When the new intifada erupted, the mainstream Israeli peace movement was deeply shaken. Peace Now is close to the Labor and Meretz party leaderships and was thus inclined to accept Ehud Barak’s spurious claim that at Camp David he had made reasonable settlement proposals. The group went into hibernation as the violence escalated, leaving the peace movement to small progressive groups thoroughly outside the mainstream, which shifted rapidly to the right (though Peace Now has reawakened of late, joining several dozen opposition organizations in protesting the recent attacks on Arab Knesset members as a threat to democracy).
One year ago, this rightward trend was interrupted when a group of Israeli army reservists–from the patriotic, Zionist mainstream, no less–made headlines by announcing their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. They would no longer, they said, “dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.” The military and political establishment, fearful of the potential influence of these young refuseniks, first responded with denunciations and threats.
Within a couple of months, several hundred had joined the original eight, increasing the confidence of Courage to Refuse, as the group is called; indeed, they often invoked the prognostication of famed Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said, soon after Israel conquered the territories in 1967, that if only 500 soldiers would refuse to serve, the occupation would crumble.
Now Courage to Refuse has more than 500 signatures, but the occupation forges ahead; in fact, last summer the army fully reoccupied most of the territories, systematically destroying the structures of Palestinian economic and political life. Not only that, but the refuseniks fell out of the headlines–until December, that is, when, adding insult to ignorance, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that refusal based on the argument that occupation is illegal, rather than classic conscientious objection, would “weaken the ties that bind us as a nation.”
There’s no question the movement was eclipsed partly because of a series of horrendous suicide bombings, culminating in the Passover atrocity in Netanya last March, after which Ariel Sharon called up 20,000 reserves–who eagerly obliged–for a full-scale invasion of the territories. As long as civilians are being blown up in Israel proper, the government has little difficulty convincing most of the public that its operations in the territories are a necessary defense against terrorism.
Another reason the refuseniks (and one must include among them the much older and more left-wing refusal group Yesh Gvul, or “There Is a Limit,” and the high school seniors known as Shministim) have so far failed to force major changes is that after its initial panicked response, the army shrewdly changed tactics, ceasing public attacks while putting quiet but enormous pressure on the media to give them less attention. For the most part, the press has complied. As one frustrated refusenik put it recently, “The first six pages of the newspapers are devoted to security and political reports that come from the establishment…. We have no chance of penetrating this wall.” Anat Matar, a veteran dissident and the mother of one jailed high school refusenik, said recently there is “near-total rule of the IDF over everything…. people unwilling to be swallowed up by fascism are compelled to turn resistance into practice–not into a single, one-time performance.”