An Israeli refusenik on Israel and Israeli activists work against the Occupation of Palestine

Date:

Media coverage of events in Israel and Palestine often depends on well-worn clichés that depict a bitter struggle between two homogenous and mutually exclusive cultures. The truth of course is far more complex and there is a small, but very vocal, opposition within Israel to the military Occupation of Palestine. One of the most visible and courageous forms of this opposition has been the refusal to serve in the Israeli army.In Israel military service is mandatory and, with a few exceptions, all those called up are expected to serve. Mass conscription means that anyone who visits or lives in Israel sees young men and women in olive green fatigues carrying weapons almost everywhere. The armed forces and militarism are a core part of modern Israeli culture and the military is far more than simply an instrument of defence or invasion. The army is part of the ideological glue that holds Israeli society together and ensures that Zionism (the belief in a state exclusively for Jews that often expresses itself as ethnic chauvinism) remains the bedrock of mainstream Israeli culture. In that context refusing to serve is an act of great moral courage and one of the clearest signs to the Israeli elite that not all Israelis support their actions in Palestine.

Itay, a 22-year-old anarchist and anti-Zionist from Haifa in Israel who visited Ireland late last year is one of these refusers. Itay struggled with the Israeli military to be defined “crazy” to avoid military service. In person Itay shows little signs of lunacy -in fact he is thoughtful, warm and ironic and talking to him it becomes clear that his objection to serving in the Israeli military is deeply rooted in ethical and political objections to the Israeli state. In this interview Itay talks about refusing, Israeli society and anarchist politics in Israel.

How did you become aware of what was happening under the Occupation?

My older sister was involved from a very young age in a Palestinian-Israeli youth movement and I was in a socialist Zionist youth group -the Young Guard -from the age of ten and they addressed the occupation saying it was bad and supported a two state solution. They are Meretz (left wing, Zionist parliamentary party in Israel) and I am ashamed of this (he laughs) They are quite vile….I don’t think you can really be radical and be a Zionist although there are some people who are but I think it is a bit weird.

I’m not sure people from outside of Israel understand how big a leap it is in terms of family culture and society to opt out of military service. To refuse is to refuse what has been handed down to you as your identity

Zionism is everything. Zionism is not something you are or you aren’t. In Israel its like you were born in Israel it is not up for question. Zionism is not a political movement… it’s just the way we live. For most people to refuse means that you have no right to live in Israel. It is denying that the Palestinians want to kill us and that we have a God given right to live in Israel. There is no one in power who didn’t serve in the army. All the prime ministers and the big, big jobs need army credentials. Ehud Barak was a head in the army, Mofaz was a head of the army, Rabin was a head of the army, Sharon was a general. Peres wasn’t big in the army but he built a nuclear reactor and Netanyahu was in the death squads. The manager of the biggest cell phone company was a head of the Shabak (Israeli security agency). All the former past four or five heads of the Shabak ( are leaders in business and politics..

It’s a defining charactersitic of the elite?

Yeah and not just in politics…business, school principals, managers.

What sort of reaction did you get from your friends and family when you refused?

I was quite lucky my friends and family were very supportive I decided to refuse when I was 15-16 or at least that I had issues to address. It started with the decision that I was not going to carry guns- it went on to that I was not willing to wear a uniform and then I am not willing to be in an army. My sister didn’t do the army but my mother was saying do it because it is easier and when I said no she said “ok, so how can I support you?”. I didn’t lose friends. When I shared it with my friends, they were still thinking of joining the army but after a while they were convinced. My best friend is a refuser and he went to jail and two other good female friends went to the conscientious objection committee and they were released (until recently different conditions applied to men and women who refused service on grounds of conscience). Another friend got out by being crazy and three others from our group did join- so the majority of us didn’t

What sort of consequences has refusing had for other people that you know?

I know a guy who was kicked out of his house for refusing so it can be harsh.

If you refuse does it create difficulties getting certain jobs afterwards?

If you are claiming to be crazy or unfit it goes on your record and there are problems getting some state jobs but this doesn’t apply to refusers who are pacifists.

Can you describe what exactly happens when you refuse?

