Friday, March 12, 2004

Here's my notes for tonight's PayDay event

    In a way, I do not fit the title of this evening. I have been a soldier and commander in combat units of the Israeli army for 15 years - 3.5 years of regular army, and the rest in reserve army. Being a reserve infantry soldier means you get called to serve for about a month each year. 9 out of 10 times, this means enforcing Israeli rule in the occupied territories. I have always opposed the occupation, and fought against it. At the same time, I have always considered it my duty to perform whatever service I was called to. I still do, but my calling has changed.

    My refusal is an act of civil disobedience. It is conditional on circumstances, time and place. It is a complex position, and to explain it, I would need to explain how I view the current state of the conflict. To do that, I would have to start at the beginning – about 150 years ago. Obviously, a tough task for an 8 minute talk. Instead, I will try to share my personal experiences with you. I hope that these will provoke your questions.

    There are 4 refuser groups in Israel, with nearly 1,500 members, men and women, officers, soldiers, elite fighters, draftees and veterans. Since the outbreak of the second Intifada hundreds have been imprisoned for refusal, for terms ranging from 14 to 500 days. Each of these men and women walked his own, untrod trail. I cannot speak for all of them. I can say that my own decision was not driven by the fear that I, or my fellow commanders, might commit crimes. I have done things which you might question, but I have no remorse. I have complete confidence in my commanders and peers that they do only what they believe is necessary to protect lives, and they do it with the utmost decency.

    The problem is the occupation itself. As long as it exists, the things we have do to protect lives will be cruel and unjust. A state of the oppression is destructive, physically and morally, both to the oppressed and to the oppressor. I see the relations between me and mygovernmentt as a “civil contract”: I do what is necessary in the circumstances, the state does what is necessary to change them. Loosing the belief that governmentent is doing its best to end the occupation meant loosing the moral justification for my participation in it.

    But first, the news.

    After 4 years of struggle, 1.5 of them in prison, Yoni Ben Artzi has finally been exempted from Military service. Half a year before his projected draft date, Yoni notified the army that his conviction in pacifism does not permit him to serve. To this day, the army has refused to respect his declaration. The letter he had received a fortnight ago states that he is released on account of – check this out – lack of motivation. I defy anyone to claim that the IDF lacks a sense of Humor.

    Currently imprisoned for refusal are: Haggai Matar, Adam Maor, Noam Bahat, Matan Kaminer, Shimri Zameret, Inbar Gelbert, Maor Persai and Uri Fein. The first 5 are unconditional conscientious objectors. They have already server between 360 and 500 days in prison, and have recently been sentenced to another year. Inbal is a young woman who has accumulated over 40 days in prison for refusing draft. Maor and Uri are conditional refusers like me; they are serving their second term in prison. Liora Millo is expected to join them any day. LioraÂ’s appeal to the conscientious objectors committee has been rejected on account of her being a conditional refuser. She has already served 14 days in prison, and her case is currently held before the Supreme Court.

    These men and woman need your support. I’m sure you will all sign the petitions, donate, lobby etc. I wanted to ask you to do one small thing tonight: write one of them a letter, tell him or her that your heart is with them. I know it meant a lot to me, I’m sure it does to them.

    Now to my story.

    On 20 March, 2002 I was sentenced to 28 days in military prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

    As I’ve mentioned, I had served for 3.5 years in regular army and another 12 in reserve, as a soldier and commander in combat units. A large part of my service had been in the Gaza and West Bank areas. About three years ago my regiment participated in the siege of Kalkilia. It was probably then that my stance began to shift. Several events that occurred in the following months persuaded me to do what many of my friends do: evade service. The next time I was called, I organized a "business trip" abroad.

    However, after my return I realized that what we often call "grey refusal" is not the right way for me. It is not my habit to lie to friends, and my army mates are among my best friends.

    It was at that point that I started seriously considering refusal. I knew that it was a matter of 6-12 months before I am called to service again, and that most chances are that my unit will again be sent to the occupied territories. But the way to refusal is long. There were 5 great mountains I had to surmount.

    The first, perhaps most banal, is mt. norm. Though I had my wild years (long hair, mind altering substances and all) most of my life has been conducted in the heart of "normality". I have been living happily with the same woman since the age of 21. This woman happens to be the mother of my two children, and my wife as well. I work an ordinary job, drive an ordinary car, see ordinary movies. It's surprising how hard it is to step out of this golden cage and do something quite extraordinary.

    The second summit to traverse is that of mt. "what will they say". Your friends, family, co-workers, the grocer. Mind you, I come from a country were the bus driver tells you its time for a haircut. ItÂ’s also a very patriotic country. People live in constant sense of threat, and the notion of one's obligation to defend his country is commonplace.

    The next big rock one hits is economic. Quite simply, refusing cost me a month's salary. Having a wife and two children to provide for, that is not something to take lightly. Furthermore, it could count for unjustified absence - in which case it is a legal clause for termination of contract.

    But all these are mere hills when you reach mt. loyalty. I'm not talking about love for your king and country. I'm not talking about obligation to the democratic system and its laws. Those exist, but I cannot believe anyone who says he is willing to kill himself, or others, for those noble causes. For most men, the only power strong enough to make them rise to battle is seeing their mates alongside. In refusing to serve I was deserting - not the army, but my friends. Friends who have walked shoulder to shoulder with me up some very dark paths. Friends who have stood back to back with me in some very tight spots. Friends who I would protect with my life, and they would protect mine with theirs. They were going to the hell of Gaza, and I to the safety of prison. What if one of my mates gets the bullet that had my name written on it?

    It took me nearly half a year, but in the end I ascended the summits of all these mountains, and reached the plateau beyond. At that point I called my company commander and asked if I could pay him a visit. I came to his home one day, just as his young son was on his way to bed. We talked - about work, studies, education, football. And then I told him that I will not join the regiment in our planned service in Gaza. For two hours he tried to convince me to change my mind. I'll never forget his words: "I'll always love and appreciate you as a person, but I think you are doing a despicable deed, pretty damn close to treason".

    After that he arranged for me to meet my battalion commander. Again, I spent a long evening with him. He raised some very hard questions - most of them I have been through, but some were new. "Most officers and commanders in the battalion are as left wing as you are. They all think the occupation is atrocious, hopeless and wrong. Still, they believe that their effect is greater in being there, and assuring decent human conduct. What influence do you think your refusal will have? Who will be impressed by it? On the other hand, in a few years we will be called to forcibly remove settlements. What will you say to right-wing soldiers that will refuse then?"

    I told him that the most I can promise is to go home and think about his words. And I did. It was then that I found myself at the feet of the most treacherous mountain of them all: mt. doubt. how can I know that I am doing the right thing? What if history will prove me wrong? What if no one will notice? What if it is true that we are facing a nation who's only desire is our destruction? What if, given enough time, I would see things differently?

    There is only one way over this peak: you don't know what's right. You feel it.

    For me the way to go about it was to ask myself, what would I be comfortable explaining to my 5 year old son. I realized that I have no problem telling him that I'm going to prison for refusal. I will have a hard time expelling some of the things I did in the occupied territories.

    After three days I called my commanders and told them that my decision is firm. We agreed on the screenplay from there on: I would report with my battalion as usual, do the short training with everyone, and when the busses load for Gaza, I will stand trial.

    On 20 March, 2002 my battalion commander court-martialled me for inappropriate conduct. He found me guilty, and sentenced me to 28 days in prison. On the 21st I woke up in military prison 6, and I knew I was a free man - free as I have never been before.

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