Yaba Yaba

what? another blog? you must be joking.

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A sort-of chat I’m having with Jez on his blog led me to dig up this post from my old place.

{Friday, March 12, 2004}


Here’s my notes for tonight’s PayDay event

    In a way, I do not fit the title of this evening. I have been a soldier and commander in combat units of the Israeli army for 15 years – 3.5 years of regular army, and the rest in reserve army. Being a reserve infantry soldier means you get called to serve for about a month each year. 9 out of 10 times, this means enforcing Israeli rule in the occupied territories. I have always opposed the occupation, and fought against it. At the same time, I have always considered it my duty to perform whatever service I was called to. I still do, but my calling has changed.

    My refusal is an act of civil disobedience. It is conditional on circumstances, time and place. It is a complex position, and to explain it, I would need to explain how I view the current state of the conflict. To do that, I would have to start at the beginning – about 150 years ago. Obviously, a tough task for an 8 minute talk. Instead, I will try to share my personal experiences with you. I hope that these will provoke your questions.

    There are 4 refuser groups in Israel, with nearly 1,500 members, men and women, officers, soldiers, elite fighters, draftees and veterans. Since the outbreak of the second Intifada hundreds have been imprisoned for refusal, for terms ranging from 14 to 500 days. Each of these men and women walked his own, untrod trail. I cannot speak for all of them. I can say that my own decision was not driven by the fear that I, or my fellow commanders, might commit crimes. I have done things which you might question, but I have no remorse. I have complete confidence in my commanders and peers that they do only what they believe is necessary to protect lives, and they do it with the utmost decency.

    The problem is the occupation itself. As long as it exists, the things we have do to protect lives will be cruel and unjust. A state of the oppression is destructive, physically and morally, both to the oppressed and to the oppressor. I see the relations between me and my government as a “civil contract”: I do what is necessary in the circumstances, the state does what is necessary to change them. Loosing the belief that governmentent is doing its best to end the occupation meant loosing the moral justification for my participation in it.

    But first, the news.

    After 4 years of struggle, 1.5 of them in prison, Yoni Ben Artzi has finally been exempted from Military service. Half a year before his projected draft date, Yoni notified the army that his conviction in pacifism does not permit him to serve. To this day, the army has refused to respect his declaration. The letter he had received a fortnight ago states that he is released on account of – check this out – lack of motivation. I defy anyone to claim that the IDF lacks a sense of Humor.

    Currently imprisoned for refusal are: Haggai Matar, Adam Maor, Noam Bahat, Matan Kaminer, Shimri Zameret, Inbar Gelbert, Maor Persai and Uri Fein. The first 5 are unconditional conscientious objectors. They have already server between 360 and 500 days in prison, and have recently been sentenced to another year. Inbal is a young woman who has accumulated over 40 days in prison for refusing draft. Maor and Uri are conditional refusers like me; they are serving their second term in prison. Liora Millo is expected to join them any day. LioraÂ’s appeal to the conscientious objectors committee has been rejected on account of her being a conditional refuser. She has already served 14 days in prison, and her case is currently held before the Supreme Court.

    These men and woman need your support. I’m sure you will all sign the petitions, donate, lobby etc. I wanted to ask you to do one small thing tonight: write one of them a letter, tell him or her that your heart is with them. I know it meant a lot to me, I’m sure it does to them.

    Now to my story.

    On 20 March, 2002 I was sentenced to 28 days in military prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

    As I’ve mentioned, I had served for 3.5 years in regular army and another 12 in reserve, as a soldier and commander in combat units. A large part of my service had been in the Gaza and West Bank areas. About three years ago my regiment participated in the siege of Kalkilia. It was probably then that my stance began to shift. Several events that occurred in the following months persuaded me to do what many of my friends do: evade service. The next time I was called, I organized a “business trip” abroad.

    However, after my return I realized that what we often call “grey refusal” is not the right way for me. It is not my habit to lie to friends, and my army mates are among my best friends.

    It was at that point that I started seriously considering refusal. I knew that it was a matter of 6-12 months before I am called to service again, and that most chances are that my unit will again be sent to the occupied territories. But the way to refusal is long. There were 5 great mountains I had to surmount.

    The first, perhaps most banal, is mt. norm. Though I had my wild years (long hair, mind altering substances and all) most of my life has been conducted in the heart of “normality”. I have been living happily with the same woman since the age of 21. This woman happens to be the mother of my two children, and my wife as well. I work an ordinary job, drive an ordinary car, see ordinary movies. It’s surprising how hard it is to step out of this golden cage and do something quite extraordinary.