Jews go to the conscription centre near Tel Aviv….You get your uniform- you say no. Then they argue and take you to a different room where they yell at you and try to convince you. By evening they leave you for a few hours and they will ask you again and if you are still not willing there will be military trial Any officer can hold a military trial although the low ranking officers cannot impose long sentences like my friend was tried by a low ranking officer and got 14 days. In jail they tell you to wear a uniform and shave and stuff like that.

Then after a few days if you are behaving by obeying military orders and accepting military discipline…you are transferred to company A and you sleep in a tent …… there are public phones. That is the treat they give you if you behave. My friend was there for the first while then he refused his orders and he was put in solitary confinement which is bit harder because there are two people to a cell and the toilet is in the cell and apart from meals you are allowed a hour a day outside of the cell. When you finish your sentence they tell you are going to be conscripted. He did 80 days in solitary and after facing three conscientious objection committees he was released. There is an option of being crazy- most of the stories are that you are going to commit suicide and you have to convince the psychiatrist. The bottom line being that you are suicidal

Some refusers have been detained in military prisons. How long are they usually imprisoned for?

For the first refusers it was for a month but as more people refused the penalties have got worse 3-4 months then 5-6 months and now even up to a year. The longest that anyone has served is more or less two years- some of this time was in an open prison. For other ethnic minorities like Druze (a Middle-Eastern people and religion that split from mainstream Islam) who are much more heavily repressed… can sit in jail for 2 –4 years.

There is a bit of mistreatment like this refuser who was on hunger strike and they took away his blanket and he caught pneumonia and another guy was beaten up by warders.

That is pretty mild compared to what Palestinians suffer in custody isn’t it?

Yeah, yeah it is definitely different for the Palestinians. They will be no life taking. For a Jew to kill a Jew is a sin.

What about systematic torture which happens to a lot of Palestinians in custody?

No of course..it is not the same. Even if they are refusers they are Jewish….these are people who could be their friends. Palestinians though they are not really human beings.

How many people have refused during the second intifada?

Refusing military service …in groups and active all together around 500-600 and those who have refused to go to the occupied territories including reserves maybe 2000 people. Many of these come from the heart of Zionism, from the heart of the consensus. The biggest group of refusers are from Courage to Refuse which says to refuse is Zionism. They still feel part of the collective that is called Israel. Most people refuse because the object to the occupation but nor because they are anti-Zionist but all the Anarchists are anti-Zionist and refuse to be part of an army and refuse to oppress or be oppressed.

There are various ways of refusing military service. What form do Israeli anarchists use?

A lot do “crazy” and some go to jail.

Israel is a very complex society with many ethnic fissures- not least between Jews from different parts of the world. This is often a class divide has this had an impact on the refusing movement?

I am not so sure and I will tell you why. The army is what keeps Israel together and it is a good way of getting opportunities

Is it true then that for newly arrived groups or poorer Israelis the army is your ticket into Israeli society?

If you want to get into Israeli society it is the easiest way….. You can get educational opportunities The poor uneducated ones are sent to the front line their lives are cheap…

Apart from refusing anarchists have been actively involved in solidarity demonstrations and direct actions with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Many of these activities have been connected to the Palestinian grassroots campaign against the massive wall the Israeli state is building across the West Bank. This has attracted a lot of media coverage especially after December 2003 when a young Israeli anarchist Gil Naamati was shot by the Israeli army during an attempt to dismantle a fence along the projected route of the wall. This event sent shock waves through Israeli society where reports of shooting of Palestinians are commonplace but the shooting of an Israeli is an event without precedent. I asked Itay how this type of solidarity work started.

They started as an independent activist group working with the ISM (the International Solidarity Movement a Palestinian led group of international volunteers that uses non-violent direct action to oppose the Occupation.). So they did direct actions with Palestinians within the Occupied Territories and then they decided to face the burning issue of the moment -the Wall -by creating Anarchists against the Wall doing direct actions against the wall with internationals, with Palestinians, on their own trying to cut the fence, trying to stop the building the wall.

There was a also peace camp in Ma’sa a village in the Occupied Territoris which is being split by the wall and some Israelis came and it lasted at least half a year which is a long time in terms of facing the Israeli army.

So all this civil disobedience-dismantling fences, standing in front of bulldozers, breaking checkpoints, attending solidarity demonstrations and staying in peace camps in the Occupied Territories-how effective have these actions been?

