Yesh Gvul: a uniquely Israeli innovation in the culture of protest

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Peretz Kidron

At the time of writing, 42 Israeli soldiers - conscripts and reservists - are serving sentences in military prisons after refusing to take part in the campaign of repression against the Palestinian population.

The army has changed its policy towards the refuseniks, and after long pretending they just don't exist, current policy directives to unit commanders have produced a rash of disciplinary actions.

There are now over 1000 refuseniks, over half of whom have already refused, the rest being pledged to do so whenever they are posted to the occupied territories.

The upsurge in the refusal movement reflects and motivates a revival of the broader grassroots peace coalition, with peace rallies only recently attended by no more than a loyal handful, now attracting thousands. A major driving force in this revival is the moral example set by the rapidly increasing numbers of refuseniks.

The following, explaining the background to the movement, was written before the start of the second Intifada.

Civil disobedience - in the army?

“Selective refusal” is arguably the Israeli peace movements most original contribution to the arsenal of protest, with the general principles of civil disobedience, as forged by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, applied to that least likely of all possible settings: the army. It is a remarkable departure, albeit faithful to basic principle.

Unlike revolution, with its all-out defiance of the political status quo in all aspects, civil disobedience focuses on a specific injustice, homing in on a regulation that embodies its essence (in the US South, racial discrimination was exemplified by segregation in public transport) and picking it out for deliberate and overt defiance. Accordingly, the refusal movement - a prominent element of Israel's domestic opposition - originally focussed on the IDF's role in enforcing the occupation or invading Lebanon and chose to flout the law requiring soldiers to serve where and as ordered. It was not all-out mutiny: rather, with a chutzpeh unheard of in other armies, IDF refuseniks arrogated unto themselves the prerogative of choosing, by their own lights, which orders to obey or disobey.

Developing new tactics

There have been instances of Israelis refusing any form of military service, but conscientious objection never took off as a broad movement; the political and regional circumstances facing Israels peaceniks evidently preclude outright refusal. The occupied territories are not Algeria, and Lebanon is no Vietnam. A different strategy was called for.

Not that anyone ever sat down ahead of time to design a form of protest meeting specific Israeli conditions. Selective refusal grew from, and was shaped by, the complex military-political parameters laid down by the 1967 war. A generation of soldiers brought up on the myth of the Israel Defence Force discovered overnight that the generally legitimate defensive duties they had discharged hitherto were now replaced by the task of policing a subject civilian population.

That abrupt change came as a major shock to a segment of IDF reservists. The small but vocal anti-occupation movement counted among its members numerous men of military age routinely called to annual reserve service, frequently in the occupied territories. Thus, after spending eleven months in the year campaigning against the occupation, many a left-winger found himself required perforce to dedicate the twelfth to enforcing that selfsame occupation.

The dilemma was intolerable. Moral reflex rebelled against service with an army of occupation. But regional realities still posed threats: at least in theory, external aggression might yet oblige the IDF to discharge its professed defensive role. Accordingly, very few could bring themselves to outright rejection of all forms of service with the IDF.

Almost inevitably, a line was drawn between “unacceptable” service in the occupied territories, and “legitimate” duties arising from the IDFs potential or actual defensive role. In the early seventies, when Yossi Kotten and Yitzchak Laor stunned the Israeli public by overt defiance of orders to serve in the occupied territories, they hastened to declare their willingness to undertake other, more legitimate duties. “Selective” refusal was born.

“Just obeying orders”

The roots of the refusal movement can be traced to an episode long pre-dating the 1967 occupation and ostensibly unrelated thereto. In the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre, IDF soldiers systematically gunned down 49 Israeli Arab villagers for breaking a curfew of which they were unaware. At the ensuing trial, the lower-ranking culprits argued their innocence, claiming they had “merely obeyed orders”.

Ten years after the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis who had butchered a third of the Jewish people, that line of defence was repugnant to Jewish ears, not least those of the judges sitting in judgement. The trial verdict - surely one of the most eloquent and moving texts in legal history - demolished the claim that a soldier was required under all circumstances to obey orders, even those overshadowed with “the black flag of illegality”.

To any army, based on a vertical hierarchy and the formal requirement of strict obedience, the notion that the orders of a superior must be scrutinised to ascertain their legitimacy was a potential time bomb.

The bomb was primed and set off by the actions of the Israeli establishment. As the seventies dragged by and Israel's leaders showed no intention of giving up their '67 conquests, a handful of peace activists opted for “selective refusal” as their personal protest. With virtually no public reverberations, a formal refusal to serve in “the territories” seemed a quixotic act, undertaken more for the refuseniks personal integrity and self-respect than as calculated political protest.

Lebanon: a border too far

The June 1982 invasion of Lebanon abruptly changed everything. Hitherto, many peace-minded reservists, aware of the painful social and ideological consequences of refusal, had somehow come to uneasy terms with their annual tour of duty in the occupied territories.

But then the Begin-Sharon government upset the delicate balance: early in June 1982, the IDF invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to clear the border area of PLO “terrorists”. It was a whole new ballgame. The IDF drove on into the very outskirts of Beirut, making it plain that this was no mere 40 km “policing action”; matters took a far graver turn with the September massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. This went much further than the sporadic instances of mistreatment and humiliation prevalent in the occupied territories.

