The politics of refusing Israel’s draft


On Friday September 12th the issue of Israel Defense Forces soldiers refusing to carry out their duties raised its head again when it was reported that 43 members of Israel’s “elite…prestigious…vaunted” unit 8200 had signed a letter refusing to serve.  The document was sent to Israel’s largest read daily, Yidiot, and is available online.  The soldiers are reservists, and Ynet noted “t was unclear in the letter if the soldiers were refusing to follow specific orders they felt to be immoral, or if they intended not to appear for duty at all. Either action could potentially result in court martial and time in military jail.” A case of two Bedouin officer doctors in the IDF who deserted their units during the recent Gaza war resulted in them being demoted and sentenced to four months in prison.

The soldiers didn’t hide their identity but signed proudly and the letter was addressed “with respect” to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Gantz, and the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.  The left wing website +972 published most of the letter in translation.  Apparently the campaign to get people to sign the letter.  One soldier named “Daniel” told Haggai Matar a year ago “Some of [the things the unit does] are supposed to protect us from violence, but some of it is just destroying Palestinian society, preventing them from improving their lives in any way…We’re not saying this because we read it in some newspapers or blogs, but because that’s what we had to do in the framework of our roles.”  The soldiers brought a clear sense of their own self-worth, their own elite status in society as members of its upper class and best units.  One soldier told +972 “Maybe in the past they thought, if we were combat soldiers, we would be refusing. But now they realize there’s no reason, just because they’re intelligence, that they don’t have responsibility. That’s what’s new here.”

The “refuseniks” as Israeli “conscientious objectors” are often called, gave wide-ranging reasons behind their actions:

“Millions of Palestinians are living under Israeli military rule for 47 years already. This regime negates their basic rights and takes away large portions of land in order to settle Jews who are subject to a different system of laws, justice and enforcement. This reality is not the inevitable result of the state’s efforts to defend itself, but rather it is the result of choice. Settlement expansion has nothing to do with self defense, and the same goes for the limitations on construction and development, economic exploitation of West Bank lands, collective punishment of the residents of Gaza and the route of the separation fence.”

Other reasons were given:
“The intelligence that is gathered [in the West Bank] harms innocent people and is used for the purposes of political persecution and violating the privacy of Palestinians,” the letter reads. “We are conscientiously incapable of continuing to serve this system.”  They wanted to show solidarity with combat soldiers and “take responsibility” as if they were doing the, in this elite view, lowly jobs, of being at a checkpoint. “We now understand that the responsibility is not just that of the soldier standing at the checkpoint.”  One former soldier compared his work to the Stasi in East Germany.

Daniel told Army Radio: “When I enlisted in the unit over 10 years ago, I knew that I was going to a place that I can do important work in defending the State of Israel. Today we understand that the situation is different, and that the only task of the unit in the occupied territories is not defense. The central task is to control another people.”

The key point they made was they felt moral qualms over the “invasion into most aspects of life” and, as The Jerusalem Post noted: “gathering of Palestinians’ private information, i.e sexual preferences or health problems that might be used to extort people into becoming informants.”

"Start up nation"

“Start up nation”

THE REACTION to the whole story has been interesting.  They have been treated as sort of celebrities.  Interviewed on Army Radio, on Channel 10, doing the media rounds.  And this is one of the main lessons that should be taken away from this story.  These are what Dudu Topaz called in 1981 the “beautiful Israel” or the “villa in the jungle” part of Israel.  These are the “Start-up nation” part of Israel.  That is why no politicians have condemned the refusers as “parasites” as Israel’s Education Minister Shai Piron in 2013.

Haredim are often called “parasites” in Israel for refusing the draft.  The reaction to this story on the right has been to claim the reservists should be discharged from service.  The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel said “These people are not worthy of wearing the IDF uniform.” Amos Yadlin, a former chief of intelligence, who head’s Tel Aviv University’s INSS think-tank. noted: “It’s a big outfit, so naturally a few of its veterans may gravitate to the far left, as well as to the far right.”  IDF statements reported in media didn’t appear to condemn the reservists.

The way the reports noted that this elite unit was being affected was interesting.  +972 claimed “8200 is practically a legendary unit within the intelligence corps of the army. It is responsible for both internal and foreign signals intelligence-gathering, alongside the Mossad and Shin Bet.”   One might think that this would therefore be shocking for the Israeli media and political classes.  One of the elite parts of the country saying “no” to participation in war, even against Hamas, not just in the West Bank.  In the past some of those who refused service did so to avoid serving in the “immoral occupation”, but often felt that serving in defense of the country, as they defined it inside the Green Line, was acceptable.  This is similar to the French mutinies of 1917 where soldiers refused to leave their trenches on worthless offensives but still defended them.

REFUSAL TO serve in the IDF goes back to the 1970s.  In March of 1978 a letter signed by 348 Israeli soldiers and reservists of the Israel Defense Forces was sent to Prime Minister Menachem Begin.  They claimed that despite “deep anxiety” and a heavy heart “We are aware of the security needs of the State of Israel and the difficulties facing the path to peace. But we know that true security will only be reached with the arrival of peace. The power of the IDF is in the identification of its soldiers with the path of the State of Israel.”

