Ronit Chacham, 'Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip'

IssueMarch - May 2004
Review by Andreas Speck

This book is a collection of interviews with Israeli soldiers who at some stage decided to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

Some of these soldiers are familiar to readers of WRI's co-alert email lists, as their imprisonment was reported to generate support. Others were lucky and didn't spent time behind bars (so far). None of the soldiers interviewed in this book is a pacifist. All of them continue to serve in the IDF. Still, this book gives some insights into their moral reasoning. How to be true to one's values - even as a non-pacifist, convinced that a military defence is justified and necessary - in a situation where one's own country occupies another country.

”You can't be moral in Gaza. It's a contradiction in terms”, says Yaniv Iczkovitz. Can you do khisoufim (the complete clearing of entire areas of houses, trees, etc) with music, perhaps with a smile? Can you give a Palestinian candy and wish him good morning after he waited for hours at a roadblock? Some say that we shouldn't refuse to serve because we could change the treatment at the checkpoints instead. We could serve them coffee and cake while they wait. What a joke” (p53).

The interviews in this book reveal the reality of an army - of an entire society - engaged in the oppression of the Palestinians. All but one of the soldiers interviewed in this book carried out their entire service in the IDF before they decided to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. They tell the stories of this occupation, and their own involvement in its crimes. Shamai Leibowitz: “On conscription day, when you enter the base you don't receive an order to shoot little boys and girls. It unfolds as you serve. You're sent to Gaza or Balata, and you storm into a house. A kid runs away because he is scared of you. So you shoot and kill him. Then you say to yourself: `Wait a minute, I didn't want to kill children. This goes against my will.'“ (p88)

All of the soldiers here belonged to the well-off Israeli elite, and most served in elite units. In short: they were a well-integrated part of Israeli society, a society where your status is defined by what you did in the IDF. They say that what made their act of refusal so difficult was to “break the ranks”, to go against your fellow soldiers and friends. They tell stories of friends - even relatives - who don't talk to you any more, but also stories of support. They explain how they suddenly felt thrown out of mainstream Israeli society, and found themselves at the margins.

I was moved by the story of Yuval Lotem, who refused to serve at Megiddo prison, a prison for Palestinian administrative detainees, who are imprisoned there, often for years, without charges being brought against them. Yuval Lotem spent 28 days in Megiddo prison himself. After his release he received a letter from a Palestinian inmate of Megiddo prison, Imad Saba - an activist with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Yuval Lotem tells the story of Imad Saba, how he got in contact with him after his release - and how they became friends.

The book is important, because it shows that nothing is black and white in conflict. It shows that Israelis can resist, but it also shows how circumstances can turn a perfectly normal young person into a torturer, or killer. But, more important still, it shows that people can make choices - to obey or to disobey, to dehumanise the “Other”, or to show compassion, and take responsibility for one's own acts.

However, I also have some critical points to make: all of the soldiers interviewed here belong to Courage to Refuse, to the “Zionist” wing of the Israeli refusers movement. However, this movement is much broader. It also goes beyond reservists, and includes an increasing number of young conscripts. Courage to Refuse includes people who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, who refuse to serve in the IDF altogether as long as it is a force of occupation, and it also includes pacifists. The book fails to present this diversity, and therefore gives a wrong impression of the refusers movement. Representing this diversity would have made the book even stronger.

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