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.”