25 September 2003 Edition

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Israel's refuseniks

Ishai Menuchin is a major in the Israeli Army, but he is better known as the spokesperson and chairperson of Yesh Gvul (There is a limit), a peace organisation in Israel that works against the occupation of Palestine and in support of those soldiers who refuse duties of an aggressive or repressive nature. In its literature, Yesh Gvul denounces the "brutal role of the Israeli army in subjugating the Palestinian population", which places "a moral and political dilemma" on the soldiers as they are required to "enforce policies they deem illegal, immoral and ultimately harmful to Israeli interests".

Menuchin was one of the founders of the organisations in 1982, the year that Israel invaded Lebanon. At the time, 168 soldiers were imprisoned for their refusal to take part in the military campaign. Yesh Gvul believes that the number of refusals was greater and that it was those rising numbers that deterred further prosecutions against the refuseniks. This movement grew during the First Intifada and its growing again under the present Intifada.

An Phoblacht: How did Yesh Gvul come into being?

Ishai Menuchin: It was like a trade union of soldiers who needed help to build a community with other soldiers refusing to go to war in Lebanon. Our main idea is that every responsible citizen in a democracy should place limits and decide what things s/he is ready to take part in and what undemocratic activities s/he is not willing to participate in. During the war in Lebanon, we had 3,500 soldiers who signed our petition and 168 went to prison, including myself. I am an officer, a major, in the reserve of the Israeli Defence Forces Infantry and I spent 35 days in prison during the war in Lebanon, as I refused to go and fight in the war. Since then, I have still been doing my army reserve duties but I am not willing to carry them out on Palestinian territories or the Golan Heights, which is Syrian territory. I will be serving in the reserve till the end of this year but I refuse to take part in any occupation duty.

AP: Who are the members of your organisation?

IM: The majority of the members of my organisation are refusing to pass the Green Line. We have two minorities: one, the people who are willing to serve in the occupied territories and are not willing to do anything that will affect the Palestinian population. I mean, they are willing to serve in storage houses, military camps... but not outside. And another minority are the people who refuse to serve nowadays in the army, bute their refusal is because they oppose the Israeli ocupation, not because of pacifist beliefs.

We are refuseniks, we practice selective refusal, refusing to do certain things because we, as democratic citizens, do not agree with them.

During the first Intifada, we had 2,500 members and nearly 200 were imprisoned. Now, during this Intifada, we are talking of a community of 2,300 soldiers who refuse to go. But that does not include those soldiers who had been imprisoned or who refused to go into the Occupied Territories on previous occasions, as the government is not calling us to go into the Territories. The new ones are people who signaled their refusal and were imprisoned the following day, as they signed the day before they were supposed to go to military duty there.

AP: What sentences can they expect for their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories?

IM: Until six months ago, the sentences were 35 days, 28 days... A few months ago, six youngsters were taken to court martial and the trial is going on and we do not know what the sentence will be, but they are being kept in military prisons waiting for the end of the trial.

AP: Can you see this developing into a mass refusal, or do you think the government will contain it?

IM: The government is not putting everyone in prison. During the first Intifada, in the beginning of the '90s, we had 180 members in prison. The army estimated that for each soldier imprisoned, there were ten going to their commanders to tell them they did not want to go to fight the Palestinians. We know of 2,500 who went to their commanders and told them they would rather go to prison than to the Occupied Territories. We know this is not a big number, but these are the tip of the iceberg, because the estimate was that for each one that said that to their commanders, there were between ten and fifteen who were not willing to go to the Territories but were not willing to go to prison either. So, they just lowered the military profile and some went abroad for one or two months - because when you are abroad you are not called to military duty. So we are talking about 20,000 to 30,000 Reserve soldiers, and this is a big number.

Last April, they decided to put everyone refusing in prison and they incarcerated 70 soldiers. After April, the number dropped to 5-6 again. We estimate that 70 soldiers on that occasion means 800-900 soldiers refusing per year. And this is a very high number for the army. Today, there are 11 soldiers in prison, six of them the youngsters waiting to hear from the court martial. Five are released and another three are incarcerated; it is a system to try to keep the numbers low, because putting all those who refuse in prison is a huge political problem for them. But the numbers are growing.

AP: Military service in Israel is still compulsory. Would you tell us about it?

IM: We are called into the army when we are 18 and have to spend three years doing your military service - I did four and a half years, because I wanted to be an officer - and then you go into the reserve till you are 45. A very long time. That means people cannot go to university till they are 21 and are finished in the army.

AP: How is your organisation perceived by Israeli society in general?

IM: We are not part of the consensus, but the majority - and I talk about the centre-left thinking people - accept our refusal, though they do not like it. Last year, a poll found that 47% understand why we are refusing, while 63% of the Israelis are ready to give back the Occupied Territories in exchange for peace.

During the war in Lebanon, it was said in many places that one of the reasons why Sharon - the defence minister at the time - decided to withdraw was the number of soldiers refusing. Even the chief commander of the army referred to it.

In Lebanon we were alone, but now there are a variety of organisations that people can join when they want to refuse, so the numbers are growing all the time and the army is losing its legitimacy. The root of the Israeli Army is the people's army, so they need the people on the right and the left together. So, when the people on the left start refusing to go, the army has a legitimacy problem.

AP: Orthodox Jews are the ones who oppose any type of negotiation, but then they do not serve in the army. How is that taken by Israeli society?

IM: There is a lot of hate for them for that reason - the fact that men do not work, as they study, and the women work to support the family. I feel that is their right to study and not to go to the army if that is what they want.

AP: Can you see a solution in the short term for the conflict?

IM: No, because neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are mature enough for peace. They are more concerned about who did what to whom, and not to find an end to this horrible situation. The majority of my community and the Palestinian community are more concerned about revenge and punishment than solutions. And we are not balanced in the situation, as we are occupiers and they are occupied, but the number of people who want peace on each side is now very low.


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