Why Israel's 'seruvniks' say enough is enough

The lawyer representing Israeli conscripts who refuse to serve beyond the
1967 ceasefire lines explains why a growing number of soldiers are
disobeying orders, in order to protect the basic values on which Israel
was founded.

Observer Worldview

Michael Sfard
Sunday May 19, 2002
The Observer

It is said that in the first few years of the Israeli occupation of the
West Bank and Gaza Strip, no one seriously thought of holding on to these
territories forever. It was at the time widely assumed, that these newly
conquered lands were to be handed back to the Arabs as part of a peace
agreement. I don't remember those days.

I was raised in a different Israel. In my Israel the small fundamentalist
group of Jewish settlers has always enjoyed more political power than
their relative share in the Israeli population. In my Israel both left-wing
and right-wing governments enabled the colonialisation of these occupied
Palestinian lands. My Israel paid, and is still paying, a heavy moral price
for ruling another nation by the force of the sword. My Israel, built on the
founding values of humanism, pluralism and democracy is being lost.

Three months ago an unprecedented petition by reserve soldiers was
published in the Israeli press. The signatories declared their intention to
refuse to serve the Israeli occupation and disobey any order to go, as
soldiers, beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines. The number of signatories (known
as 'seruvniks' for the Hebrew word 'seruv' - refusal) has increased rapidly
from 50 in the first petition to 462 as of today. Though refusal in Israel
was not uncommon, the scale of this petition is a novelty. Most of the
signatories are hardened combat officers and soldiers, and all of them
served many years in the occupied territories. Since the launch of the
petition, about forty of those who have endorsed the petition have been sent
to military prisons as a result of their refusal.

Almost all of the 462 who have signed, among them myself, are between
twenty-five and thirty-five years old. None of us can remember a
non-occupying Israel. Each and every signatory of the petition has
individually reached the decision to spurn the state's demand that they
will employ immoral and inhumane means of control over civilian population.
And yet, I was amazed to discover how similar our stories are. How identical
our personal transitions from being "good" and obedient soldiers to what our
Attorney General described as "dangerous outlaws" have been.

As the legal adviser to many seruvniks - and someone who was incarcerated
for three weeks for refusing to serve in the Hebron area a few years ago -I
have had the privilege of escorting many of my fellow signatories from
receipt of their call up papers, through the trial and, finally, visiting
them in prison. Given their biographies, the act of refusal was by no means
a natural decision. Rather, it was rather the product of a personal crisis,
born out of moral agonies and a sense of deep concern for our country's
future.

One might expect to hear horrifying stories of atrocities that the
objectors witnessed before making their decision to no longer take part in
the system. The truth of the matter is that most of the conscientious
objectors reached their decision simply from experiencing "everyday" life in
the occupied territories.

The occupation corrupted Israeli culture, it eroded our code of ethics,
and it even contaminated the Hebrew language. In the name of the fight
against the murderous and unforgivable terror that struck Israeli cities and
towns, we grew accustomed to manning check-points in which thousands of
Palestinians are being detained for hours and humiliated by young
soldiers. We grew accustomed to pointing our rifles at children and women.
We became tolerant to large-scale demolition of houses ('surface uncovering'
in military jargon). Finally, we accepted a state-sponsored policy of
assassinations, neatly labeled by Israeli spokesmen as "focused
prevention". We learned how to distinguish between roads for settlers (Jews)
and roads for 'locals' (Palestinians), and we were asked to implement
discriminatory laws for the sake of the illegal settlements that have
trapped our country in an endless messianic war. A war which the vast
majority of Israelis never wanted.

As soldiers who witnessed, first-hand, the corrosive effect of the
occupation on ordinary Israelis and Palestinians we could no longer bear
its destructive implications for what we were raised to believe were Israeli
values - respect for human life and dignity. The occupation chiseled out
unequal relations between Palestinians and Israelis. It planted in many a
seed of racism against Arabs.

Under such circumstances, hundreds of officers and soldiers who were
always in the forefront of IDF's most prestigious units, who were used to
risking their lives for the security of the State of Israel, began
questioning both the morality of our presence in the occupied territories
and the myth of its necessity. People who have no legal background grew to
acknowledge that the command that sends them beyond the borders of democracy
to rule another people inherently produces systematic human rights abuses
and is therefore neither democratic nor legal.

Entering a village and arresting every male above the age of 14 for up
to 18 days, as was done in the recent incursion to the West Bank, is
inhuman, even if the mission is to find terrorists. Stopping an ambulance
that carries a sick man or a pregnant woman is immoral even if you suspect
that it also carries hidden weapons. And that is the tragedy of serving in
the occupied territories: one cannot go there without detaining suspected
ambulances and treating children in a manner that results in more hatred.
The soldiers are placed in an impossible situation, coerced by the
occupation's reality to act immorally.

As a lawyer I am allowed to visit these prisoners of conscience. Some
arrive in prison filled with pride. Others are shocked by their own deed,
and try to explain themselves to their families and friends in long
telephone conversations. In prison, most of them discover how angry they
are. Angry at the settlers that tangled us in a never-ending war. Indignant
at the governments of Israel that enabled them to do so. Vexed at the
Israeli Defense Force, which arrogantly took for granted that we would carry
out any order.

The seruvniks come from the backbone of Israeli society. They were
always seen by themselves and by others, as Israelis from the mainstream of
our civic life. "I took seriously the values I was brought up on in this
country", they tell me. We must now ask ourselves whether this was
always simply rhetoric, or whether Israel has fundamentally changed. As
seruvniks, we have chosen to speak out. To silence our voice would be to
marginalize further the basic values upon which our country was founded.

You can read the seruvniks' petition - Courage to refuse - in
http://www.seruv.org.il,
and you can write to the author of this pieceat legal@seruv.org.il.