The Limits of Obedience

Peretz Kidron

'Selective refusal' constitutes a significant departure from traditional forms of anti-militarist resistance as conducted by pacifists or conscientious objectors who reject outright military service or participation in miiltary action. Selective refusal emerged in Israel in the particular circumstances of individual soldiers and reservists not opposed in principle to army service -- or even to participation in fighting when that is justified as a last resort to resist aggression, if all other means have been exhausted -- but who nevertheless object, on political and/or moral grounds, to a particular assignment or campaign.

Although there had been individual cases of refuseniks previously, 'selective refusal' first arrived on the scene in significant numbers during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hundreds of reservists who were called up to take part in the campaign refused to fight, particularly when then prime minister Menahem Begin defined it as "a war of choice" i.e. one not absolutely essential for the defence of Israel. The outbreak of the fighting prompted the formation of Yesh Gvul (There's a Border/There's a Limit) which organised active support for the refuseniks. Yesh Gvul recorded at least 168 refuseniks jailed -- some repeatedly -- in the course of that campaign. But the rapid growth of the selective refusal movement made commanding officers more cautious, and many refuseniks were not disciplined, instead being reassigned to other duties within Israel.

The selective refusal movement became a spearhead of the anti-war coalition, helping to rally public opinion to protest the bloody and futile campaign.

In addition to galvanising anti-war activity, the refuseniks also exerted unexpectedly powerful pressure on the decision-making military and political echelons. We have it on the authority of then army commander Gen. Moshe Levy that the growth of the refusal movement, and "the fear that the numbers of refuseniks could soon rise from hundreds into thousands and tens of thousands" was one of the main grounds for the army command's recommendation in 1984 to call off the campaign.

A further wave of selective refusals came about in the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, when hundreds of soldiers refused to take part in the campaign of repression against the Palestinian population (again, the vast majority were reservists, with very few among the young conscripts doing their mandatory 3-year duty). Again, the refuseniks helped spur opposition, which ultimately contributed to the decision of the Israeli government to attend the Madrid conference, for the first time ever consenting to sit across the table from a Palestinian delegation.

The current intifada has again boosted numbers of selective refuseniks. Over 1000 soldiers, reservists and young people awaiting induction, are committed to refusal to take part in repression of the Palestinian population. Some 200 refuseniks have been jailed to date. New refusal groups have emerged, including for the first time significant numbers of young conscripts. Yesh Gvul is keeping up its campaign of leafleting at army transportation centres, universities and high schools, in an effort to educate soldiers and reservists to refuse participation in war crimes or human rights abuses.

It is the conviction of Yesh Gvul that selective refusal is a most valuable means of opposing militarism for the paradoxical reason that resistance comes from within the army, from soldiers and officers who proclaim their willingness to undertake legitimate defensive duties and therefore cannot simply be brushed off as 'shirkers' or 'cowards'. Promotion of this form of resistance requires a lengthy and persistent educational effort, to teach soldiers to live up to their responsibility -- legal, moral and political -- for their actions, even when those actions are carried out under orders. It is our aim to induce soldiers to scrutinise the commands of their superiors, and when they find those commands to be "flagrantly illegal" -- to refuse, even at the risk of punishment.

This strategy rests upon a concept of broad civic responsibility for an army which acts in your name. We respect the convictions of those who refuse any form of military service, but we do not find this an adequate discharge of that responsibility. The individual may assuage his/her conscience with the sense that "My hands are clean of this abomination", but the abomination will continue unless he/she takes action to halt the army's unworthy activities, whether in foreign wars or oppression of local populations.

Selective refusal is such action, in that it exerts valuable and highly effective pressure from within the army.

In an innovative twist, selective refusal applies the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience, as pioneered by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. , to that least 'civil' of all formations, the army. The distinction drawn between legitimate and non-legitimate military duties is a valuable instrument of the anti-war movement, helping to educate a public subjected to 'patriotic' brainwashing by the military and political establishment. It is our conviction that the Israeli model of selective refusal, and the educational and political campaign supporting it, can and should be applied in all armies.