Refusal of army service – a defiant face of resistance

Palestine Update  109

Refusal of army service – a defiant face of resistance
Two issues back, Palestine Updates put out information about Israeli organizations engaged in challenging the Israeli occupation. We missed out on a few in our listing and decided we would tell some of their stories in brief. We do so because the narratives of the Israeli Peace Movement, although different in intensity, are part of the same struggle against Israeli occupation. Israeli peoples resistance is often not adequately recognized globally as an important form of protest from within Israel.

Palestine Updates has at all times held the view that political change will not come until there is pressure from below. Politicians do not wake up one morning with a new conscience. They change only when pressure from below makes governance thorny. Israeli peace movement initiatives are, therefore, a political alternative that asks the Jewish people not to adjust their mind to occupation as a reality. They say to their people: “There is a fault in reality”.

Israel ‘refusers’ pay a price for resisting the occupation. Yet, their levels of punishment do not come close to the kind of harsh retribution Palestinians face. An Israeli held in prison for 19 months, for example, and multiple times suffers. But Palestinians often spend a virtual life time in prison for a crime they did not even commit, or violating a law that has no international validity. This is a context always to be borne in mind. Prison is an asymmetrical experience for the Jew and the Palestinian.

We must recognize, however, that conscientious objectors who refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion add crucial dimensions of defiance against illegal militaristic impositions. Challenging an illegal occupation is a form of check against militarism and must rank as ‘costly solidarity’ against the Israeli occupation.

We hope the stories and testimonies we share below enable us to firmly link the various elements that compose global solidarity for freedom and justice for the Palestinians. They certainly remind me that a de-colonized Palestine must also imply a ‘non-colonizer’ Israel.
Ranjan Solomon

Waging non-violence
Extracted from the report: (Read 2016 article
 “Meet the new face of Israel’s growing military refuser movement”)

Conscientious objectors from the Israeli military, or “refusers,” are a small but growing group within an increasingly right-wing and militarized society. Last month, several young refusers visited 12 U.S. cities as part of a speaking tour sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the Refuser Solidarity Network. In the interviews we reproduce in part (see link below for full interview), Yasmin Yablonko, Khaled Farrag, and Sahar Vardi answer an array of deep and searching questions with gutsy and profound thoughts. The interviews touch on the “perils of being a conscientious objector” and also on how the movement is adapting to Israel’s rightward push and their hopes for peace.

Yablonko heads the newly-founded Mesarvot, which provides social and psychological support for those deciding to refuse, Farrag fronts Urfod (Arabic for “refuse”), which specifically supports members of the Druze community refusing Israeli military service. The Druze community faces a unique position because they are the only Palestinians since 1956 to have military service imposed on them. Co-refuser Sahar Vardi who served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted now works as ASFC’s Israel program coordinator.

What pushed them into refusing mandatory military service?
Yablonko discusses her very radical left-wing anti-Zionist roots. She describes how “there was a lot of pressure to go into the military. She didn’t refuse publicly. She spoke to a mental health deputy and “got out”. Farrag attributes similar factors that contributed to the decision to reject military service. She recalls having to cope with opposition from the general public. SaharVardi also has a Zionist-left house in which “during the second intifada things became a little bit more relevant to our lives and a feeling around in my closed environment that there needs to be a little bit of a reaction to the concept of occupation”. She recounts her first experience with Palestinians – planting olive trees. Sahar says in anguish: “they were building the wall at the time”. She asked herself: “What is that going to mean for their lives, like not being able to visit their friends?”

Each has a narrative on what happens when someone refuses their mandatory service?Imagine this (and I quote them): Farrag says: “The army doesn’t recognize objection. So, when you go and object, you are treated as a soldier who is disobeying an order” Sahar adds: “People who just don’t show up become ‘deserters’ – a crime! You go to prison.

They describe how the movement of conscientious objectors has transformed radically with the recent right-wing escalation of right wing politics and the Gaza War (2014). Yablonko underlines how the war in Gaza prompted a lot of different refusal groups and movements starting to work, and from different departments: for reserves, for ground service, and also people who have been trying to get out of the military because they don’t want to serve that specific war. These were the roots of Mesarvot, an organization that offered space to give activists more space to work, not just around wars but something more sustained.

Farrag describes the organization Urfod which began in 2013- a collection of former refusers and Druze. They contest the way in which the Druze community and population in Palestine are isolated from each other. They assert that the Druze have always been Palestinians in Palestine and “should connect back with their identity”. They argue uncompromisingly that “army service is not just ruining your history or identity or your Arab and Palestinian identity, but that it’s also not giving us any benefits as a community”.

The three groups are in active partnership and solidarity, not just among themselves but with Palestinians and are strongly endorsed by the Palestinians. They are also actively connected to the Israeli Left and with Orthodox Jews, who are anti-Zionist. All these groups are united by their rejection of military service.  They are now looking to find ways of connecting to leaders Black Lives Matter-equivalent movement in Israel, which supports Ethiopian Jews suffering from police violence and discrimination.

