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Meet the New Face of Israel’s Growing Military Refuser Movement

Three young conscientious objectors on the dangers of refusing Israel’s mandatory military service, right-wing backlash and their hopes for peace.

Yasmin Yablanko and Khaled Farrag speaking at Brown University last month. (Photo: Facebook / AFSC)

Conscientious objectors from the Israeli military, or “refusers,” are a small but growing group within an increasingly right-wing and militarized society. Last month, several young refusers visited 12 U.S. cities as part of a speaking tour sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the Refuser Solidarity Network.

On April 27, following an event in New York City hosted by Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, I spoke with refusers Yasmin Yablonko and Khaled Farrag, who each run their own support groups for conscientious objectors. While Yablonko heads the newly-founded Mesarvot, which provides social and psychological support for those deciding to refuse, Farrag fronts Urfod (Arabic for “refuse”), which specifically supports members of the Druze community refusing Israeli military service. The Druze community faces a unique position because they are the only Palestinians since 1956 to have military service imposed on them.

Fellow refuser Sahar Vardi, who served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted and now works as ASFC’s Israel program coordinator, also joined the conversation, which touched on the perils of being a conscientious objector, how the movement is adapting to Israel’s rightward push and their hopes for peace.

What pushed you to make the decision to refuse your mandatory military service?

Yablonko: I come from a very radical left-wing anti-Zionist house. My mother is actually Druze, like Khaled. And my father is Jewish, but he’s anti-Zionist and a conscientious objector himself. I don’t have a reason to be Zionist. I just knew that I didn’t want to be in the military. I didn’t go to a normal high school, and there was a lot of pressure to go into the military. So, I didn’t refuse publicly. I spoke to a mental health deputy and got out.

Farrag: My story is not much different. I came from a house that was very engaged politically to the left. So, I grew up knowing that I was going to refuse. Therefore, I had family support. I didn’t live at home, so I didn’t have the social experience around my refusing from the general society in my village, but you face opposition from the general public.

Vardi: I grew up in a classic Zionist-left house, so we knew we were against the occupation. We just had no idea what the occupation was. And around the second intifada, it became a little bit more relevant to our lives. Things were happening. Buses were blown up, and there was kind of a feeling around in my closed environment that there needs to be a little bit of a reaction to the concept of occupation. My father was invited to an action in a small village outside of Jerusalem planting olive trees, and he took his two kids along. That was my first time in a Palestinian village and seeing the realities in daily life, seeing the idea that we can go to the village, but Palestinians living in that village — literally 15 minutes away from my house — couldn’t cross over. They were building the wall at the time. We asked, “What is that going to mean for their lives, like not being able to visit their friends?”

So, for me, understanding those different realities started a process of radicalization. That led to most of my teenage life being involved in a lot of the protests against the wall. You would go to a protest and before you even got close to wall, you’d have soldiers shooting at you and Palestinians dragging you into their house, offering you shelter. Coming from a society that teaches you that soldiers are supposed to protect you and that Palestinians are going to harm you, and then have the exact opposite happen — it shatters a lot of the dichotomies that we’re used to. That was the experience where I said I wasn’t going to be in that protest and, the next day, be the soldier that’s shooting at it.

Can you walk me through the typical process of what happens when someone refuses their mandatory service?

Farrag: The army doesn’t recognize objection. So, when you go and object, you are treated as a soldier who is disobeying an order. If you are consistent with your refusal, they will put you in prison, and after you’ve served your term, you will probably go home for a weekend. When you come back, you have to refuse again, and it goes on and on. In the past, it used to take a couple of years. Now it lasts a few months, until the army — which doesn’t need the manpower, it’s more of a principle issue — gives up and decides that you’re incompatible to serve. You can also take the easier way and ask to see a mental health deputy. You’ll have to prove to him that you are mentally not suitable to serve in the army.

