Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I Love Refuseniks.....

Sometimes I may come across as despising Israel. No, I don't. I despise the narrow-minded, racist, immoral behavior of a backward little state that has used denial and guilt trips as its excuse for atrocious behavior for far too long. I admire any of those Israeli's who are willing to step into the future instead of wallowing in the past. The refuseniks are just a few of those Israelis I have the utmost respect and regard for.
I had just returned to Tel Aviv from a demonstration in the West Bank village of Ni'lin last July, when I caught word that the Israeli military had shot 11-year old Ahmad Musa in the head during a protest against the separation wall. Twenty minutes later, three Israeli anarchists and I were speeding back to the West Bank to see what had happened.

Soon we were again in the West Bank, where Israeli suburban-like settlements interrupt Palestinian farmland and villages. Apart from the occasional phone call by the activists to spread the word, we drove mostly in a stifling silence of despair.

As we were waved through a military checkpoint by an Israeli soldier with an M16 dangling carelessly around her neck, activist Yonatan Pollack kicked the glove compartment. "Fucking child killers," he spat out.

On November 7, Haaretz reported that the army had requested that the Shin Bet - Israel's domestic spy network and internal security service - provide information on left-wing Israeli activists traveling to the West Bank.

The stated goal was to make it easier for the army to issue restraining orders to prevent the activists from entering.

Since the beginning of the anti-wall campaign in Ni'lin last May, village residents have been joined by Israeli and international activists in non-violent attempts to block the army's bulldozers.

At the same time, the youth in the town have responded to the army's use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition with stone throwing. Their collective effort has created heavy delays in construction, and the wall - scheduled for completion last June - is still unfinished.

The struggle has not only generated robust participation by Israel's small radical left, it has also regalvanized the military refusal movement after two years of relative quiet.

Inspired by the resistance of Ni'lin villagers and horrified by the brutality Israel has used to repress the village uprising, the "refuseniks" - as they are locally known - are back in the news.

"If the army backs off in Ni'lin it will be an example to the refusal movement and Israeli society. It will show that the army can't break us," explains Omer Goldman, a Ni'lin solidarity activist who went to military prison this past September at age 19 for refusing to enlist on her conscription date.

Because military tribunals usually hand out numerous consecutive small sentences for refusal rather than dealing with drawn out public trials, Goldman received a second sentence immediately following her first.

Army service is compulsory for all 18-year-old Jewish and Druze Israelis, with men serving three years and women two, and it has long been seen as a sacred cow in Israeli society. The refusenik movement first emerged during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and was re-launched at the height of the second Intifada with a refusal letter of 200 high-school graduates in 2001.

The refuseniks have now been thrown back into the national spotlight following the imprisonment of five Israeli draft dodgers - including Goldman last August and September. The jailings began after an open letter from graduating high school students refusing to enlist was published in the August 15 edition of Yedioth Aharonoth. Over 60 high-school students signed the letter, declaring their intention to evade conscription, once again taking aim at Israel's 41 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"Our refusal comes first and foremost as a protest of the separation, control, oppression and killing policy held by the State of Israel in the occupied territories," reads the published letter that was also sent to both IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"We cannot hurt in the name of defense or imprison in the name of freedom; therefore we cannot be moral and serve the occupation," concludes the letter.

Goldman, whose father was a deputy head of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, echoes the sentiment. I first met her hiding out in a Ni'lin medical clinic as the army invaded the village spraying live bullets.

As we sit in a trendy Tel Aviv cafe talking about both her political influences and activist experiences, it becomes clear that what drives the admirer of the 1968 Paris student revolt is both philosophical and visceral: she refuses to participate in what she has seen the military do in Ni'lin and rejects what the army represents.

"Ni'lin's [struggle] is a window that shows an example of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity," Goldman explains.

It is a perspective that grinds against the Israeli mainstream. For Defense Ministry spokesman Sholomo Dror, the issue of military refusal is one of a small minority of Israelis breaking the law and not fulfilling their national obligations.

Dror argues that Israelis have a "democratic" responsibility to serve in the state's armed forces.

"If you want to oppose the government's policies, then serve in the army and oppose the policies afterwards," he says in a phone interview from his Tel Aviv office. "I don't think serving in the army is violating people's rights."

According to Dror, refuseniks represent a fringe movement that poses no real threat to the military or challenge to Israeli society. "We have more people volunteering for elite unit enlistment being turned down," he says.

Despite this claim, Defense Ministry statistics show that 25 percent of Israeli's avoided military service in 2007. While 11 percent of those were exempt for religious reasons, the majority falls into what is commonly referred to as "grey refusal." This category refers to those exempt for mental or physical health reasons, or marriage, in the case of women.

