The numbers are small, but there are Israeli military resisters actively fighting the occupation of Palestine within the borders of Israel. These draft age teenagers face enormous pressure from their government, family and peers to perpetuate state racism and the siege of the occupied territories. Despite the pressure, these brave Israelis adhere to their conscience and stand for justice in a society that increasingly rejects it. In addition to supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine from outside Israel involves standing in solidarity with those Israelis who find the courage to say, “I refuse.” It is also the responsibility of US conscientious objectors like myself, to see the struggle of Israeli military resisters as part of our own struggle against US imperialism here at home.
Udi Segal, a 19-year-old Israeli from Kibbutz Tuval in north Israel, was sent to jail last week for refusing to enlist in the Israeli military. Segal is tall and skinny, with intense, blue eyes and a long angular face. In an interview with +972 Magazine, his last before being sent to jail, he appeared composed and resolute in his decision, despite his confessed fear of his imminent jail sentence.
“We are using refusal as a tool against the occupation, to end the occupation,” Segal said. He was referring to 50 other sarvanim – Hebrew for “refuseniks” – who are members of the group Breaking the Silence, that wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early March 2014. In the letter, they expressed their collective “opposition to the military occupation of Palestinian territories,” where “human rights are violated, and acts defined under international law as war-crimes are perpetuated on a daily basis.” There are now over 130 signatories to the letter, according to Segal.
Segel revealed more about his decision in a prior interview, where he said he refuses to serve not only because of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but because the military supports a nationalist and capitalist system which benefits only a few at the expense of the majority. Segel called on other “soldiers and reservists to refuse orders and not participate in the massacre.”
Segal went to a mixed Jewish-Palestinian grade school and Israeli public high school. He said the transition from grade school to high school was difficult. His high school in Kibbutz Tuval has one of the highest percentages of graduates in the country who go on to enlist as combat troops in the IDF. His decision to refuse service was met with silence by his friends and harassment by his peers.
When asked how he felt about conscientiously objecting during Operation Protective Edge, Segal said, “I think that in these times, as the government and the media attempt to silence any critical voice that deviates even slightly from the belligerent mainstream, I think now, specifically, it is important not only to refuse, but to act against the occupation. Especially now when the destructive results of the occupation can be seen on TV right before our eyes.”
According to +972 Magazine, when Segal reported to the draft office last week to declare his intentions, he was greeted by chants: “Go to Gaza! You’re all traitors! Gaza is a cemetery! Go get f**ked in the a**!” He was also told that this was his “gay coming out party,” and was called a “son of a whore,” in front of his mother who was there with him. This response to Segal is revealing, particularly in light of Israel’s claims that it is a “haven for the LGBTQ community.”
Israel requires all citizens with the exceptions of Palestinians and Orthodox Jewish women to serve in the IDF. Men are required to serve three years, and women must serve two. Like the conscription requirements during the Vietnam era in the United States, Israelis can dodge the draft if they are enrolled in higher education.
Refuseniks are rare in Israel: There are only a handful each year, which is a testament to the high levels of propaganda Israelis are fed and the pressure they face to defend militarism in a country with a mandatory draft. Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli captain and Air Force pilot, was one of the organizers of a 2003 letter signed by 27 Air Force pilots who refused to participate in Israeli military operations against Palestinians. In an interview with Democracy Now! Shapira said:
Today, we are a minority of a minority of activists in Israel. Of course there are more and more people, but we are still a very, very small minority. We have people that are going to jail. I have a friend who is going to jail for refusing to enlist with the army. . . . But overall, there is a disease in my country, and the disease is spreading very fast, and it’s called fascism and racism. Fascism and racism is now the biggest threat of the Jewish people in the Middle East.
The Israeli government distinguishes between pacifists who reject the use of force for any reason and those with “selective conscience,” or those who specifically refuse to fight because of the occupation in Palestine. The latter are treated much more severely and are more likely to receive a prison sentence.
We know that not all war resisters come to full consciousness of war, empire and occupation – which is why we should stand with all who resist war in the name of peace and justice, even as they sort out their sometimes contradictory rationales. Nevertheless, we can glean much from the way Israel distinguishes between mere pacifists and resisters who vocally oppose the occupation of Palestine in solidarity with the occupied.