The new circumstances demolished the Peace Now doctrine of “serve-now-protest-later”; Israeli military operations in Lebanon often had consequences - in devastation and loss of human life - that no belated protest could reverse. There was no way liberals in uniform could endow this war with a humane aspect. If opposition had any meaning, it must pursue prevention; protest required an adamant refusal to take part. To many reservists, crossing the border into Lebanon was the last straw; or, as they put it in vernacular Hebrew: “Yesh gvul!” There's a limit!

Turning the tide

Refusals, sporadic initially, soon ran into the dozens. But unlike the muted protests of seventies refuseniks- “voices crying in the wilderness” -those who refused postings to Lebanon now found a political sounding board.

”Yesh Gvul”, a radical anti-war group launched in the early days of the invasion, initially solicited reservists' signatures to a petition requesting not to be sent to Lebanon. Some signatories followed through with outright refusal, and Yesh Gvul was there to back them up. The movement published the statements whereby “refuseniks” defended their insubordination. A string of press releases were backed up by ideological publications making the case for refusal and counselling reservists facing the decision.

The movement never directly advocated refusal - a prudent course dictated equally by anxiety to avoid criminal charges of incitement, and a high-minded reluctance to coax anyone into taking such a far-reaching step. In those early days, when refusal was as yet rare and Israelis still regarded military service as sacrosanct, some refuseniks incurred redoubled retribution, their term in military jail being followed by condemnation, or even downright ostracism, from outraged relatives and friends.

On the whole, however, refuseniks got surprisingly gentle treatment: in the charged atmosphere marked inter alia by right-wing violence against Peace Now demonstrations, refuseniks and Yesh Gvul enjoyed a special status, arguably by reason of the willingness to meet the establishment head-on and face the music. As the tide gradually turned, and the futile bloodshed in Lebanon made public opinion increasingly disenchanted with what prime minister Begin conceded was “a war of choice”, ie a war he could have chosen not to pursue, there was growing respect for Yesh Gvul and the refuseniks.

The first Intifada

Ultimately, the military campaign was aborted and most IDF units were pulled out of Lebanon and with the removal of its immediate rationale, the refusal movement faded, and Yesh Gvul fell semi-dormant. But the movement could not long overlook the underlying motive for the Lebanon invasion: the occupied territories, and right-wing designs to perpetuate Israel's hold there, despite growing Palestinian restlessness.

Yesh Gvul's hardcore activists, maintaining low-level activity in Jerusalem, worded a new petition, this time specifying refusal to serve in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The final wording was completed in September 1987; Yesh Gvul volunteers began collecting signatures; two months later, the first Palestinian Intifada erupted.

In contrast with the Lebanon war period, the first Intifada found Yesh Gvul well-organised, with a fund to tide refuseniks' families over the period of imprisonment, routine press releases drawing broad media attention to the refuseniks statements, leaflets distributed in tens of thousands of copies at soldiers' transport centres, with political and financial backing from support groups abroad and a recognised position as one of the most important - albeit among the smallest - of Israel's peace groups.

As in the Lebanon war, the refusal campaign again had enormous public impact. When soldiers and officers with impeccable military records preferred jail rather than take part in the brutal “break-their-arms- and-legs” repression of the Palestinian population, their refusal brought home to Israeli public opinion the enormity of the crimes being committed in their name. There can be no doubt that the persistence and dedication of the refuseniks played a major role in preparing the Israeli public for a peaceful political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Universal application

The Israeli experience proves that “selective refusal” is a powerful weapon of protest. Its significance need not be confined to Israel alone. Wherever there is an army, there is a hierarchy; as evidenced from Algeria to Bosnia, a chain of command is perfectly capable of transmitting the most horrific orders and securing their implementation.

When the hour of reckoning comes, the lower ranks claim they were “just cogs in the machine”. By that time, the atrocities have been perpetrated, and no retribution can bring the victims back to life. Such deeds have been committed by every form of regime - totalitarian and democratic, left and right, conservative and “progressive”; all have used their national army for external aggression or internal repression.

Soldiers are drilled into obedience; the result all too often is an Auschwitz or a My Lay. The victims are not always aliens: the Rodney King riots saw US troops despatched into the US city of Los Angeles where they inflicted some 50 US fatalities. There were no known cases of soldiers refusing to shoot at fellow-citizens.

Because of the enormous destructive power wielded by a modern army, and the potential for its misuse by those politicians and generals who give the orders, the latter must be kept aware that the chain of command is not unconditionally at their disposal.

Obedience must never be automatic. Knee-jerk robots bearing guns are among the greatest threats to humanity. That threat can be foiled only by instilling into every army - its lower echelons especially that illegal and immoral orders can and must be ignored.

With the second Intifada, now more than ever, no soldier must be allowed to shelter behind the claim of “just obeying orders”. Obedience must be limited; and when those limits are reached, someone must step out of the ranks and proclaim: “Yesh Gvul!”