War Resistance in Israel -- An Overview

Sergeiy Sandler

Israeli society is extremely militarised. Children in kindergartens may stage a military parade at their end of the year party. A few years later, they are likely to study some of their regular curricular subjects with teachers who are conscripts in military uniform. The head teacher of the high school where they study later in life might well be a medium-ranked military officer, who recently retired from career service. That officer's commanders have probably been appointed senior managers in the public or private sector of the economy. Generals, if they seek a political career, become cabinet ministers, and later on can assume quite naturally the position of Prime Minister.

In a militarised society, such as Israel, conscription is a central instrument of political power and a major issue on the political agenda. Social inequalities are reproduced, reinforced and often created by the conscription policy of the army. Thus, members of the Palestinian minority among Israeli citizens are not called up to military service, and this fact is then used as an excuse for official and unofficial discrimination against them in all spheres of life. For instance, when an employer is looking for a worker "with military service completed", this would be a code name for "Arabs not wanted". Some small groups within the Palestinian minority (notably the Druze community) are conscripted nevertheless, following the old maxim 'divide and conquer'.

Within the Jewish ethnic majority, the military reinforces social inequality between the genders and between the social classes.

Although most Jewish women are drafted, they are required to serve a shorter term of military service (20--21 months, as opposed to 3 years for men) and are given functions within the mil itary that are deemed unimportant. This is reflected in women's social status and in their marginalisation in the public sphere (for instance, women make up less than 10% of the Israeli parliament). Opinions of generals on public matters are considered authoritative.

Opinions of women are considered irrelevant.

Working-class Jewish men are usually assigned to technical and logistic functions within the military, so that, like women and Druze soldiers and unlike other Jewish men, they are later unable to convert their military service into considerable social benefits.

To illustrate the point further, all observant Jewish women as well as Druze and Jewish men engaged in religious studies, are exempted from military service. In the case of Jewish men (i.e. the privileged group), this issue has become a focus of one of the most heated public debates in Israel in the last decade.

What this somewhat lengthy introduction aims to show is that, in Israel, the military is the focus of political power, its policies are hardly questioned publicly, and conscription is a major political issue. In these conditions, war resistance of all kinds has special political importance. It is no surprise that, since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, while the radical opposition to Israel's policies and crimes in the Occupied Territories has been largely silenced, organised groups of war resisters have repeatedly managed to break through into the Israeli mainstream media and onto the political agenda.

As mentioned above, conscription policy forms and reinforces social divides in Israeli society. Accordingly, war resisters in Israel form a very wide social and political diversity. A basic overview of this diversity is useful in understanding this important social and political movement of resistance in Israel.

To begin with, refusal to perform military service varies in scope and ideological motivation.

Some objectors are motivated by considerations having to do specifically with the IsraeliPalestinian conflict and with the occupation of Palestine, while others, e.g. pacifists and anarchists, emphasise broader moral and political concerns. (Not that any sharp border can be drawn between these two groups. Often enough it is only a matter of stressing one moment or another in an objector's overall stance.) Some object to performing military service of all kinds, while others only refuse to perform military service in the Occupied Territories.

Objectors are also a diverse group in terms of social characteristics. Some of them are young people in their teens, refusing to be enlisted, while others are in their 20s, 30s or 40s, refusing to perform reserves service.

Many come from middle-class families, but there are also objectors from working-class families, including a notable group of immigrants from the former USSR. Some have a family history of activity in the radical left, while many others encounter a hostile attitude by their parents and other relatives (and it sometimes happens that young objectors eventually involve their initially hostile parents in active support of the objectors and of their cause).

An important group within the objectors' movement is that of women objectors. Jewish women in Israel are drafted. To the best of our knowledge, Israel is at present the only country where mandatory conscription for women exists. Correspondingly, there is an active and large movement of women draft resisters in Israel, the only one of its kind in the world.

Israeli conscription legislation is also anomalous in that a conscientious objector status is recognised for women only. This fact sets women objectors as a distinct group apart from their male counterparts.

Another group of special interest is that of Druze objectors. As mentioned earlier, Druze men, unlike other Palestinian Israelis, are drafted into the army. Since 1956, when the decision to draft Druze men was made by the Israeli government, there has existed a movement of Druze draft resisters. Druze objectors usually emphasise their refusal to fight an ethnic war against their own people. They have often been kept behind bars for considerably longer than other objectors.

Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, the number of declared objectors has grown dramatically. A trickle of individuals has grown into the thousands.

Roughly two hundred objectors have so far been imprisoned, some of them repeatedly (for up to eight times in a row). Two organised groups of objectors -- the Letter of the High School Seniors (Shministim) and Courage to Refuse -- made collective declarations of objection and have generated intense and heated debate in Israeli society and in the mainstream media. Within Israel's radical left, among those opposing the occupation of Palestine and the Israeli army's actions in the territories it occupies, the movement of objectors has now assumed a central and prominent status.

But in a way, this politicised movement of declared objectors is only the tip of an iceberg.

Draft statistics indicates that, over the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who are not conscripted or are discharged prematurely from military service. It is common knowledge that most of these people in fact initiate their discharge.

They form what we call grey objection. Some of these grey objectors are officially discharged on grounds of poor health (usually poor mental health). Others spend time in military prison until they are discharged on grounds of 'incompatibility'. Many women obtain an exemption by claiming (often falsely) that they are observant religious Jews. Together with the Palestinian minority (who are not called up, although eligible by law to perform military service), these grey objectors amount to a small majority (roughly 55--57%) of their age group among Israeli citizens.

It is difficult to list the various motives behind grey objection. Some of these grey objectors are in fact motivated politically and ideologically, but they opt for the easier way to get out of the army and do not declare these motives in public. Others avoid military service because their family relies on their income from work for livelihood. Others still wish to pursue academic studies or build a career, and feel military service is a waste of time. Many would indeed say that they just don't feel like going to the army.

But whatever explanation grey objectors give to their refusal to serve in the army, this refusal in fact carries great political importance. In the highly militarised Israeli society, not going to the army means voting with one's feet, voting against the continued militarisation of Israeli society and against the power structure that this militarisation creates.

Thus, in many ways, the diverse movement of objectors in Israel plays a pivotal role in resisting war in one of the most heated war zones on earth today.

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