28 August 2004

Courage to refuse

By Marguerite Finn

"Not a lot of people know that", Michael Caine might have said about the 'refusenik' situation in Israel. Little information about their plight appears in our newspapers in the UK. However, in Norfolk we 'do different' and should acquaint ourselves with the principled refusal of a growing number of Israelis to serve in the occupied territories of Palestine and the effect that this is having on the Jewish community in Israel and abroad.

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems further away than ever when set against the worsening cycle of violence, death and destruction in Gaza, where Palestinian homes are reduced to rubble, families made homeless and innocent civilians and Israeli soldiers killed .

Ariel Sharon's plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza has failed to gain majority support within his own Likud party and over the past year Israel has embarked on a large building programme in the West Bank where a minimum of 3,700 homes are being built with tacit US approval. This development has reinforced the fears of all those who want peace, that the intention to "retain in perpetuity" major Jewish settlements on the West Bank (illegal in International Law) will make any solution virtually impossible. Under the terms of the 'Road Map' endorsed by the Israeli Cabinet, Israel was asked to freeze all settlement activity and to dismantle 51 out-posts. The exact opposite appears to be happening.

It is against this background that the 'refusenik' movement is gathering momentum.

Currently at the forefront of the movement are five young men who chose to go to prison rather than serve with the Israeli Defence Forces in the Occupied Territories. Noam , Haggi , Matan, Shimri and Adam are ordinary young people, typical of their generation .Their protest began while they were at High School. They were amongst 300 signatories of the "High School Seniors Letter" in which teenagers shortly to be conscripted wrote to Prime Minister Sharon stating that they would not take part in the oppression of the Palestinian people by serving in the Israeli army. They are to be released from jail on 15 September - but they may be re-arrested if the army demands they serve or face further imprisonment. This movement of youthful refuseniks is called Shministim and, when combined with other groups like Yesh Gvul ('there is a limit'), Seruv, and Courage to Refuse, whose reserve officers published the "Combatants Letter" which now has over 500 signatures, brings the total number of refuseniks to around 1000.

Powerful and moving statements have been made by refuseniks of all ages and reflect a common realisation that - as 19 year old Daniel Tsal put it - "in the 37 years of occupation we have become gradually more violent, disdainful and racist towards Arab culture - I did not understand that the majority of the Palestinian people know only a life full of check-points, bulldozers, the uprooting of trees, humiliation and killings." The harsh sentences meted out to the young refuseniks and the refusal to grant them Conscious Objector status, reflect the Government's anxiety that their refusal will encourage others. They have good reason to be worried. The Israeli public generally are not yet sympathetic to refuseniks, but the fact that 344 faculty members from a number of Israeli universities have signed a declaration of support for their students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories, indicates a move away from the militarised culture. Bereaved Israeli parents have recently formed a group to campaign against conscription. Things are slowly changing in Israel thanks to the courage of the refuseniks.

Outside of Israel there is support too: Last October, 60 members of the European Parliament expressed "solidarity with the group of Israeli Air Force pilots who declared they would refuse to fly missions that could endanger civilians in the West Bank and Gaza".

Michael Ben Yair, a former Israeli Attorney General says of the situation: "Israel's security can not be based only on the sword; it must rather be based on our principles of moral justice and on peace with our neighbours - an occupation regime undermines those principles of moral justice and prevents the attainment of peace. Thus, that regime endangers Israel's existence. It is against this background that one must view the refusal of IDF reservist officers and soldiers to serve in the territories - their refusal to serve is an act of conscience that is justified and recognised in every democratic regime. History's verdict will be: their refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone."

I am grateful to Mrs Jean Davis & Norfolk Jewish Peace Group for their input and encouragement.