Delivering the message, loud and clear

CO activist Sergeiy Sandler reports on the rising tide of objection to military service in Israel during the second intifada.

Thirty-two people is a small number. A demonstration with thirty-two participants would hardly be worthy of the word. But since October 2000, thirty-two people were imprisoned or otherwise penalised in Israel for refusing to perform military duty on conscientious and political grounds.

Thirty-two may not be such a small figure after all. It is even rather large if we compare it to the figure for the preceding year - only three. It is also not that small because it actually represents a greater number. It is estimated that several hundred people were interviewed this year by the two committees set up to examine cases of conscientious objection (CO).

Under Israeli law CO status exists for women only. Men are practically always rejected by their committee - which is made up exclusively of military personnel, and so most will reach prison in the end.

Druse objectors

Yesh-Gvul, an organisation supporting selective political objectors, reports that it has received some 250 calls from objectors, most are reserve soldiers specifically refusing to be sent to the Palestinian Occupied Territories on political grounds.

Most of these objectors do not end up in prison, because at some stage the army decides to station them within Israel's recognised borders. However, some have still been penalised, including six junior officers.

The Druse Initiative Committee, promoting objection to military service in the Druse religious community, estimates that only 50% of all Druse men end up serving in the military. Many members of the Druse religious community, who are drafted by the Israeli army, refuse to serve in an army fighting against their own, Palestinian, people.

Druse objectors are required by the military authorities to spend exceptionally long periods of time behind bars before they are discharged from the army. One Druse activist lately remarked that his own village, with a few thousands residents, has already accumulated some 500 years in military prison.

A growing movement

The growth in the number of declared objectors marks the arrival of a new generation of Israeli citizens, more independent in their thought. 62 of these young people, aged 15-18, signed a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stating their intention to refuse to participate in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

"We protest before you, against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy", they wrote. The letter was published on 2 September and has received widespread public attention. More youths have since added their signatures.

Finally, according to data obtained by the feminist antimilitarist movement New Profile, only 44% of Israeli youths complete their mandatory three years of military conscription. Service in the reserves, still legally mandatory for all men in Israel, is now only performed by a small minority. New Profile views these facts as clear evidence of a broad and growing movement of draft resistance in Israel, most of which is taking place out of public sight. Declared objection is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, not everyone who abstains from military service does so on conscientious grounds, or shares the moral and political positions presented by declared conscientious objectors. Still, it appears most Israelis, even some of those who voice support for the gravest war crimes, fail, in the end to support these crimes with their actions. In abstaining, they are voting with their feet and their sheer numbers make theirs a significant role.

Visible resistance

As for the declared conscientious objectors - in terms of numbers they may be a marginal group in Israeli society, but they lead the way for many others. Every act of conscientious objection is a living and publicly visible antithesis to that would-be consensus surrounding the army as an institution and to the criminal policies implemented by the Israeli army in Palestine.

Every person who refuses to serve in the army, by his or her very refusal to automatically back the decisions of the generals in the army and in government, joins the political struggle against militarism in Israeli society.

Moreover, the message delivered by the act of conscientious objection reaches beyond the limits of Israel, and first and foremost to Palestinian society. Conscientious objectors, especially those imprisoned for their beliefs, serve as a living and well-noticed proof to our allies in the Palestinian society that there still are people in Israel with whom they can cooperate towards reaching a common moral and political vision.

Thirty-two conscientious objectors were tried, almost all imprisoned, since the intifada began. In fact, this is not such a small number after all.

Sergeiy Sandler works with New Profile
New Profile, PO Box 48005, Tel Aviv, 61480 Israel (email ghiller@haogen.org.il; http://www.newprofile.org).