25 September 2004

Who dares wins

By Marguerite Finn

Recently I wrote about five young men whose courage to refuse to serve with the Israeli Defence Forces earned them two years in jail.

Today I am delighted to report that the five - Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Noam Bahat, Shimri Tzameret and Adam Maor - were released from jail on 15 September.

They had to endure several more days of nerve-wracking uncertainty as to their future before learning that they had been permanently dismissed from army service. Had they not received this dismissal, they would have been required to re-enlist or face further imprisonment if they refused. The military committee, in deciding to exempt them, particularly noted their contribution to society before they were taken into custody and also during their incarceration where they served as tutors and helped other prisoners in various ways.

Adam Maor said: "In spite of the heavy punishment we received, we feel victorious. We will continue working to end the occupation and to contribute to society." The loyalty and devotion to Israel of the refuseniks is unquestionable, "We refused out of love for this place and for the people who live here. All along the way, we asked to do alternative service to contribute in our own way to the community. With our release, we will work according to these principles", affirmed Matan Kaminer.

While still at school, Haggai Matar took part in a joint summer school for Israelis and Palestinians, and subsequently he became active in various anti-occupation groups.

He visited Salfit in the Occupied West Bank and what he saw there convinced him that he had no option but "to refuse to be part of an army occupying another people and destroying Israeli society". What he would say to anyone else considering military refusal? "I would say 'Hey, you are already doing the most important thing - and that is considering itself'. The problem with Israeli politics these days is that the majority just doesn't stop to think, to ask the question: 'What is the moral thing to do?'"

I asked him what people outside of Israel could do to help. He replied, "It is very important for us, and for future refuseniks, to get support from people all over the world. It makes you feel better in your hardest times in prison, that you are a part of something greater, international."

Haggai told me that there is a growing movement for change in Israeli society. Israel is one of the most militarised societies on earth, yet Haggai says, "Now, there are about 40-60 percent who either don't enlist or don't finish their first year in the army. This is an amazing figure, not talked about too often in Israel." Is this, perhaps, the outward manifestation of the internal struggle engaging the minds of many soldiers serving in the occupied territories: Can they treat the thousands of Palestinians passing through the road blocks like equal human beings? Dr Ian Gibson MP may have been asking the same question when the Palestinian ambulance taking him to hospital for urgent medical treatment for a stroke, was held up for 1½ hours at an Israeli checkpoint on Saturday.

Israeli culture and media portray a world in which the use of force is the normal means of solving political problems. Ilan Pappe, lecturer in Political Science at Haifa University, says, "Israel in 2004 is a paranoid society led by a fanatical political elite, determined to bring the conflict to an end by force and destruction, whatever the price to its society or its potential victims - while the rest of the world watches helpless and bewildered." He fears that "the critical instincts of both intellectuals and journalists have petered out in the last four years. There is an ethical void which allows the government to go on killing unarmed Palestinians and, thanks to curfews and long periods of closure, starving the society under occupation." A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) states that the Palestinian economy 'will sink to mere subsistence' without aid and urges immediate action to shore up small and medium-sized business in the occupied territories.

This is Haggai's world - but it is ours too. Like Haggai, we must ask questions, like why the UN resolution 242 of 1967 calling for the withdrawal from the occupied territories has been ignored by Israel for over 35 years - with no action from the West?

We owe it to Haggai and all young Israelis fighting for justice, to demand answers. I am grateful to Haggai Matar in Israel for his input and inspiration.