I think it has been symbolic but it has created real solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians and that is thing the government is afraid of. That is the important thing. We do not have the power to stop the wall but we can at least try to stop the propaganda, the hate and the ignorance. The aim of the wall is to enable this ignorance- if people live behind a wall then you can say people are monsters but if there are genuine relationships this gets broken.

Do you think the wall marks a substantive change or the logical conclusion of Zionist policies in the Occupied Territories?

It is not a new idea there have been Zionist thinkers talking about this even before the foundation of Israel.

What do you think of what the settlers are doing in the Occupied Territories?

You mean colonisers? I don’t have that much personal experience of them. This is a gross generalisation but there are probably two kinds-the raving lunatics ultra-religious and they want to conquer everything and kill the Palestinians and there are those that go there because it is the real welfare state. There is cheap housing, good quality of life. I just heard on the radio last time I was in Israel the government is giving young couples a grant- a very cheap education like a scholarship, cheap housing something like a benefit pack for settlers.

The Palestinians are not allowed go near the settlements and there is a different road system

And they claimed they would dismantle the settlements as part of the peace process

Yeah,and they have doubled.

Is Jewish religious fundamentalism an important part of this?

There is a fundamentalism but it is not religious one -it is Zionist one, a nationalist one the settlers are fundamentalist but ultra-Zionists are not always religious.

It seems to me that most Israelis do not go to the Occupied Territories except as part of military service.

It is not true during Oslo people would go there to shop because it was cheaper. They would have “friends” they would go to a restaurant and say a few words of Arabic and say “how are you Mohammed?”. Now it is militarised and it is illegal to go to the cities and some are boycotting the Palestinians.

What effect has the suicide attacks had on Israeli society?

Since the fifties there have been attacks but the suicide bombs are the ultimate phase. People are genuinely afraid for their lives and don’t understand where they are coming from. They have no idea what is happening there- they think there is a nation and they are breeding in order to kill us. It was this that won the election after Rabin’s assassination in 1995-96.Their propaganda was picture after picture of suicide bombs, dead people, blood on the street, blown up buses and that is when it started. It is problematic for me. When I talk to Israelis I never support suicide bombs but I always try to explain…..I would say you have to understand the reality in which these people are living in, the amount of despair and the choices that they have…….

What other types of activity apart from anti-occupation work are Israeli anarchists involved in?

We had a thing called the Activist festival. there are a wide variety of social movements involved like Anarchists against the wall, Green action and the Communist Party and also Mapah who do educational projects in poor neighbourhoods and help consolidate community leadership. So it is kind of a social forum. A lot of feminists are involved as well

Haifa has a small scene of about 20 people. We take part in a variety of things some of us go to Women in Black (feminist peace activists) or New Profile a movement to demilitarise Israeli society.

There are also info shops in Haifa, in Tel Aviv and one that is opening in Jerusalem and one in Nazareth. There is a lot of repression. Political Squats are not tolerated if you are just a junkie squatting then you can live there forever but if you want to do something political you will be kicked out in a second.

There are 3 anarchist groups. There is Green Action who are environmentalists and deal with consumerism, animal rights and they are anti-occupation. There is Anarchists Against the Wall and there is One struggle who are an animal rights movement .

Is there an anti-capitalist movement in Israel?

There is no anti-capitalist movement in Israel. The only group that defines itself as anti-capitalist is the Communist Party. They organise Mayday protests and the anarchists usually come as an animal rights bloc and go to McDonalds stuff like that and block the street or something. We have been addressing the anti-capitalist thing on demos within the Israeli context fighting against the militarisation of Israeli society.

The Israeli economy has been totally restructured and is now far more globalised. There have been a series of privatisations have anarchists been involved in fighting against this?

Not really. There have been a few initiatives in poor neighbourhoods and there have been discussions in Haifa about forming a womens’ coop. There have been one shekel festivals where famous musicians play cheaply in places where they usually don’t bother playing. But the anarchists aren’t involved in this the anarchists are more focussed on the wall.

What are you involved in now?

I have been involved in a project called Marhaba Europe a speaking tour promoting grassroots movements in the Middle East. There are people from Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, women who were in Iraq and Palestine and the aim is to form a solidarity network between Europe and the Middle East for future actions.

Note this interview has been edited. I have put in ellipses where the big cuts are. The notes in brackets are mine. Some of the questions have been altered in order to clarify the context of what is being said.

First published on indymedia.ie in 2005

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