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Support grows for soldiers refusing to serve in occupation


Support is growing in Israel for 50 combat officers and soldiers who announced in an open letter published Jan. 25 in the Israeli press that they would no longer serve in the occupied territories. Less than a week following the letter’s publication, an additional 50 soldiers signed up, among them many sergeants, lieutenants, captains and even a few colonels.

Thousands of Israelis have called a telephone hotline to support the soldiers and to donate money to help them publish ads in local papers. A group of women is now organizing its own petition, claiming that reservist men are not the only ones carrying the burdens of occupation, while a number of 12th-grade students, who will be drafted this summer, have also announced that they will not serve in the territories.

The uniqueness and force of the combat soldiers’ letter, the fact that it has created such a stir both inside the military establishment and in society at large, has to do with the profile of the people who initiated it. These are not radical leftists, but are rather affiliated with Israel’s political center. They are members of the social elite who characterize themselves as having been “raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving … who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the state of Israel and strengthen it.”

The organizers are in their 20s and 30s and were on military duty in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank just a few months ago. They experienced firsthand the effect of the occupation.

Shuki Sadeh, a paratrooper reservist who was interviewed by the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, related how an Israeli sniper killed a young boy at a distance of 150 meters. “What angered me at the time,” Sadeh said, “was that our soldiers said, ‘Well, that’s another Arab who has disappeared.’ ”

Ariel Shatil, an artillery master sergeant, was recently on reserve duty in the Gaza Strip. “People say that the Palestinians shoot first and we just respond,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth. “This is not true.” He described how “one officer told his soldiers who were on guard duty in lookout posts, ‘If things are too quiet or if you don’t feel certain about the situation, just let off a few rounds.’ ”

“Shots were fired every night,” Shatil said. “We would start shooting and they would fire back.”

In many ways, the signatories appear to be following the advice of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was a professor at Hebrew University and a longtime critic of the occupation until his death in the mid-1990s.

A few months after the 1967 War, in which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Leibowitz -- who was an observant Jew -- said 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 another people and to the corruption if not destruction of Israeli society.

For years, Leibowitz said that if 500 reservist soldiers would simultaneously refuse to serve in the territories, the occupation would end.

With more than 100 signatories to the Jan. 25 letter, the Israeli military appears to be trying to prevent the damage from spreading by punishing the conscientious objectors. Signatory Rami Kaplan has been demoted from his position as deputy commander of a reserve tank battalion. The military has notified other signers that they, too, will be stripped of their command.

“It is as if both sides [the military and signers] believe Leibowitz’s prophecy,” said signatory Yigal Bronner, a Sanskrit scholar at Tel Aviv University who serves in a tank unit. “The prophecy has become some kind of axiom: 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.”

Neve Gordon, a former Israeli paratrooper, teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002