    The second summit to traverse is that of mt. “what will they say”. Your friends, family, co-workers, the grocer. Mind you, I come from a country were the bus driver tells you its time for a haircut. ItÂ’s also a very patriotic country. People live in constant sense of threat, and the notion of one’s obligation to defend his country is commonplace.

    The next big rock one hits is economic. Quite simply, refusing cost me a month’s salary. Having a wife and two children to provide for, that is not something to take lightly. Furthermore, it could count for unjustified absence – in which case it is a legal clause for termination of contract.

    But all these are mere hills when you reach mt. loyalty. I’m not talking about love for your king and country. I’m not talking about obligation to the democratic system and its laws. Those exist, but I cannot believe anyone who says he is willing to kill himself, or others, for those noble causes. For most men, the only power strong enough to make them rise to battle is seeing their mates alongside. In refusing to serve I was deserting – not the army, but my friends. Friends who have walked shoulder to shoulder with me up some very dark paths. Friends who have stood back to back with me in some very tight spots. Friends who I would protect with my life, and they would protect mine with theirs. They were going to the hell of Gaza, and I to the safety of prison. What if one of my mates gets the bullet that had my name written on it?

    It took me nearly half a year, but in the end I ascended the summits of all these mountains, and reached the plateau beyond. At that point I called my company commander and asked if I could pay him a visit. I came to his home one day, just as his young son was on his way to bed. We talked – about work, studies, education, football. And then I told him that I will not join the regiment in our planned service in Gaza. For two hours he tried to convince me to change my mind. I’ll never forget his words: “I’ll always love and appreciate you as a person, but I think you are doing a despicable deed, pretty damn close to treason”.

    After that he arranged for me to meet my battalion commander. Again, I spent a long evening with him. He raised some very hard questions – most of them I have been through, but some were new. “Most officers and commanders in the battalion are as left wing as you are. They all think the occupation is atrocious, hopeless and wrong. Still, they believe that their effect is greater in being there, and assuring decent human conduct. What influence do you think your refusal will have? Who will be impressed by it? On the other hand, in a few years we will be called to forcibly remove settlements. What will you say to right-wing soldiers that will refuse then?”

    I told him that the most I can promise is to go home and think about his words. And I did. It was then that I found myself at the feet of the most treacherous mountain of them all: mt. doubt. how can I know that I am doing the right thing? What if history will prove me wrong? What if no one will notice? What if it is true that we are facing a nation who’s only desire is our destruction? What if, given enough time, I would see things differently?

    There is only one way over this peak: you don’t know what’s right. You feel it.

    For me the way to go about it was to ask myself, what would I be comfortable explaining to my 5 year old son. I realized that I have no problem telling him that I’m going to prison for refusal. I will have a hard time expelling some of the things I did in the occupied territories.

    After three days I called my commanders and told them that my decision is firm. We agreed on the screenplay from there on: I would report with my battalion as usual, do the short training with everyone, and when the busses load for Gaza, I will stand trial.

    On 20 March, 2002 my battalion commander court-martialled me for inappropriate conduct. He found me guilty, and sentenced me to 28 days in prison. On the 21st I woke up in military prison 6, and I knew I was a free man – free as I have never been before.

Written by yishaym

August 4, 2007 at 1:23 am

4 Responses

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  1. I have a great deal of respect for what you and others did in refusing to serve in the occupied territories and, for others, in Lebanon. As you might guess, I believe in refusing to serve in any army (anywhere) which is largely defined by acts of cruelty, and this applies in my mind not only to the IDF, but also to the armies of most of the world. In spite of that, I think it takes a great deal of moral courage for a member of an army to refuse to serve in specific circumstances.
    I also think it’s great you can be so honest about the pressure of norm.

    Obviously, we have our differences of opinion, but I’m not really going to go into those. I’m just wondering if you still believe it might be possible to change things by being inside the army in the occupied territories. I may have already mentioned a very left-wing policeman friend of mine. He worked at first on the streets in Paris and sometimes came accross prostitutes. He tells me it might happen, that the cops he was with would be aggressive with the prostitutes, something he was opposed to. Yet, he says, it is very difficult to say anything in a group situation. There is too much pressure. When he started working as a cop 3 or 4 years ago he believed he would be able to act for change within the force. Now he is disillusioned and can’t wait to change jobs. This is in country which is not in a war/occupation situation. So, I have to ask: how many members of the occupation army in Palestine are opposed to the occupation and the cruelty we can often hear and read about? Are the numerous acts of cruelty we are told about simply acts of frustration or fear on the part of soldiers?
    These are honest questions, since I have never actually seen the occupation or been near it. I generally believe those whose articles I read about the near-constant oppression of Palestinians, but I’d still like to know the motivations and feelings of the IDF soldiers who go there.
    Take care

    jez

    August 16, 2007 at 7:53 pm

  2. Quite a few important questions there.

    I was a commander (sergeant), so I had more responsibility and more influence. I saw my job as composed of three equal parts: making sure the mission is accomplished, making sure all my men return safely, and making sure they do the job honestly and decently. That means not causing any suffering beyond what is absolutely required for the first two. That means no arbitrary violence, no cruelty, no disrespect or humiliation. By the way, I believe the three go hand in hand: the more you allow pointless cruelty and abuse, the more you compromise the mission and your safety.