Vardi: That’s assuming you show up to your draft date. People who are less aware of the consequences just don’t show up. Then, legally, they become deserters, which is a criminal offense for a certain amount of time. Military police do these raids, where they go to find deserters. Also, civilian police — if they pull you over and check your license — can arrest you. So, that is a much more severe process: You go straight to prison if you get caught.

How has the movement of conscientious objectors in Israel been changing in light of recent right-wing escalation and the Gaza invasion of 2014? What kind of developments in the movement have you seen since?

Yablonko: There was a lot of campaigning due to the war in Gaza. You saw a lot of different refusal groups and movements starting to work, and from different departments: for reserves, for ground service, and also people who have been trying to get out of the military because they don’t want to serve that specific war. That was something that was really interesting to watch. Following that experience we started our network [Mesarvot] in order to give activists more space to work, not just around wars. We wanted something that would be more continuous and combine our efforts with many different groups working separately. Now, the refusers we support actually do come from many different backgrounds and geographical places in Israel. The people who are the face of refusal are changing.

Farrag: Our organization [Urfod] started a couple of years ago, at the end of 2013. We started gathering a group of activists, former refusers and Druze. But we knew, first and foremost, this is a Palestinian issue — it’s not just a Druze issue. The Druze community and population in Palestine are isolated from each other. We thought that was wrong and that’s why we decided to launch. It’s been going on as a campaign for two years now. The idea is that Druze have always been Palestinians in Palestine and should connect back with their identity. That’s the greater goal. To achieve that, first, we have to get rid of the imposed army service on the Druze male teenagers. Throughout the past two years, we also saw some sort of awakening — even though it’s not felt in large numbers — in the Druze community. The awakening is more about realizing how Druze can serve their duty, but still not get their full rights. They are discriminated against just as any other Palestinian in Israel. They face racism just like any other Arab there. That’s why we decided to also work in the Druze community: to say that army service is not just ruining your history or identity or your Arab and Palestinian identity, but that it’s also not giving us any benefits as a community.

So we’ve started promoting refusing as a first step and provide psychological and legal support to go through refusal, trying to provide incentives for alternatives like scholarships and so on. There has been a growing bad image of the Druze in the Palestinian community since the start of the occupation, where they see them only as soldiers, those who beat them at checkpoints and so on. This is why we decided this is a Palestinian issue. The other side of our work is in Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza, in refugee camps, showing that not all Druze go to the army and many of them still consider themselves Palestinians and work within Palestinian frameworks for rights and liberation and so on.

Have your groups formed any partnerships or solidarities that are working against the occupation? Have you formed partnerships particularly with Palestinian rights groups?

Farrag: For us, on the Palestinian side, it was an easy job because we say we are Palestinians. For Palestinians to see such a movement in the Druze community, in some places, is surprising because they’re not aware that there is political engagement and organizing in the Druze community in a radical way. We were engaged with the Palestinian Authority and had endorsements from them. The same is true of the radical left in Israel, even though we worked less there. We collaborated with Yasmin’s network and New Profile, which is an organization that is older and very experienced in supporting refusers. So, together with them, for example, we translated their manual into Arabic to make it accessible to the Druze community. Basically whoever we expected to get support from, we got their support.

Yablonko: Most of our activists are engaged in solidarity activity with Palestinians. As a group we try to make most of our connections in Israeli society because we work around refusal, and these are the people who are not going to the military. Right now, we have very preliminary connections with Orthodox Jews, who are anti-Zionist. These groups are not going to the military and were recently marked as very problematic [by the Israeli government] and were demonized. They continue to be imprisoned sometimes and have refusers of their own. We are trying to see what kind of connections we can build there. I am personally looking for connections with leaders of the Black Lives Matter-equivalent movement in Israel, which supports Ethiopian Jews suffering from police violence and discrimination. They have had actions against police brutality and the military system, as one of the groups that suffer violence from the government.

Tell us about some of the social, professional and personal consequences of refusing to serve in the Israeli military. What kind of stigmas do these young refusers face?

