From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] 'Refuseniks' say loyalty has limits

Date 19 Feb 2003 15:39:54 -0500

Note #7595 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

'Refuseniks' say loyalty has limits

'Refuseniks' say loyalty has limits

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers won't serve in occupied territories

by Alexa Smith

TEL AVIV, Israel - Chen Alon is decidedly not a pacifist.

He served as a major in an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) tank battalion from
1987 to 1992, and has been in the reserves ever since, putting on the uniform
for one month each year.

Not this year.

This year Alon, 33, went to jail.
And he wasn't alone. More than 500 other Israeli soldiers and officers are
refusing, for reasons of conscience, to serve in the occupied territories.
They are known as "the refuseniks."

Alon says he would serve - "Of course" - in border areas near Lebanon or
Syria. But he won't be part of the occupying force on the West Bank or the
Gaza Strip. The next time he's called up for another 30-day stint of reserve
duty, he won't go if his unit is ordered to the occupied territories.

The IDF doesn't recognize conscientious objectors.
Alon says his stance is one of "selective refusal," because he objects only
to serving in the territories.

If a soldier refuses an order, he or she goes to jail, unless a sympathetic
commander intervenes and assigns alternative duty. Some commanders will. Most

So far, about 200 refuseniks have served time in jail. Each of them appeared
at the appointed base at the appointed time, but refused to follow orders to
cross "the Green Line" with a combat unit. The maximum jail sentence is 35
Refuseniks are even more likely to go to jail since Israel's High Court
recently rejected eight soldiers' collective plea to be permitted to
"selectively refuse." The justices said granting the request would "weaken
the ties that bind us as a nation" and create an army in which "every unit
acts according to its own particular conscience." (See related story,
"Decision goes against objectors".) 

Alon and his compatriots are an odd breed in a country where loyalty to the
military is simply assumed and those who won't serve as considered traitors.
Even Alon's wife, Moria Shlomot, says that, while she supports the
refuseniks, she feels some ambivalence.

"It's a complicated situation," she says. "The occupation is killing us all."
She says she understands the need for a disciplined "people's army," but
believes there ought to be a way to balance individual freedom against the
good of the country. 

It is a tough call for her - and for the refuseniks. Each of them claims to
have gone through an anguishing decision-making process before concluding
that isn't good for the country. 
In fact, they say, it jeopardizes Israel's security rather than protecting

Alon says he reached his breaking point when his battalion was ordered to
demolish a house because the family had built a balcony without an Israeli
permit. He says the whole operation was a cynical effort to provoke a
reaction from gunmen by punishing an innocent civilian family.

He says the hate that burned in the eyes of children who were watching
stunned him and all the other soldiers. "It was then that I realized, 'What
the ____ are we doing here?'" he says. "We're fighting against Israel. We're
growing up Hamas terrorists."

Did he fire the shells, as ordered? "Of course," he says. But he and some
others on the scene wrote a complaint to the military chief of staff. Then he
decided he wasn't going back.

Alon didn't expect to be part of what has become a movement among the
reservists, many of whom have signed a document vowing that they will not
"continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel,
starve and humiliate an entire people."

The movement began when two paratroopers, Yaniv Itzkowitz and David
Zonsheine, came back from the Gaza Strip and said they could not serve there
again. Three others signed a public letter they drafted. Within three weeks,
57 officers and reservists had become refuseniks. Today the number is at 515.

"Not one of us has left the army," says Amit Mashiah, a 30-year-old Tel Aviv
resident who is a first sergeant. His commander gave him alternative duty,
rather than sending him to jail for refusing orders. 

Mashiah says his decision arose from his gradual recognition that the army's
presence on the West Bank isn't about protecting Israeli citizens, but about
making life as comfortable as possible Israeli settlers continually expanding
Jewish communities on the West Bank. 

"We came to the conclusion that it is the  settlers who are a threat to the
plain security of Israel," he says. "Not just peace, but security. Enabling
the spread of the settlement project is doing the worst thing for the
security of Israel. ...

"So the main thing we could do for the well-being of Israel is to refuse to
go. We'll have to pay the price for that. Go to prison, be demoted. This will
be our struggle."

Mashiah says combat soldiers are in an untenable situation - working among a
civilian population that resents their presence, with no political efforts
under way to negotiate peace. "It is some kind of cycle we've created with
the Palestinians now," he says. "We give them a hard time. They continue
terrorism. And it is an excuse for us to give them a harder time."

Attorney Michael Sfard, who argued the case before the High Court and is
himself a refusenik, says there is a positive aspect of the case: The
justices said they recognized that the reservists were speaking with a moral,
not a political voice. 
The downside, he says, is that there is still no place in Israel's democracy
for pacifists or for those with conscientious objections to military service.

"(Conscientious objection) is not a human right in Israel," he said after the
decision, which cannot be appealed. "Refusing to serve in the occupied
territories is illegal." 

Orot Levy, a 28-year-old Navy captain, is out of prison after serving three
weeks for refusing to serve on a ship that was blockading the port in Gaza.
He said the rationale for the blockade is to stop arms shipments from
reaching the volatile Gaza Strip, but it also keeps thousands of fishermen
from going to sea. And he couldn't do it. 

"It is a horrific situation there economically," says Levy. "And preventing
one of the only sources of income, or even food? That is not something that I
think is connected to the security of Israel, by any means. It is something
that decent people shouldn't do. And I consider myself decent." 

Levy says he grew up idealizing the IDF, believing that its integrity was
beyond question - so he agonized over his decision, which even his girlfriend
opposed (although she stood by him when he went to jail). 

He said the moral quality of the IDF is deteriorating, and that the
disclaimer of "terrorist attacks" has become a justification for anything the
army wants to do. "I feel that you contribute to the situation you live in,
so if you are part of a regime that generates more and more hatred on the
Palestinian side, that will generate more terrorist attacks."

Alon says he has seen a news clip from the current Intifada showing a young
Israeli soldier sitting on a bed inside a Palestinian home. Shooting could be
heard in the background. The soldier told the television crew: "'I don't know
what a nice Jewish boy like me is doing here."

"People went bananas, like he was a traitor to say that," says Alon. "This is
like Vietnam 15 minutes from Jerusalem."

Israeli soldiers are reviving a song written by a soldier named Meir Ariel
during the Sinai campaign in the 1980s. One of its lyrics says, "Hey, nice
Jewish boy, go home. There is nothing for you here." 

"I always say to people who argue with me: 'I'm the expert on not refusing. I
did that for 14 years,'" Alon says. "Israel is a democracy. This is a
legitimate government. 

"But we got to a point where - and I am an honest man, a professional officer
and a patriot of my country - where we have, believe me, crossed a red line."

Having stepped back, he says, gives him the right to "call Palestinians to
not cross red lines, as well. For the sake of the region."    

If the occupation continues, Mashiah says, refuseniks will continue going to
jail at a rate of about one per month.

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