanese villages, declared a blockade on it`s cities to feel that it was protecting the country. The actions that the air force are carrying out now are promoting silence just like Nasrallah`s rockets promote it.`

`If I am called, I will decide`

One of the issues that usually distinguish the Zionist left from the radical left is the question of refusing to take part in the Israeli military. On the boundary between the Zionist left, which mostly supports military service, and the radical left, which mostly oppose it, stands the organization Courage to Refuse. The Courage to Refuse movement (In Hebrew: Ometz Le’sarev) was founded in 2002 around a petition of Israeli soldiers and officers who identified as Zionist and refused to serve beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. This position, to both identify as Zionist and to refuse military service, often makes Courage to Refuse a target of criticism from both sides of the peace movement, and this tension was clear during the war in Lebanon.

David Zonsheine, one of the founders of Courage to Refuse demonstrated this when he was interviewed and asked if he would refuse to serve in Lebanon. Zonsheine explained, `If I`m called by the military, I will decide accordingly to the induction letter. We`ll see what I`m being ordered to do`. He continued, `The war now seems justified to me, even more justified than going to the war in Lebanon in 1982. It doesn`t have the moral distortion that is present in the military activity in the territories. Courage to Refuse would not have been established on this war`.

And yet Zonsheine also explained that he did not support the Israeli government’s handling of the war in Lebanon. Zonsheine added, `What`s bothering me now is the behavior of the government. I demand from the government proportionality and the appropriate standards for managing a crisis - and I now see an amateur government. For the Israeli Defense Force I would be ready to die. But for an army that behaves like a bully, and whose goals are incomprehensible to half of the world, I would not be ready to die. These are the issues I am weighing right now`.

As a movement, Courage to Refuse appeared to find the war legitimate, but was afraid that Israel had over reacted and was harming civilians. On the one hand like most of the Zionist left they accepted the notion that the war was a legitimate response to an assault on Israeli soldiers by a small group of guerillas. On the other hand the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories created a serious crisis of trust with the Army’s high command, and members of Courage to Refuse questioned the morality of the fighting in Lebanon. In the end, even though the war seemed justified, many members still hesitated before they agreed to take part in it.

`Refuse to accept the new Middle East`

On August 12, 2006 the Israeli refuser organization Yesh Gvul (Hebrew for “There is a Limit/Border) organized a demonstration against the war and in support of the refusers. The protest took place on a mountain facing Israeli Military Prison No. 6. The entire mountain is green and the view is so good you can see the Mediterranean Sea. The only thing that mars the environment is the prison which is surrounded with barbed wire. In the prison it is possible to hear demonstrations outside, and from several places even to see them, and that is one way the protests support the refusniks inside. In the demonstration people gave speeches and musicians performed. Yonatan Shapira, whose brother Itamar was in the prison refusing to serve in Lebanon, called to his brother, `If you can hear me, I know you arranged to yourself a shift on the prison`s roof. I wanted to say to you that we`re proud of you and love you”.

Khulood Badawi, a Palestinian activist in the Association for Civil Rights and one of the leaders of the protest, put the protest in a wider context. Badawi said that the refusers not only refused to serve in the war in Lebanon, but also rejected the vision for the Middle East that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had articulated at the beginning of the war.

Badawi explained, `I want to say to all of the refusniks sitting in the Israeli prisons that you are the merchants of freedom for the freedom of all of us. Because of you, the Arab citizens of the state of Israel still believe that we have a common place here and we still can live together. I can speak for myself, many times I`ve been on the edge of breaking down, of giving in to the racism I feel, but I am aware that this war is trying to recruit us, each one in his category, Arabs versus Jews, Palestinians versus Israelis, Lebanese versus Israelis, Shi`ites, Sunnis, and Jews. We`re refusing to accept “the new middle east” that will only bring us Iraq II in Israel`.

On May 14, 1948 The Declaration of the establishment of Israel affirmed:

"One the day of the termination of the British mandate and on the strength of the United Nations General Assembly declare The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel: it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion it will guarantee freedom of religion [and] conscience and will be faithful to the Charter of the United Nations."

God bless and Godspeed on the refusniks to lead The Way to an "Israel... based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel"


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