Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, conscientious objection in Israel has developed rapidly to an unprecedented scale. This is a counter trend to the general shift to the right within Israeli society. While the electoral “peace camp” lost considerably in the recent elections, the radical refusenik movement continues to grow.
Basic facts: conscription in Israel
Israel has a very rigid conscription system, which is also quite complicated. In theory, all men and women who are either Israeli citizens or permanent residents have to perform military service. In practice, all non-Jewish women are exempt, as are all Palestinian men. However, this does not include Druze men: leaders of the small Druze minority were coerced into agreeing to being conscripted to the Israeli Army some 40 years ago. Military service lasts for three years (for men), 20-21 months (for women). After completing military service reserve duties need to be fulfilled until the age of 51 (men) or 24 (women) - in practice most men are exempted at the latest in their early `40s, while women rarely perform any reserve service. There is no right to conscientious objection for men, and only a limited right to conscientious objection for women - women need to make up their mind before being enlisted as, once in the military, serving women no longer have the right to conscientious objection (see Ruth Hiller and Sergeiy Sandler's article on p27 for more information about women and conscription). On the other hand, religious students (everyone who claims to study the Torah) are almost automatically exempted. Thus a huge number of Orthodox Jews - most of them in favour of the occupation and settlements, and certainly not pacifists - never have to fight in the army themselves.
A growing CO movement
Until recently, most conscientious objectors were selective refusers - refuseniks - who were refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. This meant that most already had a military past, and a military rank, and refused their, almost annual, reserve duty if they would be stationed in the Occupied Territories. Yesh Gvul, formed in 1982 in the early days of the Israeli invasion in Lebanon, is the organisation most associated with the concept of selective refusal (Kidron, 2002). But since September 2000 several new groups emerged, and some of these groups have received more public attention. While Yesh Gvul is rooted in the Israeli left, the “Courage to Refuse” group, which emerged in early 2001, is part of the elite of Israeli society. In this group, highly decorated officers declared their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories, and called on others to do the same. Now, more than 500 Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers have pledged to refuse. Resistance is growing particularly among high school students. While in the past there only was a conscientious objector among conscripts now and then, this has changed. In September 2001 more than 60 high school students declared, in an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, their intention to refuse. One year later, this letter was re-issued with then more than 200 signatures, and this number has by now grown to around 300. In total, the “refusenik community”, as it is now referred to amongst Israeli CO activists, is estimated to number some 2,000 people, with more than 1,200 conscientious objectors being known to CO groups.
While most women who declare themselves a conscientious objector get exempted, after going through a humiliating procedure which includes an appearance in front of a so-called “Conscience Committee”, men generally don't have this option. Although the military did set up a “Conscience Committee” for men, the existence of this committee is almost unknown. On top of that, it is the military which decides if someone who declares himself a conscientious objector is referred to the Conscience Committee - and many COs never even see it. The way the committee makes decisions is very arbitrary - and if there are any specific criteria for exemption, then
Adopt a refusenik
Yesh Gvul's “adopt-a-refusenik” programme focuses on concrete support for imprisoned refuseniks, including: letters to the imprisoned refuseniks; support for his (sometimes her) family; protests to the Israeli authorities. When a group tells Yesh Gvul that it wants to adopt a refusenik, it will receive an information kit with personal background information about their refusenik. Yesh Gvul recommends addresses for protest letters and faxes.
Another important aspect is financial support. An imprisoned refusenik doesn't earn any money - unlike a soldier who performs reserve duty.
Groups that adopt a refusenik can also use this for their own campaigning work locally, as it can attract the attention of local media, and other groups in the community.
For more information, contact Yesh Gvul (+972 2 6250271; email firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.yesh-gvul.org/english.html ).
Refuseniks visitBritain Rami Kaplan (pictured), a major in the Israeli army, refuses to participate in Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Kaplan, a Zionist, said the occupation “can in no way be considered democratic...my conscience does not permit me to fight today in the occupied territories.” Kaplan and another refusenik spoke in London in October at a Workers' Liberty event.
they are not known to anyone. Between 1998 and 2000, 115 conscientious objectors were referred to the committee - of these only nine were fully accepted, and 10 were offered some sort of unarmed service in the military. An Israeli CO activist commented on this situation, saying, “Declaring oneself as a CO (for a man) is equivalent to volunteering to spend several months in a military prison.” Since the beginning of the second intifada more than 180 conscientious objectors have spent time in prison - with the majority (more than 150) being selective refusers (refuseniks). Most refuseniks spent the period of their reserve duty (28 days) in military prison - some of them year after year. When in April 2002 the IDF announced an emergency mobilisation of reserves, the number of imprisoned refuseniks peaked at more than 50. Particularly worrying is a development affecting young draft resisters. In the past it was usual practice to sentence draft resisters to repeated prison terms of around 28 days - until they had spent more than 90 days in prison. They were then referred to the “Unsuitability Committee” and exempted as “unfit for the army”. But with the increasing number of draft resisters, this practice seems to have changed. At the time of writing several draft resisters are in prison who are well beyond the 90-day mark. Jonathan Ben-Artzi is serving a seventh prison term, at the end of which he will have spent 196 days in prison. There are several others: Haggai Matar (more than 100 days), Uri Ya'acobi (124 days), Dror Boimel (123 days) are only a few examples. Two conscientious objectors - Hillel Goral and Noam Bahat - started a hunger strike on 16 January in protest against the repeated imprisonment of COs.
International solidarity is crucial in many ways. It is important that the Israeli authorities receive a huge number of protest letters and faxes whenever an objector or refusenik is put in prison. Yesh Gvul has a programme “Adopting a refusenik”, aimed at building a network of support for imprisoned refuseniks (see box). WRI's CO-alerts are another tool to keep you up-to-date about the imprisonment of conscientious objectors, not only in Israel. More than 200 CO-alerts regarding Israeli COs have been sent out during the last two-and-a-half years. This year War Resisters' International will focus its activities for 15 May - International Conscientious Objectors Day - on the situation in Israel. Besides calling for local campaigns that could include decentralised actions in front of Israeli embassies around the world on 15 May, War Resisters' International is also organising an international action in Israel itself, in co-operation with Israeli CO organisations such as New Profile. Similar to last years' CO Day action outside NATO HQ in Belgium, this will be accompanied by a week-long seminar and training sessions - a good opportunity to meet and network with conscientious objectors from other parts of the world. Please contact the WRI office if you want to take part in the activities in Israel - and let WRI know if you are planning to do something locally. Israeli conscientious objectors need your support! Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International, 5 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9DX, Britain (+44 20 7278 4040; fax 7278 0444; email email@example.com; http://wri-irg.org ),
Further reading: War Resisters' International: Conscientious objection to military service in Israel: an unrecognised human right. Report for the Human Rights Committee in relation to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 3 February 2003, available at http://wri-irg.org. War Resisters' International: 15 May 2003: International Conscientious Objectors' Day. Focus on Israeli refuseniks and nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation and in favour of coexistence and cooperation. http://wri-irg.org/news/2003/icod-03.htm Peretz Kidron: Yesh Gvul: a uniquely Israeli innovation in the culture of protest. Peace News 2447, June-August 2002. Adam Keller: Off we go to prison cell. Analysis of the wave of conscientious objection. The Other Israel No 105/106, December 2002.