Uriel Ferera, a 19-year-old student and social activist, with Orthodox sidelocks dangling below his ears, was jailed in May for refusing to enlist because of his objection to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
After being released from prison (he expects to be sent back again soon) Ferera said:
Prison was difficult for me. They isolated me. The other prisoners didn’t know why I was in here, and I didn’t receive any letters – they probably didn’t want me to know about all the support on the outside.
I didn’t want to put on a [prison] uniform even though they yelled at me for “putting on a show.” I couldn’t stand up and began shaking; the only thing I could do was pray and recite from the Book of Psalms by heart. Despite everything, I didn’t stop praying. They laughed at me. They claimed that God won’t hear me because he was too busy to get me out of there. There I realized that if they are able to humiliate a Jewish person like them, one can only imagine what they do to Palestinian teenagers in the occupied territories.
There are a few organizations in Israel that support such refusers: New Profile is a leading organization and movement of feminists inside Israel struggling to demilitarize the country and end the occupation of Palestine. The group was formed following the second intifada in 2000, when 500 Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel stood united on the Wadi Road, where only a few weeks prior Israeli soldiers killed a group of Palestinians. The group of feminists marched despite warnings from Israeli officials who claimed the area was dangerous. Not a single Hebrew or English-language media outlet covered the protest. Through 2006, the group organized at least a dozen marches where thousands of Israelis and Palestinians took to the streets to protest the occupation and militarized Israel. The media turned a blind eye to every march.
In Israel the most vocal critics of the occupation have been feminists. New Profile realizes that liberating women in a militarized Israeli society is directly connected to the liberation of all Palestinians. Thus women aspiring to refuse conscription turn to New Profile to gain the confidence to move forward with their decision. You can support and learn more about the group here.
Yesh Gvul was established in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. According to their website, Yesh Gvul was created as a result of “growing numbers of soldiers [who] grasped that the campaign, with its bloodshed and havoc, was an act of naked and futile aggression in which they wanted no part.” In 1982, 168 Israelis were jailed for refusing to invade Lebanon. The actual number of refusals was much greater, but the Israeli government hid these numbers out of fear of giving the resisters a platform that would inspire other Israelis to reject military service.
Yesh Gvul counsels soldiers who are struggling with the possibility of becoming a war resister. Those who do conscientiously object get moral and financial support. The group also holds vigils at the military prisons where the soldiers are held. On their Facebook page, they report on the often-muted stories of draft age Israeli men and women who reject service in the IDF.
Courage to Refuse is another Israeli organization that supports military resisters. The group was formed in 2002 after 51 soldiers and reserve officers drafted a letter that decried the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The letter was run in the Israeli daily Haaretz and would become known as “The Combatants Letter.” By 2005, the number of signatories of “The Combatants Letter” had reached over 600. The founders of the group said they would always refuse to participate in any military action outside of the borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose – and we shall take no part in them.”
Breaking the Silence, the organization that drafted the letter that Udi Segal signed, also supports Israeli military resisters. The members of this group served in the Israeli military since the start of the second intifada in 2000. Their mission is to explain the brutal conditions the Palestinians are living under in the occupied territories, conditions the soldiers have witnessed firsthand, to the Israeli public. They have over 100,000 followers on Facebook.
The US government subsidizes the Israeli military with more than $3 billon in aid each year. The occupation of Palestine and the recent massacres in Gaza would not be possible without US support. As a former member of the US Army Rangers, I can personally attest that the US military trains with and greatly admires Israeli soldiers. Israeli soldiers have gotten so good at door-to-door combat that the US military flies troops to Israel to learn from soldiers in the IDF.
We know that ending war is possible. The Vietnam War came to an end as a result of the anti-war movement at home and abroad, the resistance of the Vietnamese, and US soldiers refusing to fight. As we struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine we look to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, and the resistance inside Palestine. What we need is large numbers of Israeli soldiers to put down their weapons the way US soldiers eventually did in Vietnam. This is why we should raise up and support the small minority of Israelis who do resist.
US soldiers who oppose occupation and colonialism, and stand for human rights and self-determination, should refuse to train with Israeli soldiers. There needs to be a broader realization that the occupation of Palestine in Israel is much the same as the US occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq. If we hope to stop these horrific massacres, endless occupations and the slow death of those living in occupied territories and countries, we must join together with Israeli soldiers who refuse to fight.