Israeli antiwar activists in Tel Aviv protesting the war in Gaza last month. (Instagram/Voices Against War)
  • Q&A

Why Israeli army refusers are crucial to ending the cycle of violence

Nineteen-year-old Israeli army refuser Ariel Davidov discusses the importance — and dangers — of taking an open stance against war, occupation and apartheid.
Israeli antiwar activists in Tel Aviv protesting the war in Gaza last month. (Instagram/Voices Against War)

Since the war in Gaza began in October, the world has been witness to horrific imagery in the news on a daily basis — with the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, increasingly facing accusations of war crimes.

Within Israel, criticism has been muted, as most media give platform to voices defending the IDF’s actions and the government’s general lack of restraint. In a country where joining or supporting the IDF is synonymous with patriotism, the few Israelis willing to break the mold and take an open stance against occupation and apartheid do so at great personal risk. 

Recently, 18-year-old Tal Mitnick became the first person jailed for refusing to serve in the IDF since the start of the war. As his case receives worldwide attention, it’s a reminder that such refusal is not new in Israel — with thousands joining the movement of conscientious objectors over the last couple decades.

Another “refusenik,” as they are also known, is 19-year-old Jerusalem resident Ariel Davidov, a friend of Mitnick who says he made the decision “not to cooperate with the occupation and apartheid” when he was just 15. Davidov now works with the Mesarvot Network, which was founded a decade ago in order to provide young people refusing to join the army with judicial, material and emotional support. 

I recently spoke with Davidov to learn more about the importance of refusing to serve in the army, the dangers that come with it and how refusers are working with Palestinians to end the cycle of violence. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What kind of attention have refusers received in Israel?

My friend Tal Mitnick has gone viral, and his case is now known to almost every country in the world. But, in Israel, a total of two leftist newspapers have written about him. Neither television nor more established Israeli media have spoken about it either — except for a few instances where they promoted anti-refusenik sentiments, painting us as “traitors” and interviewing people who say we are a problem to Israel and need to be taken out — as in killed, jailed or deported. 

Mitnick is currently serving a sentence of 30 days, which will most likely turn into a half-year sentence after this initial detention period. But his case shows that when we get arrested for our stance, our voice can be heard. That’s important because not joining the army is one of the most effective things you can do. And if you can do it publicly — be loud about it and not just get an exemption — it is maybe the most important tool we have.

Is one of your goals to make this movement more known to the Israeli public? 

We’re doing our best to raise awareness among Israelis, but it is really tough. Domestic media don’t show anything from Gaza or talk about the situation there. Sharing or viewing such content from channels like Al Jazeera might even warrant a police visit to your doorstep — all because you wanted to see what people living just a few kilometers away are going through. So, what Israelis know of Gaza, is what the IDF tells them, which is mostly lies.

What’s more, not many young people want to join something so explicitly against Zionism and the army — or showing support for cooperation with Palestinians and ending Israeli crimes. Also, it is quite dangerous to go public with such stances because then you might be targeted and doxxed. Many leftist networks have been infiltrated by the far right and fascist activists. Many people have been damaged, and organizations have been destroyed throughout the years. So, unfortunately, we can’t be open to everyone. 

There is always a long process of vetting when people want to join us, and they are mostly friends of friends. At the moment, our meetings aren’t open to the public. For protests, we invite people one by one or on Signal groups, so that the police won’t know beforehand — and fascists groups don’t get there before us to attack us and disrupt the protest. 

Fascist violence in Israel is one of the most dangerous things to us as Jews. It has always been so for the Palestinians. For them, democracy in Israel has never existed. But for Jews, it seemed to us like we had it. It seemed like we lived in a democratic state. But since Netanyahu came to power more than a decade ago, we have gradually lost our voice. With each passing year, protest and other forms of dissent become more dangerous. We are feeling more terrified as activists on the street — not only within Israel but also in the Palestinian territories, where we go to be with the Palestinians during hard times. We are seen as enemies to the settlers, the army and the police. And we are treated as such.

What has kept you going during these hard times? 

