Yesterday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire following seven days of violence, including a large-scale Israeli assault on Gaza. Over the course of eight days, there were 157 Palestinian deaths and more than 1,000 injuries. Most of the Israeli soldiers on the front lines of this operation — flying planes, dropping bombs and paper leaflets instructing residents to evacuate before the next strike, massing for a possible ground attack — are between the ages of 18 and 22. They’re old enough to fight but young enough to still be insecure and desperate to be accepted. In many respects, they’re simply following orders — from the cultural prescription to serve in the army to the commands to kill from higher-ranking officers.
Meanwhile, Natan Blanc sits in a prison cell.
On Monday, November 19, 19-year-old Blanc stated his intention to refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at a military recruitment center in Haifa, Israel. A few hours later, Blanc was arrested. He was then tried in military court and sentenced to 10 days in prison.
In his statement of refusal, Blanc wrote:
I began thinking about refusing to be conscripted in the Israeli army during the “Cast Lead” operation in 2008. The wave of aggressive militarism that swept the country then, the expressions of mutual hatred, and the vacuous talk about stamping out terror and creating a deterrent effect were the primary trigger for my refusal.
Today, after four years full of terror, without a political process [toward peace negotiations], and without the quiet in Gaza and Sderot, it is clear that the Netanyahu government, like that of his predecessor Olmert, is not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it. From their point of view, there is nothing wrong with our initiating a “Cast Lead 2” operation every three or four years (and then 3, 4, 5 and 6): We will talk of deterrence, we will kill some terrorist, we will lose some civilians on both sides and we will prepare the ground for a new generation of hatred on both sides.
In Israel, all eligible men and women — with the exception of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israelis of Palestinian origin — are required to serve in the IDF once they reach 18 years of age. Men are required to serve for three years, and women are required to serve for 21 months. Once they complete their service, all soldiers become reservists. As reservists, in addition to being on call in the event of a major military escalation, IDF veterans are required to report for one month of service every year — often well into their 40s or 50s.
Serving in the IDF is in several ways a lifelong commitment. To many it is a central part of being Israeli. Every Israeli at least has a son, daughter, sister, brother, friend or family member in the army — if they are not currently serving in the armed forces themselves. This makes it incredibly difficult to disagree with the IDF as an institution without it being taken personally by other Israelis.
“Criticism of the army never works inside of Israel,” Eran Efrati, a former IDF commander who went on to work with the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence and is now with Jewish Voice for Peace, told me. “You cannot talk about the people, the army and the government separately — if you insult one, it becomes a personal insult for everyone involved.”
Though there are multiple ways to evade service — such as extending religious studies or proving that one is too physically or mentally handicapped to handle it — some Israelis of eligible age take a different path: expressing their refusal as conscientious objectors.
“Refuseniks” — as they call themselves, after the Jews who famously refused to serve in the Soviet military — emerged as a force to be reckoned with in 2002, when 51 IDF reservists and combat officers drafted a letter voicing their opposition to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. This letter became known as “Courage to Refuse” and began a movement of conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories. Now, several organizations exist within Israel to encourage would-be soldiers to resist the draft and join the refuseniks.
Those who choose to make their refusal to serve a political matter face severe consequences. First, like Blanc, they are arrested, detained and tried in military court. There, they have no right to legal representation and their trials often last no more than 10 minutes. Conscientious objectors are generally sentenced to around 30 days in prison.
Once this sentence is up, conscientious objectors are given the option of reporting for duty. If they continue to refuse, the process repeats itself — often leading to years of serial prison sentences. If the cycle goes on for long enough, the accused are referred to an “unsuitability committee,” where they are then assessed and may be discharged on the basis of mental illness.
This sequence of imprisonment and eventual diagnosis — clearly designed to humiliate and marginalize dissenters — is only the beginning. Conscientious objectors, without the nearly universal experience and currency of having served in the military, can subsequently expect to face significant difficulties when enrolling in schools, looking for jobs and trying to live a normal life.
“When you are trying to get into school, you have a better chance of being accepted if you had a high-ranking position in the army,” said Eran Efrati — a conscientious objector himself, though he refused only his reservist duties. “If it were between myself and a 22-year-old kid who had just gotten out of the IDF, he would get the job — even if I had all the experience necessary.” Many Israelis who refuse could not do so without a personal support system in the form of family, friends and ideological allies. But even then, they face enormous odds.
Efrati added, “In Israel, we have a saying: ‘It’s not a country with an army, it’s an army with a country.’”
This article has been corrected to state that Eran Efrati currently works with Jewish Voice for Peace, not Breaking the Silence.
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