(MintPress) – Moriel Rothman, an Israeli-American, was given a 10-day mandatory sentence for refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) last week. Despite demonstrating his beliefs as a conscientious objector, Rothman was jailed for his moral outlook in a country that requires all able bodied citizens to serve a term in the armed forces. […]
(MintPress) – Moriel Rothman, an Israeli-American, was given a 10-day mandatory sentence for refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) last week. Despite demonstrating his beliefs as a conscientious objector, Rothman was jailed for his moral outlook in a country that requires all able bodied citizens to serve a term in the armed forces.
While Rothman’s outright rejection of service is rare in Israel, a small number of conscientious objectors have made clear that they will serve only within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, in operations that will improve national security. Service in the occupied Palestinian territories, “refusniks” claim, is a hindrance to a negotiated two-state peace settlement and undermines the long-term security interests of the Jewish state.
Confronting mandatory conscription
“Occupation can only be theoretical if you are not occupied, and thus my refusal to support the occupation by serving in the IDF is also an act of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation,” wrote Rothman before his hearing before an IDF military court last week.
Rothman was scheduled to speak with MintPress after his hearing Oct. 24, but was unable to be reached because of his imprisonment late last week. However, his protest is not isolated as dozens of other young Israelis have refused mandatory draft notices for similar moral opposition to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and operations that seek to entrench occupation.
Israel is among a handful of countries mandating that every able-bodied person, including women, serve a term in the military. At the age of 18, all Israelis, except for Arab citizens, are given draft notices to begin service in the IDF.
The Defense Service Law signed shortly after the founding of Israel in 1949 allows the government to draft all male citizens for a period of 30 months while all women serve for 18 months.
The majority of religious and ethnic minority groups including the Druze and Bedouin are drafted for service while the majority of Arab citizens are exempted.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews for many years were also exempted from military service on religious grounds. However, the Israeli Supreme Court decided to let the Tal law expire earlier this summer, a controversial decision highlighting the ongoing rift between Israel’s secular majority and the growing religious orthodox minority.
While the composition of the IDF will not immediately change, the future ranks of Israeli armed forces will include many of the 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men originally exempted from service.
David Ben Gurion and the founders of Israel agreed to exempt a small number of scholars from military service in order to restore Jewish religious scholarship following the Holocaust of World War II.
However, what was originally a small exemption quickly grew as the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox swelled in the decades following the founding of Israel in 1948. Up until the recent Supreme Court decision, there were frequent deferments for medical as well as religious grounds.
Overall though, Israel has never been lacking in troops as the latest draft classes show strong compliance with national mandates for service, says Dr. Amos Guiora, a professor of international law at the University of Utah.
While the general current still strongly favors mandatory conscription, a small number of Israelis continue to object to service on religious and moralistic grounds.
The refusnik movement
Taking their name from Jewish “refusniks” who refused to serve in the Russian military, the Israeli refusniks began protesting IDF conscription in 2002. The group, originally a group of combat officers, objected principally because of IDF operations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Because of the specific history of Jewish marginalization in the Soviet Union and previously in the Russian empire, the term “refusnik” has a contested, controversial connotation as it is reapplied to conscientious objection in Israel.
During the nascent stages of the movement, 51 reserve officers and combat soldiers penned a letter originally published in Haaretz. The letter came to be know as the “Courage to Refuse” and stated clearly that while the authors oppose service in the occupied territories, they remain committed to service in Israel’s defense forces.
While many of the soldiers have served and continue to serve in the IDF, most have taken the view that operations in the West Bank and the Gaza strip undermine Israel’s long-term national security and hinder a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinian people.
For many Israelis, refusing to serve stems from a deep moral opposition to the Israeli occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people.
“Nobody trained me to be a murderer. No one trained me to do those things that, perhaps, other units do. But he (the commander) said that he’d measure us, he’d assess our performance by the number of encounters. By the number of people who are killed. That got to me,” said Aver Gvaryahu, a former sergeant in a Special Paratroopers Unit.
“We, combat officers and soldiers who have served the State of Israel for long weeks every year, in spite of the dear cost to our personal lives, have been on reserve duty in the Occupied Territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people,” the refusniks wrote in their 2002 letter.
Since writing the letter, widely criticized throughout Israeli society, more than 600 Israeli soldiers have signed on to the campaign, a contentious move by a relatively small number of Israel’s 5 million strong Jewish population.
Many Israelis caution evenly labeling their protest a “movement.”
“There are occasionally people who protest Israel’s policies in the West Bank, but I would be hesitant to call this a movement,” said Guiora in a MintPress statement.
Guiora added, “At the height of the Second Intifada (2002-2003), there was an air force pilot’s letter objecting to the air force’s role with respect to bombing from helicopters. It received some media attention but quickly died. It became an issue and then quickly became a non-issue.”
Twenty-seven pilots expressed their objection to operations in the West Bank and Gaza saying, “We, both veteran and active pilots, who have served and who still serve the State of Israel, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral orders to attack, of the type Israel carries out in the territories.”
There was similar moral outrage during the 2008 Operation Cast led incursion into Gaza that killed nearly 1,200 Palestinians.
“My government is now involved in war crimes. It’s not just a war crime against the Palestinians, it’s a crime against the Israeli people. People from all backgrounds and all parts of Israeli society are completely ashamed and against this crazy assault. As Jewish people we understand that you cannot kill the desire of people to be free,” said Yonaton Shapira, a former captain in the Israeli air force, during a 2009 BBC interview.
Shapira continued, saying, “I want to call on the international community, the Jewish community and everyone listening to me now. Please join our force to stop this massive killing — for the sake of Israel, for the sake of Palestine and for the sake of the world.”
Shapira, like many former soldiers, is beginning to speak out against operations in the occupied territories both as moral and security imperative.
Breaking the Silence
Most Israelis consider it their patriotic duty to serve in the IDF. While just a handful have refused service, a growing number who have served their duty are speaking out about their experiences in an Israeli campaign called, “Breaking the Silence.”
The campaign seeks to educate the Israeli public by telling them firsthand about the devastating psychological effect the occupation has had on soldiers and the average Palestinian.
Thus far, the Breaking the Silence Campaign has been supported by more than 700 former soldiers who have provided testimonies about their service in combat units in the occupied territories.
“Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse toward Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases,” wrote the campaign.
Founded in 2004, Breaking the Silence has taken testimony from soldiers representing “all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.” Among the more controversial findings of the group has been the use of “human shields” by Israeli Defense Forces when entering a suspected combatant’s home.
In addition to educating the Israeli public about the abuses of the occupation, former soldiers have become lecturers at colleges and universities across the U.S.
Alternative tours through the West Bank are also offered to international travelers interested in seeing the effects of the military occupation in Hebron, one of the poorest cities in the West Bank.