The lonely path of Israel’s military dissenters

Those who refuse to serve in Gaza war face brief jail sentences, but they believe their small number will slowly grow

When 1st Sgt. A. received a second automated voice message from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) two weeks ago, he knew it was no longer possible to avoid the inevitable. The next day’s call was not automated: A soldier, speaking curtly, told him it was time to report for duty at an Israeli military base in the south of the country. A., who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of courting further punishment by speaking to the media, told the caller he refuses to take part in the Israeli army's current operation in the Gaza Strip. He questioned the ethics of an operation designed to root out Hamas infrastructure used to launch rockets on Israeli cities, citing the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza.

"All I know is that you have to show up to the base tomorrow," the caller told him. "Take it up with them."

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Israelis like 1st Sgt. A. are a rarity. After more than three weeks of fighting that has cost the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians — mostly civilians — and over 50 Israeli soldiers, the Israeli public remains overwhelmingly supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. That’s despite mounting Israeli military casualties; the negative images of the destruction wrought by Israel in Gaza that dominate international media; and tensions with its key ally, the United States, over efforts to broker a cease-fire.

In order to facilitate Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli army has called up as many as 85,000 reserve soldiers. In Israel, mandatory military conscription requires three years of service for men, and two years for women, from the age of 18. The backbone of Israel's fighting force rests in the reserve of combat soldiers who are required to remain ready to serve when called up until the age of 45. For Israelis like 1st Sgt. A., when the country goes to war, life is put on hold and the fighting becomes an immediate reality.  

Still, despite the public support for the war, a number of Israeli reservists have refused orders to serve in Gaza. Last week, more than 50 such soldiers publicly declared their refusal to join the war effort in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

“We found that troops who operate in the occupied territories aren’t the only ones enforcing the mechanisms of control over Palestinian lives. In truth, the entire military is implicated. For that reason, we now refuse to participate in our reserve duties, and we support all those who resist being called to service ... to us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable,” the soldiers wrote.

Despite the military’s role as the central institution of national cohesion in Israel, the country has a long history of conscientious-objector movements such as Yesh Gvul (“There Is a Limit”) and New Profile. Founded by Israeli combat veterans at the outbreak of the Lebanon war in 1982, Yesh Gvul is an organization that provides support for reserve soldiers who refuse call-up orders. Yesh Gvul's activities have diminished since the 1980s, but New Profile, an organization that helps young Israelis avoid the draft, has filled the void. Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit that collects testimonies from Israeli combat veterans about their experiences but doesn't encourage refusal, has also facilitated a new conversation about the exact practices of the Israeli military in the occupied territories. 

These organizations have been vilified by more hawkish Israelis, who see their work as a threat to Israel's national security. "These are not left-wing and human rights organizations, but terror groups and terror supporters," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in 2011 after the Israeli parliament debated setting up inquiry committees to probe a slew of left-wing groups, including New Profile and Breaking the Silence.

In April 2009, after Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, six members of New Profile were detained by Israeli police after their homes were raided and their computers seized.

Since its creation on the heels of the Holocaust, the Israeli military has cast itself as the most moral army in the world, and the Israeli government insists that an individual soldier always has the right to refuse orders deemed unethical. But refusers dispute the reality of that claim.

"The thing that is overlooked about the Israeli army," 1st Sgt. A. told Al Jazeera, "is the fact that you actually can't go to jail for conscientious objection [when refusing reserve duty].” Instead, he said, “you go to jail for disobeying an order."

So, when 1st Sgt. A. joined his unit at a southern IDF base more than two weeks ago, his commander was not pleased by his refusal to serve in Gaza. A.’s unit normally carries out reserve duties in the West Bank but also assists the national civilian defense.

"I had met with my commander before about refusing to serve a round of reserve duty in the West Bank," A. said. "Even though he strongly believed in the morality of our unit's mission there because of his strongly held Zionist beliefs, we worked out a situation in which I would serve a small sentence of two or three days for disobeying. But things have changed in the current war in Gaza."

This time, A. was sentenced by his commander to the maximum punishment of 18 days in a military prison. A. said a large number of soldiers from his unit also failed to report, although for the most part they did not share his principled objection to fighting in Gaza.

"Many Tel Aviv–type people that preferred partying over fighting in Gaza showed up to the base a week late, and were also put in jail. But they were given three or four days. I was given 18 because my commander wanted to make an example out of me for refusing the premise of this war," A. said. 

The IDF was unable to answer Al Jazeera’s query about the number of soldiers who’d declined to serve in Gaza, and what consequences they had faced. “Unfortunately we do not have the information,” an IDF spokesperson said via email.

New Profile member Sahar Vardi said his organization's counseling network had been contacted by more than 100 people seeking to avoid serving in the current Gaza operation. 

"We don't see a lot of people that want to publicly refuse this war at the moment," Vardi said. "But war radicalizes people, and they begin to see the occupation [in the West Bank] in a new light. We expect that many people will come to us quietly after the war is over and start the process of refusing to serve."

The zenith of Israel’s refusal movement came during the 1982 Lebanon war, particularly after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps sparked widespread public revulsion at the conduct of the invasion. Still, the human toll and the vague and shifting military objectives of Protective Edge are spurring some among a new generation of Israeli soldiers to question orders.

A. could go back to jail at any moment for the same offense — refusing an order.  But that prospect does not faze him.

"I see no alternative," he said at the end of our conversation. "I can't be a part of this cycle of blood and gore, where every two or three years we go into Gaza. I either refuse or I participate. There is no in-between." 

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