Refusing to be Tools of the State

Israel's refuseniks work for peace

By Wendy E. Smith

I met Noam Bahat (21) and Shimri Zameret (20), citizens of Israel, in November, about two months after they had been released from Israeli prisons. They had each spent 21 months in a succession of jails as a result of being court-martialled for refusing, on grounds of conscientious objection, to enlist in the Israeli army.

With the exception of certain groups, young Israeli men are required to perform three years of full-time military service (with young women serving for two), usually right after high school.

Each in his own way, at a very young age, and mostly internally, both Bahat and Zameret had struggled mightily with the question: "Will I, or will I not, serve in an occupation army?"

Bahat grew up in Nirit, a town of about 200 families that is located very near the "green line," close to the West Bank city of Qalqilya. It was in the second year of the current intifada that he finally made the decision to refuse.

At that time, he explains, Palestinian cities were under curfew for long periods -- sometimes six months. Palestin-ians could only leave their homes occasionally and at the whim of the Israeli army. Life ground to an economic and soul-destroying halt.

Bahat says when he was growing up his parents "gave me options and the opportunity to think for myself. They didn't expect the questions I was about to ask, but they taught me to doubt."

After tenth grade, Bahat left the formal education system; he subsequently earned high marks on his high school final exams, after a period of "self-study." "The whole time I was home-schooling," he says, "I was thinking, 'if I'm going in the army,' not 'when I'm going in the army.'"

The year he decided to leave school, Bahat became a counselor in a youth movement that "thought of itself as socialist." He did three years of counseling, then a year of optional civilian service as a "big brother" in a boarding school for disadvantaged youth.

Questioning the occupation

While working with younger youth, Bahat tried to teach them about the things he had come to believe in: education, environmental protection, soc-ial welfare, equality, and freedom. But in the first and second years of the intifada, he was struck by the contradictions bet-ween these values and "the things [I] was hearing about the occupation."

"When I began my year of service, I began to ponder a question which only became more significant as time went on: 'What am I, an 18-year-old kid with no ability to influence the system, supposed to do when the state of Israel, my homeland, destroys the lives and rights of three million people?'"

Ultimately, he decided that refusing to serve, and doing so publicly, was the most powerful tool at his disposal.

Zameret was born in a kibbutz and later raised largely in Tel Aviv. He became politically active in the eighth grade. Through Peace Now Youth, he participated in dialogues with Palestinians and took tours in the West Bank. In eleventh grade, when he decided to refuse, he signed the first "high school seniors' letter" written by the Israeli Youth Refusal Movement to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and became one of the most active members of the group.

The letter states in part:

"We, the undersigned, youths who...were brought up in Israel, are about to be called to serve in the IDF. We protest...the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army.... We strongly resist Israel's pounding of human rights. Land expropriation, arrests, executions without a trial, house demolition, closure, torture, and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out.... These actions are not only illegitimate; they do not even achieve their stated goal -- increasing the citizens' personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people."

Zameret explains that one of the biggest influences on his decision to refuse was reading journalistic reports from the occupied territories written by the Israeli reporters Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.

"Normally, in most schools in Israel," he says, "Palestinians don't really exist. You can't learn about them from Israeli textbooks. If you want to hear about human rights violations, you have to read papers like [the left-leaning Israeli daily] Ha'aretz, and even there, not page one, page eight or nine. In most Israeli papers Palestinian suffering is framed in a certain way -- from the army/government point of view.

"When I really learned about the occupation, I was shocked."

Zameret and Bahat, along with three others, Adam Maor, Matan Kaminer, and Haggai Matar, underwent a 10-month court-martial and served the longest prison terms of any conscientious objectors in Israeli history.

Zameret's court martial testimony also addressed the immoral effects of the Israeli occupation on Israeli people and society: "I have friends whose families have no food. I can't accept their hunger.... Every war causes harm to economies and destroys people's lives, but this war is avoidable. It is possible to leave the occupied territories tomorrow and, by this, end this war....