Refusers know that they face ostracism even from their own families which is the most important source of support when a decision is taken. “Family support is very important because you have a lot of other obstacles you have to face. When you finish high school, all your friends will go to the military. When you’re 17 or 18, it’s really hard to go against that. It’s likely that you’ll lose those connections; your life becomes different from everyone else’s. There’s a very harsh social stigma. In Israel, it’s called being a “dodger,” and it’s very bad. It’s not only considered selfish and an abandonment of Jewish society, but you’re also called a traitor and told you’re not protecting your people and your nation”. The education system perpetuates this idea that there is no other way to be a good citizen.

Even the Druze who refuses military service loses a support system. Cases of people who have ‘refused’ For example those who make a public issue of their decision have been spurned by family, and community.  There are harsh personal consequences too.

With Israel’s radical shift to the right, the BDS is emerging as a central rallying point of hope and resistance.  Organizations and many individuals who have taken the risk of being ‘refusers’ are hopeful with the increasing international awareness, probably more on the people’s level than the policymaker level. Israeli activists take courage and example from the Jewish Voice for Peace and the way in which they shift American public perception towards justice for the Palestinians by ending the occupation. At the same time, there is a huge risk when individuals refuse to serve in the army. The government exaggerates their impact and makes them sound like self-hating Jews. But the refusers will not simply pack up and go home in fear.

“Soldier, you can refuse” 
Sahar Vardi (seen in picture on left) propagates the campaign which would prohibit U.S. military assistance based on Israel’s human rights violations. At age 14, Sahar began to go to demonstrations against the Israeli separation wall, mostly in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank.  Against her parent’s will, Sahar went to the village up to four times a week.  Her father pleaded with her to wait until she was 16 to become an activist. However, Sahar continued to demonstrate, even as her classmates in high school bullied her and called her the “crazy left wing”. Sahar’s outspoken stance against the occupation has also affected her relationship with her brother, who is in the army. She herself has served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into Israel’s military service.“The bloody cycle in which I live…is a vicious circle that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in violence.  I refuse to take part in this choice.” (For more on Sahar see:

Israel is a highly militarized society and it persuades its citizens to believe that Palestinians are ruthless killers and the bounden duty of the soldier is to protect the nation and the Jewish people from all harm. The exact opposite is the real truth. It is the soldier who is invariably the irrational and cruel murderer. And, this makes the movement of those who refuse army service an important instrument for changing public perception, adding solidarity through resistance from within. These small groups may not be in the mould of mass movements. But successful mass movements almost always emerge from carefully construed micro-struggles which share a common goal.

Refuser Solidarity Network (RSN) – Ending the occupation, one soldier at a time
RSN ) provides a U.S. base of support for those who refuse service in the Israeli military for reasons of political conscience. It provides grants to Israeli refuser organizations and develops educational programs about refusal for U.S. audiences. As refusal is one of the most essential means of Israeli resistance to occupation from within, RSN works with refusers to end the Israeli occupation and work towards a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. For twelve years, Refuser Solidarity Network has provided crucial financial and moral support to Israel’s military refusers in the toughest of political circumstances. We have provided more than $300,000 in donations to fund legal support for refusers in jail, media support for their campaigns, and education programs for Israeli and American audiences about the refusers and their important resistance to the occupation.

Military refusers come from all segments of Israeli society. They are Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi; they are religious and secular; they are Druze, Bedouin, and Russian, they are people of all gender identities, from the large cities and from the small towns. As refusers are standing up against endless war in the most difficult time and climate to do so, we work to support their activities.

For more about Young Refusers also see:

New Profile – De-militarizing Israeli Society
“New Profile” is a group of feminist women and men, who are convinced that we need not live in a soldiers’ state. They believe that Israel is capable of a determined peace politics and need not be a militarized society. They are convinced that people, and emerging generations need not go on being endlessly mobilized; need not go on living as warriors. New Profile is a term coined by parts of the Israeli left wing to highlight their view of the present society as “recruited” or “militarized”). It is a voluntary organization that acts against the compulsory law of military enlistment and supports people who refuse to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.

 ( De ) colonizer
“De-Colonizer is an alternative research center on Palestine/ Israel, aiming to bring to the wider audience possible new academic-level knowledge and tools by putting them into the public space with creativity. De-Colonizer furthers dialogue and debate and, thus, to change the discourses, to struggle against History’s oblivion and suppressed memories, to finally envision another and equal shared life and a peaceful cohabitation. De-Colonizer envisions a future beyond the colonialist and racist regime, in which everyone living in Palestine-Israel will be equal. De-Colonizer Overcoming Zionism requires Israel to acknowledge the expulsion and destruction of Palestinians and their lives (1948 Nakba), and to redress that by granting refugees the right to return.  The principal victims are, of course, the Palestinians, but Israeli Jews have also paid the price of conquest since 1948 by living in constant fear, with no hope of peace.  De-Colonizer’s activities include alternative tours in Palestine/Israel and study and political seminars on alternative memory and narrative.  They have now created an art gallery, Illegallery 81, to host artists/performances dealing with issues of contested space, (il)legtimacy, (re)appropriation and the sharing of public space. De-Colonizer supports the Palestinian civil society call for BDS as an important tool to promote radical change of this regime and get to equality and justice”.
Read website for more details.