A few months after the 1967 war, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading Israeli intellectual–who was also an observant Jew–stated that Israel must immediately withdraw from the occupied territories. He argued that the occupation was unjust and would inevitably lead to the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians, and to the corruption if not destruction of Israeli society. Until his death in the mid-1990s, he continued to criticize the occupation, using piercing, prophetic language to condemn the immorality of Israeli policies. For years, Leibowitz also averred that if 500 reservist soldiers would simultaneously refuse to serve in the territories, the occupation would end.
The fifty combat officers and soldiers who announced–in an open letter published on January 25 in the Israeli press–that they would no longer serve in the territories were in many ways following Leibowitz’s advice. Already, 125 more soldiers have signed, among them sergeants, lieutenants, captains and even a few colonels (see www.seruv.org.il/defaulteng.asp for the full list). Thousands of Israelis have called a hotline to express support for the group and to donate money to help it publish ads in local papers, while Yesh Gvul (“There Is a Limit”), started by Israelis who refused to serve in Lebanon twenty years ago, is distributing leaflets urging others to join the soldiers’ action. A group of women is organizing a petition, claiming that reserve officers are not the only ones carrying the burdens of occupation, while a number of twelfth graders, who will be drafted this coming summer, have also announced that they will not serve in the territories.
The fact that the letter has created such a stir both inside the military establishment and in society at large has to do with the profile of those who initiated it: These are not radical leftists but rather people affiliated with Israel’s political center and members of the social elite. They have experienced firsthand the effect of the occupation, so their views cannot be dismissed.
Shuki Sadeh, a paratrooper reservist who was among the signers, told a newspaper how he had seen an Israeli soldier kill a young Palestinian boy at a distance of 150 meters. “What angered me at the time,” Sadeh explained, “was that our soldiers said, ‘Well, that’s another Arab who has disappeared.'” Ariel Shatil, an artillery master sergeant recently on duty in the Gaza Strip, recalled that while it’s claimed that the Palestinians shoot first and Israelis just respond, in reality, “We would start shooting and they would fire back.”
The Israeli military has been shaken by the letter–not least because the soldiers are discrediting the Israeli depiction of the conflict and exposing the army’s excessive use of force–and is now trying to prevent the “damage” from spreading. Rami Kaplan, one signer, has been demoted from his position as deputy commander of a reserve tank battalion, and other signers have been notified that they, too, will be stripped of their command. Yigal Bronner, a Sanskrit scholar who serves in a tank unit and also signed the letter, says, “It is as if both sides [the military and refuseniks] believe Leibowitz’s prophecy…the soldiers are committed to amassing 500 conscientious objectors, while the Israeli government and military are afraid that if they do, the occupation will actually end.”
EXCERPTS FROM THE OPEN LETTER
We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it;
We, combat officers and soldiers, have been on reserve duty all over the occupied territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides;
We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;
We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of the IDF’s human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society;
We, who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;
We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.
We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.
We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.
The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.
EXCERPTS FROM THE LEAFLET
We all want to defend our country. We’re all sick and tired of terrorism. We all want peace. But do our actions permit of an end to the cycle of bloodshed?
Since 1967, Israel has ruled over 3.5 million Palestinians, running their lives by means of a forcible occupation, with continual violations of human rights.
Ask yourself whether your actions in the course of your military service enhance national security? Or do those actions merely fuel the enmity and the acts of violence between us and our Palestinian neighbors?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION BREEDS TERRORISM!
When you take part in extrajudicial killings (“liquidation,” in the army’s terms), when you take part in demolishing residential homes, when you open fire at unarmed civilian population or residential homes, when you uproot orchards, when you interdict food supplies or medical treatment, you are taking part in actions defined in international conventions (such as the 4th Geneva Convention) and in Israeli law as war crimes.
Soldier, is there a people anywhere in the world that will not resist an occupation regime? If you were in the Palestinians’ shoes, would you be willing to bow your head to a foreign ruler?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION UNDERMINES OUR COUNTRY
The occupation and the violence that it prompts drag the economy down into recession. Investors are in flight, tourists stay away, entire sections of the economy are in collapse.