For me, one of the most fascinating things about activism as a Jew in Israel is that it can encompass several spheres. We can engage Israelis on politics, pressure the Knesset and try to create a democracy in Israel, while also working in fellowship with Palestinian activists and people in the occupied territories.

When bad things happen in the Palestinian territories, we organize a protest and have people join. I see my Palestinian friends, we get to talk again, and it feels like we have formed an engine of activism that never dies. 

How are your relations with Palestinians now?

It is very difficult for us, but especially hard for them. As an Israeli activist, I can go over and work with Palestinians and then leave, but they can get arrested. And when they get arrested, they are not in the hands of the police, but in the army’s hands, which is worse. Often they don’t even receive a sentence, meaning they can sit in jail for many years without ever seeing an advocate or receiving any type of legal or monetary assistance. Whereas, for the same action, I would be fine because the state would be more lenient toward me than them. This pattern creates many difficulties. 

Nevertheless, we have many brave and amazing Palestinian friends who — despite the situation — still want to see and work with us. They don’t have problems with Jews. They don’t have a problem with Israelis. They have a problem with Zionism. Similarly, I don’t have a problem with Palestinians or with Israelis. I have a problem with people who want the land all to themselves and are willing to even commit ethnic cleansing in order to achieve it. 

Zionism really detached Israelis from reality and that has led to increased violence and dehumanization, which might turn into a full genocide. This can also lead to a wider all-out war that our leaders don’t think about. Even their whole imperative to destroy Hamas is aimless and not feasible. Yet, they still don’t think about reaching a peace agreement. They don’t think about anything except murdering every Palestinian who even thinks about being against the occupation. 

What does your work with Palestinians look like?

We have several places where we work together with Palestinians. It is mostly in Area C of the West Bank, which is Palestinian land that’s completely controlled by Israel. We are mainly active there because of raging settler and army violence. It’s almost impossible to regularly move across lines. Our activism is mostly taking place from that area and has been going on for almost 40 years. 

Activists against the occupation go there and stay with the people who live in the surrounding villages, helping them in situations where the army shows up and trying to act as peacekeepers. Since the war in Gaza started, we’ve had an ongoing 24/7 productive presence in the area. The situation has dangerously escalated for both Palestinians and Jews. Violence has kept occurring throughout this time, and having far-right politicians like Itamar Ben Gvir in positions of power has only made matters worse. 

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What can Israel even hope to achieve with the war at this point?

As an Israeli — and as someone who has friends that are now in Hamas captivity — we can see that our leaders don’t care about the hostages, especially now that several have been killed as a result of the IDF’s actions. They are carpet bombing the Palestinians along with the Israelis who are in Gaza as well. And by preventing medical aid, water and food from entering Gaza, they don’t just take it away from the Palestinians living there, but from the Israelis as well.

They keep saying “we are living in the Middle East, so we have to act like it. We will not be democratic. We will not be nice. If they murder, we will murder.” I think this is the real form of Zionism. I don’t see how this can go on for much more with the army weakening so much, with people living under so much terror and fright, with Palestinian villages that are always under attack and subjected to violence, with children and families in Gaza experiencing the worst. 

I don’t know how anyone will be able to save this strip of land, which is really one of the most terrifying places people can live. The only thing more terrifying might be knowing that there are so many entities — the United States, the United Nations and so on — that can speak out against the atrocities and put a stop to them, but don’t. 

What kind of path forward do you see after the war — both for Israelis and Palestinians?

We’re all in terror and traumatized because thousands of people have been murdered. We’ve lost friends or close ones. People have left their houses. The war has touched everyone.

While we gained a lot of new activists — some who were part of the wave sparked by the recent judicial reforms that Netenyahu tried to pass in order to cleanse Israel of its democratic facade — we also lost many. They just don’t agree with us anymore. They don’t view the situation the same way as we did before Oct. 7. But in our hearts, we know that our way is the right one. We will continue working to end the cycle of violence, achieve sustainable justice, promote Palestinian sovereignty and get rid of the fascist government — with all its helpers among the settlers and army controlling the West Bank and Gaza.

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