    Most soldiers around me, and almost all commanders, where of a similar mind. If 87% of Israelis believe the occupation should end, then even more of the occupying forces do. Paradox? not at all. Remember – its a popular army, not a professional one. And the soldiers on the ground are those most exposed to the price of occupation on both sides. Some of my friends would stand at a road block for 10 days, then on their leave come back to stand in a peace now demonstration calling for its dismantlement.

    I’m not talking about change from within: the occupation is a political construct, and it can only be stopped by political action. The army does not, should not, ever – define policy. It only implements it. The point is that as long as the occupation continues, we have a duty to regulate it and limit its harm. I had a choice: keep my hand clean, and leave the implementation of the occupation to less principled peers, or take part in this huge project of injustice, to try and keep it within humane boundaries. There is no right answer, but I did what was right for me. I refused when I was convinced that the scene had changed, and the damage I do by refusing is less than the damage I do by conceding.

    What are the roots of evil? Look into your heart. We all have a spark of evil, we all have a spark of divine. Haven’t you even felt like kicking someone in the gut? And what if you knew you could get away with it? What if its 40 degrees, you’re a young kid who hasn’t seen his girlfriend in 4 weeks, and your weekend off is cancelled because there’s riots in Dir El Balach. Wouldn’t you feel like kicking the shit out of someone? Actually, its almost surprising that most people resist that. Some don’t because they are weak, some don’t because they are genuinely bad. I can’t blame it all on frustration. There’s pleasure in causing pain, and some people go along with that.

    How many acts of cruelty have you heard of? You know, at any given day there are 10s of thousands Israeli soldiers in the west bank.

    This is not a justification. Not an excuse. Its just a measure of perspective.

    yishaym

    August 17, 2007 at 1:23 am

  3. “By the way, I believe the three go hand in hand: the more you allow pointless cruelty and abuse, the more you compromise the mission and your safety.”

    It seems to me, from the comfort of my armshair thousands of kms away from Israel-Palestine, that in the above you have demonstrated why Israel is the most dangerous place on earth for Jews.

    Evil and divine? Well, I am not a believer, so I would not use those words. Have I ever felt like kicking someone in the gut? Quite possibly, but I don’t think that someone would have been a random innocent person. That said, I have obviously never been in the kind of situation you have described. I hope I never will be, and I hope I will have the courage to refuse to even serve in the army (in the unlikely event either of my countries were to call me up) let alone to serve in an occupying/colonising force.
    How many acts of cruelty have I heard of? Well, one is already one too many, but I have not counted. Like most people here, I rely on the media, though not only on the BBC, Al Jazeera or CNN! Amira Hass mostly reports on acts of cruelty in her reports from the occupied territories. I guess you could argue on what constitutes an act of cruelty, but in the end, however fair you are, I have to wonder how just you really can be when your job is to manage the occupation of a whole people and to restrict their movements when it’s not to destroy their homes.

    Personally I think you did the right thing. You might worry that by not being present you were not able to prevent cruelty to palestinians, but if you believe the occupation its self is an injustice then I believe you have a moral duty not to take part in it. Some more palestinians may suffer as a result. To use an analogy, many black south africans will no doubt have suffered economically as a result of the boycott of the apartheid regime, but I’m sure a majority of them thought it was necessary. You say it’s not the army’s job to legislate. Obviously not, but on the other hand, since Nüremberg we have the idea, that it is right to refuse an immoral order, and I believe, that the more israelis refuse to serve as you did, the more chance for an end to the occupation there can be. I’m not saying the end of occupation rests on the shoulders of refuseniks, just that they can be more than just refuseniks: they can be agents of change.

    Also, I wanted to comment on what your superior said about removing settlers. It’s obviously a case of what feels just and moral to you. Removing colonialist settlers is not equivalent to oppressing indigenous arabs. I have heard about soldiers who refuse to remove settlers because a jew can not remove another jew from their home. That kind of argument to me is outside morality. To me, ending the suffering of any human being is a priority.

    That’s how I view things, from the comfort of my european home.

    jez

    August 17, 2007 at 9:30 pm

  4. […] can help secure a just peace” (details soon). As part of the preparation, I was asked about my service & refusal. So I googled a bit and dugg up this […]


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