"I know too many people...killed in the terror. A year and a half ago, the mother and sister of a girl who studied with me were killed. A few months ago, a brother of another guy who studied with me was killed. I saw their families. They are broken people. Nothing in their lives will be 'all right' again. The government, using the army, in order to preserve the settlements, enabled these deaths to occur....

"I met many soldiers who served in the occupied territories.... They told about beating 'insolent Arabs.' They told about shooting people for fun."

I ask Bahat and Zameret what they would say to young Americans who are wondering if they should serve in the occupation in Iraq.

Bahat answers: "First I call on people just to think. But before you can think, you need to educate yourself, get your own information. Before you go to a war you have to make sure you support it. Ask yourself, 'What are the causes? What are the motives?'

"I hope they won't support it. I think the two occupations are morally equivalent. But it's their decision. I'm not going to tell them what to do."

Bahat and Zameret have done their own thinking. Although they don't agree on many small points -- Zameret jokes that after three months in a jail cell together, they "never agreed on one thing" -- they are very clear on one point. Each separately, they say almost exactly the same thing: the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is obvious. Israel should withdraw to the 1967 borders and there should be an independent Palestinian state established, more or less, on the remaining lands in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. All occupations, they say, listing multiple examples from world history, eventually end with the occupier withdrawing.

A future after the occupation

Talking to the two refuseniks is a strange experience. Sometimes I feel as if I am talking to a couple of old sages, and other times I remember how young Bahat and Zameret are.

"What do you think will happen when the occupation ends?" I ask them. Zameret throws up his hands in delight and exclaims, "It will be awesome!"

Then he talks seriously about his vision for the future: "It will be much easier to fight against hatred after the occupation ends. First our two peoples will need a separation. Eventually, Israel should be a safe place for all people -- not only Jewish people. It should be for anyone who needs a safe place. We shouldn't discriminate against people because of origin. We should have learned this from the Holocaust."

I ask Bahat about the idea of a one-state solution. "How about a non-state solution!" he suggests. And then, at least for now, the reality: "I don't think peace through withdrawal of occupying forces is necessarily justice, but it is an improvement, because people stop dying. Maybe we can have a two-state solution for now and then a one-state solution later on, or maybe even something like the European Union. Sixty years after World War II, Europe is forming a union."

I ask about patriotism.

"I object to patriotism." says Bahat. "It's an instrument used by politicians to manipulate citizens; the state should be a tool to serve the people. You don't love a tool. You don't love your microwave or your refrigerator. If the state...stops serving you, you should throw it away. Through 'patriotism' we are being taught to serve our politicians. Instead, we should contribute to our society."

Bahat says the hardest thing about prison was the arbitrariness of the daily routine, one's life being scripted by an alien authority. Then he adds reflectively, "When you are a Palestinian [under military occupation] you see this arbitrariness all around you. It is collective. When you are imprisoned in Israel, as an individual, as a CO, it's different, because you decided to take this punishment. It doesn't put you in that amount of despair."

Since the first high school seniors' letter was published in August 2001, there has been a second seniors' letter, as well as a letter of refusal from reservist combat soldiers and officers, a letter signed by air force pilot (both active and retired), and a letter from reservists from an elite combat unit. Bahat says he knows of at least five high school students who intend to refuse in the upcoming "refusing season."

Bahat and Zameret both think it is the totality of all these refusers, and even more importantly, the much larger number of "gray refusers" (people who get out of serving by less-public means) that frighten the army.

"We might also inspire people to act against the occupation in other ways," Bahat adds.

Zameret says, "I think we also sent a message to Palestinians: Some people in Israel are willing to pay a big personal price not to serve in the occupation." And then he tells a story.

"When we were in jail, a letter was addressed to us by a young Palestinian. He said he had been helping Hamas to carry out terror acts, but now that he heard about us, he's not going to do that any more. He's going to resist the occupation by nonviolent means. The whole two years were worth it, just for that one letter."

Wendy E. Smith is a writer and human rights activist in Seattle.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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