Israeli COs follow their consciences behind bars

There is an important, yet overlooked, organized movement in Israel of soldiers who refuse to serve in a military that is not defending the nation, but rather occupying another group of people aspiring to become a nation. These men and women call themselves refusniks. Several refusnik organizations work to educate high school students coming of age who receive draft papers as well as informing the larger Israeli populace about their activities.

click to enlarge Refuniks gather in Israel. - PHOTO BY MARCY NEWMAN

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch two young men go to military induction office and refuse orders to serve on moral grounds. Approximately 180 people gathered to rally behind Shaul Mograbi-Berger, 19, and Alex Cohn, 18, at the Tel Hashomer military conscription office near Tel Aviv. These men received their draft papers, as all Israeli men and women are required to serve in the military at the age of 18, and showed up to inform the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that they refused to serve in the military (men serve for three years, women for two). People ranging in age from 4 to 80 received photocopies of conscription orders and burnt them in a symbolic refusal ceremony outside Tel Hashomer.

For Shaul, it was the first time he was called to serve. He informed the IDF that he refused to serve in a military that is not serving the security of the state. In his letter to the Minister of Defense, he wrote:

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARCY NEWMAN

"For as long as the army is an occupying force, it has no place for me ... Non-resistance to the occupation is tantamount to approving it ... In making my refusal, I pledge allegiance, not to formal but to essential law--this, as I learned at school during civics lessons is, as its name suggests, the foundation and the essence of democracy. My refusal also has a very personal origin ... How can I become responsible for the lives and deaths of people without having any faith in what I am doing? Almost all of the Palestinians whom I have met have had terrible experiences with the Israeli army or authorities: killed relatives, demolished homes, bullets from soldiers' or settlers' rifles lodged in their bodies; lengthy spells in Israeli prisons--sometimes under 'administrative detention,' and a host of other things. When I see all this suffering, which has mainly been caused by the army, either directly or under its auspices, it is clear to me that this does not lead to a solution. People's pain will only generate hatred, and it is totally obvious that no solution whatsoever will come from this. It is due to my opposition to the suffering I have witnessed that I have no alternative but to refuse to enlist and thereby refuse to participate in the perpetration of more suffering."

In response to his refusal, Shaul was sentenced for a 21-day term in a military prison outside of Tel Aviv. Cohn was also sentenced, for a sixth time, to 21 days in prison. That was August. Now, three months later, Alex has been in jail for 150 days (nine terms); Shaul and fellow objector Urwa Zidan were recently sentenced for a third time. They are joined by Uri Natan who recently was sentenced to his third 21-day term.

There are several different kinds of refusniks. The first kind is like Shaul: he reports for duty because he was called for his mandatory three-year service; when he arrives he tells the commanding officers that he refuses to serve in a military that occupies Palestine. Refusniks like him do not get to plead their case before a judge in a military court; rather, they receive a sentence directly from a commanding officer. Some other refusniks enter the military, but they refuse to serve beyond the 1967 Green Line, in other words inside the Occupied Territories. Then again, there are others who serve their initial duty in the military, but they refuse to serve when they are required to show up for their mandatory one month of service per year.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARCY NEWMAN

The refusnik movement began in earnest during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These Israeli soldiers used the testimonies from the Nazi war crimes tribunals, especially that of Adolf Eichmann, as a basis for their movement. Nazi soldiers like Eichmann said that during World War II they were merely "obeying orders"--something Hannah Arendt famously characterized as the "banality of evil." Thus, Israeli soldiers refuse to obey orders that they see as unjust, because the occupation of Palestine not only violates international law and Israeli law, the IDF's practices often violate military code as well. Over 2,000 soldiers have refused under the auspices of a few organizations: Yesh-Gvul ("There is a Limit"), Courage to Refuse, and Shministim (a group of high school students). These are in addition to the powerful organization Breaking the Silence, which makes former soldiers' testimonies public about the atrocities and war crimes they committed while serving in the IDF.

To be sure, this summer saw a new string of refusniks who should not be confused with this body of organizations written about here. There have been soldiers who have refused to serve in the evacuation of illegal Israeli settlers in the Gaza strip. Those Israeli soldiers were required to forcibly remove Israelis remaining in illegal settlement. There is an irony here that is overlooked in the media onslaught regarding the Gaza disengagement. If these soldiers in the IDF see their work as unjust when it comes to Jews, why, then, is it okay for the Israeli military to do similar things to Palestinians?

Dr. Marcy Newman is assistant professor of English at Boise State University. She is the legislative coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation for Idaho District 2. Follow her travels in the Middle East at

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