Right of refusal

For some Israelis, compulsory military service is not an option

In the West Bank, four Israeli “refuzniks” recount their experiences for an audience of international relief workers and Palestinians.

In the West Bank, four Israeli “refuzniks” recount their experiences for an audience of international relief workers and Palestinians.

Photo by patricia daugherty

Maggie Coulter serves on the Sacramento Area Peace Action board of directors. Since October 2008, she and her partner have been in the West Bank, Palestine. Reports about their experiences are posted at http://bethlehemnarratives.blogspot.com.

While the Israeli army continues to shoot people in Gaza, attack medical staff attempting to reach casualties in the West Bank and harass and delay Palestinians at checkpoints, some young Israelis are refusing to partake in these repressive actions, which violate international law.

Four Israeli “refuzniks” recently explained to a packed audience of internationals and West Bank Palestinians their decision to refuse military service, and the heavy price they paid for their refusal.

Three of the refuzniks had already been to prison; one had yet to go. In Israel, military service is compulsory for Jewish men and women, except for the ultra-Orthodox; Muslims and Christians are not allowed to serve with few exceptions. In practice, about half of Israel’s young people do military service.

However, some young Israelis, like Tamar, 19, suffer a crisis of conscience when they first discover the violent underbelly of the occupation.

“Although I did not know any Palestinians, inside I felt like something was wrong with the occupation,” said Tamar, 19. “When I went to my first demonstration in the West Bank, I was shocked to see the soldiers shooting at people. When I saw this with my own eyes, I could not live with it quietly.”

For Sahar, 18, choosing not to serve meant taking responsibility for her own actions. “You start to understand it is not just the government,” she said. “The soldiers are also responsible.” When she was younger, Sahar visited Palestinians in the West Bank. At first she thought, “They were just like us,” but she soon learned Palestinians didn’t have the same services, living standards or freedoms. “We could go into Jerusalem and they could not,” she said. “Something was wrong.”

Netta, now 18, was 14 when she first went to the West Bank town of Bi’lin, where 60 percent of the village’s land has been taken for illegal Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall. “As I heard the kids from the village talk about their lives, I started to understand what it is like to live under occupation. I could not get their stories out of my mind. When I went home, I realized I could not continue my volunteer work with Israeli kids when the army was shooting kids in the West Bank. At 16, I became active with Anarchists Against the Wall.”

All of the refuzniks stand by their decisions, despite the negative consequences.

“It was worth going to jail,” Tamar says, adding that jail conditions for Israelis are much better than they are for Palestinians. “I feel I have a part in refusing to cooperate with a system that is wrong.”

Alex, 22, refused to serve and did his prison time four years ago. He’d do it all over again. “I did not want to serve in a state that is trying to maintain supremacy over the native Palestinian people,” he said. “Refusing to join the army was the beginning of the journey, not the end.”

Going to prison is not the only sacrifice that the refuzniks make. All related stories of being rejected by friends and family. “My father is a Zionist,” said Mia, 19. “Although he raised me to question, not just to accept things, my not going into the military was too much for him. I have now moved out of the house because of it.”

“Military service is so much a part of the society; most people around us serve,” Tamar observed. “I have a very close friend who is in the army. To preserve our friendship, we don’t talk about it anymore.”

Not serving in the military also affects the refuzniks’ future benefits and job opportunities.

“You can’t get certain types of jobs,” Sahar says. “There was even an attempt to pass a law that you couldn’t study medicine or law [unless you served], but it failed. Losing the benefits is an economic hardship.”

Asked whether most Israelis know how Palestinians are being treated by Israel’s occupation, Netta responded, “It is not hard to find out what is really going on. The problem is that too many are unwilling to know what we [Israel] have done. We have done such horrible stuff that it will take a long time to unearth and deal with it. For those who serve in the military, it will be a big struggle to face what they did. We are lucky not to have done these things.”

Alex is hopeful that more Israelis will refuse to serve in the military, once they become willing to learn the hardships the Palestinians are enduring.

“The occupation is just part of what is wrong,” he said. “When people refuse to go to the army, they reject the ideology and the myths; they step outside the closed bubble of Jewish-Israeli society. This opens the possibility of creating an alternative society that can be just.”