Yablonko: It depends a lot on the family. Many families would disagree with someone’s decision, but still be open and liberal and okay with independent thinking. Family support is very important because you have a lot of other obstacles you have to face. When you finish high school, all your friends will go to the military. When you’re 17 or 18, it’s really hard to go against that. It’s likely that you’ll lose those connections; your life becomes different from everyone else’s. There’s a very harsh social stigma. In Israel, it’s called being a “dodger,” and it’s very bad. It’s not only considered selfish and an abandonment of Jewish society, but you’re also called a traitor and told you’re not protecting your people and your nation.

The education system perpetuates this idea that there is no other way to be a good citizen. The military markets itself, even though service is mandatory. They have ads and videos that are supposed to make you feel ashamed if you are not going to the military, that you are losing the chance to gain experience, connections and scholarships. I, for example, can’t get certain scholarships and other benefits like cheaper housing, which, of course, Palestinians don’t get either. Also, being in prison is not easy — it’s military prison. It’s like a boot camp, but it’s still hard and not having the support of your family is really hard.

What we find is if somebody’s parents don’t approve of them refusing, they might threaten to kick them out, but eventually accept them if they see that they are serious. This is the usual case. It’s also hard to get jobs. Even though it’s illegal not to hire someone because they didn’t go to the military or to ask someone why they didn’t do military service, they will still ask you why it’s not on your CV. They won’t force you to tell the truth, but if you don’t cooperate, it will cause you to not get these jobs. It depends on the field. The social consequences for men are much harder because proving you’re a real man requires you to be a combat soldier.

Farrag: Our movement also faces consequences in the Druze community. But what’s unique about our movement is that it actually targets those who don’t come from a supportive environment. So, if they refuse, they will have a support system.

For example, a year ago, we had a refuser whose uncle’s work in the police force was well known in the community. He decided to go public with his refusal, and he was shunned by his family. He had to stay away from the village, not just from his home. He was attacked violently by friends when he went back to visit. So, we’re really careful about whether they should go public or not. Not only that, one of our female activists was engaged when we started our campaign. Her fiancé was very supportive even though he was not as radical. But his family was not supportive of him and her, and they had to split because of that. Sometimes there are really harsh personal consequences.

As you know, Israeli society and politics are moving more and more to the right, however, the international community is showing a shift in how it perceives Israel and Palestine. There is increasing support for boycott divestment and sanctions, or BDS, and growing criticism of the occupation and the siege on Gaza. Are you hopeful for the future of your activism around refusing?

Farrag: Based on this trip, I would say we’re hopeful. On the international level there’s an increasing awareness, probably more on the people’s level than the policymaker level. For example, lots of activities are organized with the help of Jewish Voice for Peace. We hear about it from home. And that’s one thing that gives hope — their ability to make the rest of the American public more aware. On the local level, in Israel, it’s much more extreme than before, and it seems to be getting worse with time. For better or worse, there’s going to be a turning point soon.

Yablonko: When the government is saying that organizations calling for refusal also call for the destruction of Israel, it puts activists in a very dangerous place in the eyes of the public. It makes our actions seem much more radical than they are, and it helps us actually gain more attention. It’s not a good thing overall, but there’s a good angle to it. Taboos are getting much more strict. When you break these taboos, you’re making someone think.

Vardi: There’s a lot of discourse in the international activist community about [BDS] being the focus of the movement, which I think has been very helpful in a lot of ways, but there’s a risk to putting all our eggs in one basket. We need to look at other forms of pressure. For example, we’ve been working with Sen. Patrick Leahy to apply the Leahy Law to Israel [which would prohibit U.S. military assistance based on Israel’s human rights violations]. There are a lot of other opportunities for action on these things, obviously including supporting what’s happening on the ground and remembering that a large part of what will eventually pressure Israel is not just the international community, but the Palestinian community. It’s important not to forget that when you have a focus on the international side of BDS.