In response to these statistics, Defense Minister Barak and IDF Chief Ashkenazi called for a "war on draft dodging" - an operation to publicly shame those avoiding service.

A vigorous television and billboard campaign was launched across Israel last year, under the slogan "A real Israeli doesn't evade the army."

The ads featured a group of Israelis on a post-army tour of India - a rite of passage so popular it has almost become a social institution - trying to impress a group of Swedish travelers with tales from the battlefront. The Israeli who avoided military service is the one who doesn't end up with a beautiful blond.

Following publication of high school refusenik's open letter, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz last September launched a criminal investigation into the New Profile organization - which provides support and information for people planning on or actively refusing military service.

Haaretz reported then that the inquiry into whether the organization was guilty of "incitement to draft dodging" was launched in the wake of a February request by the military.

The "incitement to draft dodging" law has never before been investigated, but New Profile organizer Haggai Matar said the group is careful to ensure that all its work is legal.

"We are trying to offer an alternative to Israel's security discourse, to ask who's secure and whose security we are talking about," he explains. "We argue that perhaps we should talk about a different kind of security - social security, equality and security from needing."

During our chat after a refusenik demonstration at a Tel Aviv military base, Matar talks about the importance of the support he received from New Profile during his own army refusal in 2001. The bushy-bearded, strawberry blond radical was a leader in the first high school refusal letter of the Second Intifada, faced a high profile public trial for rejecting enlistment and spent two years in jail as a result. The case is now taught as precedent in law schools across Israel.

"New Profile helped me a lot when I was refusing, and therefore, all I can do is offer the support that I got," Matar smiles.

He is part of a small minority of the 25 percent of Israelis who avoid the draft by publicly opting out. Public refusal continues to receive prominent national attention and vicious social backlash.

Like Goldman and Matar, refusenik, Sahar Vardi, received national media coverage when she was jailed for the first time on August 25 for refusing her military induction.

"I'm going to tell the recruitment officer that I'm not serving because of the occupation," Vardi said, just before entering the Tel Aviv military base for new conscripts. "I've seen Palestinian kids get shot and beaten by the army in the West Bank and this is something that I'm not going to be a part of." She seemed calmed and defiant, wearing a "courage to refuse" t-shirt with the graphic of a broken M-16.

In spite of facing both jail time and public backlash for their actions, refusenik activists are headstrong in their determination.

On December 18, the refuseniks rallied in front of Defense Ministry base in Tel Aviv - which also serves as a central army base - to present to Barak 20, 000 letters of international support calling for the release of jailed draft dodgers and commending their actions.

The action was organized by a coalition of Israeli and American anti occupation groups supporting military refusal, with most of the letters coming from supporters in the United States.

The crowed of 150 chanted "from Iraq to Palestine, choose refusal, stop the crimes," while several draft dodgers attempted to deliver the 20,000 letters. They were stopped by police, at the gate of the base.

"They're the army, they don't deal with these sort of things," said a police officer preventing the delivery of letters.

Since the beginning of Israel's offensive on Gaza three weeks ago, the refuseniks have been furiously organizing anti-war action, demonstrating at army bases and joining in mass demonstrations demanding an end to the war.

For many Palestinians, especially activists in Ni'lin, Israeli military refusal is an important act of solidarity for joint struggle against occupation.

"Despite being a small part of Israeli society, [the refuseniks] give us hope that even inside Israel there are people who are really rejecting occupation," says Hindi Mesleh, an energetic 25-year old activist with Ni'lin's popular committee who regularly engages with Israeli solidarity activists. His family is currently fighting to save their own farmland from being confiscated by the separation wall.

Mesleh speaks about the refuseniks with same glint of the admiration that comes out when discussing Palestinian prisoners. "It's hard for Palestinians to conceive of someone serving on a checkpoint one day and going to demonstrate in Ni'lin the next," he explains, two weeks after Musa's death.

According to eyewitness reports, Musa was fatally wounded by an M-16 sticking out of a rifle slit at the back of an Israeli jeep, as he turned to flee troops. His corpse in the Ramallah morgue, with his skull split diagonally in two on the cold metal table, corroborate his cause of death.

The anger that arose in response to the shooting was exacerbated at his funeral the next day when 17-year old Youseph Amira was killed by two rubber bullets to the head during a checkpoint clash.

That day in July, as we arrived in Ni'lin on the eve of Musa's funeral, Pollack jumped out of the car and walked towards the barricade lines, hugging the store front walls to avoid the army's rubber bullets.

Evaluating the situation, he turned to group of local children, and asked them in Arabic what needed to be done.

Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv.

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