Letter from Israel

Article excerpt

It's a humid Mediterranean morning in late October. We are crowded into a tiny Jaffa military courtroom to witness one day of argument in the lengthy court-martial of five young men who refuse to enlist in Israel's army so long as it is, in their words, "occupying the land of another people and committing immoral acts." No palace of justice, the shabby, windowless room seems to reflect the lack of attention the state would like to see paid to the proceedings within. The makeshift gallery of wooden benches is too small to accommodate the crowd of friends and supporters, which includes many proud parents and grandparents of the accused.

Three uniformed judges sit behind a raised bench at the head of the room, and beneath them, the refusers stand one at a time to face the relentless questioning of Captain Yaron Kostelitz, who embodies every cliche of prosecutorial zeal. He mocks the accused with their own statements--"So you think the war is not really necessary, do you? So you know better than all the generals, and all the decision-makers, on the basis of the enormous experience and knowledge you gathered in your nineteen years of life?"--but their responses remain composed and direct.

"I am refusing," Adam Maor, 20, says calmly, "because people are tortured and killed. I refuse to take part in crimes against the lives of Palestinians." After Maor recalls witnessing Arab villagers attacked by settlers, Kostelitz, becoming impatient, pounces: "Well, did you call the police?" The gallery erupts with derisive laughter, and the whole scene grows more circuslike by the minute. After an endless stream of questions--"If you were in power, would you evacuate the settlements? And what if soldiers refused to carry out this order?"--the audience grows restless. "Why do you keep asking these same hypothetical questions?" one woman yells at the prosecutor in frustration. "This is not reality!" She is promptly ejected by two young military policemen, peers of the boys on trial. "What is this, Russia?" she blurts out as they take her away.

The government has long preferred to sweep incidents of refusal under the rug rather than bring attention to the phenomenon, which they insist is a marginal one, by prosecuting offenders. Most older reservists who refuse call-ups are simply allowed to avoid service; those who are unlucky or make a public show of refusal are jailed briefly and then released. In the past three years alone, more than 1,000 Israelis have refused to serve, but these five--along with a young pacifist, Yoni Ben-Artzi, who was tried separately--are the first to be court-martialed in more than twenty years. It is not their evasion of duty that is at issue so much as their political activities; all were involved in authoring a public letter of refusal that has now been signed by about 350 conscripts, and the state clearly sees a developing tide of public resistance.

In spite of such efforts to quell it, a certain spirit of dissent is in the air, and it has been wafting through some unfamiliar quarters. When twenty-seven pilots announced their own refusal to carry out attacks on civilian areas at the end of September, the first such protest to come from the elite ranks of the Air Force, they were vilified in the press by military and political leaders and threatened with punishment by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. But before long, the hawkish Ya'alon was echoing their rhetoric, declaring that the repressive measures in the territories "only generate hatred that will explode in our face." By the time the Jaffa court found the five young refusers guilty in mid-December, four former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel's feared security service, had gathered to denounce the government, and Ehud Olmert, the right-wing deputy prime minister, had proposed a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territories. And now thirteen more reservists, ultra-elite fighters from the famed Sayeret Matkal--reverently known as "The Unit" in Israel--have seconded the pilots' refusal. …