Choosing Not To Serve
The third was a “Letter of Refusal” in which several hundred reserve soldiers declared their unwillingness to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The refuseniks’ message is quite clear. They are willing to serve “in any assignment that serves the defense of the state of Israel” but “the assignment of occupation and oppression does not serve this cause.”
This is not the perspective of fringe peace activists. The signatories are officers and soldiers with impeccable records of service in frontline combat units. Most are in their 20s and 30s, soldiers the Israeli army views as its next generation of commanders. Since publication, signatures have increased six-fold, garnering a 30 percent approval rating among the Israeli public. The “selective refusal” movement is not new: already an estimated 400 reservists have refused to take part in the current campaign of repression, 50 being jailed for their “insubordination”. Together with signatories on earlier declarations to the same effect, the number of refuseniks, past or prospective, now stands at around 1,000. Considering Israel’s much smaller population, it would be the equivalent of 40,000 politically-motivated refusals in the U.S. armed forces. This represents a ratio of discontent that any government, Israeli or American, would disregard at its peril.
Though certainly not a comprehensive solution, an immediate Israeli declaration of a cease-fire and willingness to return to face-to-face talks, with the aim of terminating the occupation on agreed terms before the end of 2002 would quell the bloodshed. This would allow for negotiations—on an equitable basis recognizing the basic needs of both sides—to resolve outstanding issues such as borders, the final status of Jerusalem and refugees. If the United States is to be a true ally, it may be time to help Israel extract itself from a no-win situation. At no added cost, the U.S. could help by diverting a fraction of the $1.8 billion in annual aid to Israel from military expenditures toward implementing a peaceful withdrawal. First, the Israeli government should remove the economic inducements currently enticing new Jewish settlers to move into Palestinian territories. If 53 percent of settlers moved into the West Bank for non-ideological reasons such as cheap housing, interest-free loans and income tax rebates, then at the right price, they would move out. More than 30 percent already have said they would.
Neither Yasser Arafat nor Ariel Sharon is a freedom-loving democrat. Both are clearly to blame for the escalation in violence. But the problem is much larger than them. It stems from Israel’s 35-year occupation of Palestinian lands. In 1967, in the third Arab-Israeli war, Israel’s army moved outside the country’s internationally recognized borders into Arab lands. The United Nations promptly told Israel to leave, pronouncing the occupation illegal. The troops still haven’t gone home. But a growing number of them are demanding just that. Perhaps the U.S. should listen.
Mary Bachman is a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Public Health. Peretz Kidron is an Israeli journalist and human rights advocate based in Jerusalem at Yesh Gvul, an organization which assists Israeli soldiers considering selective refusal.