We know today that many of those signatories went on to found Peace Now.  In their view peace was linked not to the real issue of peace but over who was running the country.  From 1967 to 1977 when their political allies ran the country they enjoyed service in the IDF, including in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Sinai. The army in Israel was always more politisized than it admitted, since 1948 it had been colonized by the leading Mapai party.  Its leaders went into politics in a washing machine cycle of “general-politician-general.”  So when the political class switched to lean right, the old elites signed a letter.

Military, State, and Society in Israel: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives  edited by Dāniyyêl Mamān, Eyal Ben-Ari, Zeev Rosenhek

Military, State, and Society in Israel: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives
edited by Dāniyyêl Mamān, Eyal Ben-Ari, Zeev Rosenhek

However that blip of “concern” was not refusal to serve and the army remained a “red line” of consensus in Israeli society.  It remains to this day one of the country’s more respected institutions.  Reuven Gal’s book on a ‘Portrait of an Israeli soldier’ in the 1980s noted that refusal to serve was very low.  One Peace Now supporter noted “Israel is a small country and must defend itself.”  Groups like Yesh Gvul and “Soldiers Against Silence” appeared to flirt with advocating refusal to serve in Lebanon, and reports noted that by 1985 a total of 150 had refused.  Pilots began to write articles in newspaper about their “conscience” being harmed by service in Lebanon.

Then came Shministim, a high school refusal group, in 1987 and refusal began to bloom.  The First Intifada also gave impetus to a new round of refusal.  Some figures from the 1980s such as Adam Keller gained prominence at this time.

In the 1990s, with the failure of Oslo and the country electing a right wing government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, refusal again crept up.  Igal Ezraty, who wrote a play about the ‘trial of the refusenuks’ noted: “At this point, several groups of Israeli high school students who were supposed to serve for two to three years in the Israeli army openly protested Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian land by refusing to serve in the army.”  Famous Israeli celebrities such as Aviv Geffen also gained fame for refusal.  In another incident in 1990, a website notes  “Danny Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves, was sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony involving religious Jews visiting the West Bank city of Nablus.”

The major impetus for refusal came against the background of the Second Intifada.  One of the more famous instances was a nephew of Netanyahu, who wrote: “I, Yonatan Ben Artzi, refuse to be drafted into the army on grounds of pacifism. My deep belief in nonviolence began when I was a little boy and developed over the years into a comprehensive political and philosophical conception. Because of my belief, my country is about to send me to prison, contrary to all international law and a basic law of morality. I will go to prison with head held high, as I know that this is the little I can do to improve the country.”  Articles on the incident burnished his credentials as from a “good family” and being related to academics.

Over the years draftees and reservists refused to serve in the West Bank (Seth J. Frantzman)

Over the years draftees and reservists refused to serve in the West Bank (Seth J. Frantzman)

Throughout Israel’s media has always focused on the “good” refusers and the “bad” ones. Those from the elite units are portrayed as the good “conscious” ones.  Those from the poorer families, who don’t necessarily even refuse service, but simply evade it or desert, are the “shirkers”, just like the Orthodox Haredi population in Israel which is considered “parasites.”  A Haaretz article by Lili Gaili in 2002 spoke of “beautiful” Israel and the “blue-bloods” of the “officers and soldiers letter of refusal” (which had 360 signatories at the time).

Refusal to serve is always political in Israel, as veteran radical-left lawyer Michael Sfard told Haaretz in 2002,

“At the simplest level, there is a generational difference between us. When I was in prison in 1999 for refusing to serve, I did not see a suitable framework for joining. When I saw the refuseniks’ letter, I picked up the phone and met with them. I saw that they were exactly the people with whom I wanted to be in one boat. The people were so impressive. These aren’t people who from the age of five were taken by their fathers to Matzpen (a fairly radical left movement) meetings, people for whom refusal is a breaking point and not the result of previous activities.”

The “pilots letter” of 27 air force pilots in 2003 exemplified this.  Here were the cream of the crop saying “no.”  Their letter noted: ‘”We, both veteran and active pilots, who serve the state of Israel, are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral orders to attack, of the type Israel carries out in the territories….We, for whom the IDF and the Air Force are an integral part of our being; who were brought up to love Israel and to contribute to the Zionist ideal, cannot take part in the operations in the center of populated civilian areas; and [we] refuse to endanger innocent Palestinian civilians…. The continued occupation is critically harming the country’s security.”  The pilots were denounced by Moshe Ya’alon, the army chief of staff, as making “a political statement made in army uniforms. This is in no way legitimate.”  Notice, not “parasites” or “shirkers”, just making a bad choice of sending a letter.

Some pilots don't want to serve in Gaza

Some pilots don’t want to serve in Gaza

Then in 2003 came another group of 13 elite soldiers from the Sayeret Matkal unit: “We say to you today, we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians,” reads the letter to Sharon, “and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise.”

Over the years the “refusal” phenomenon took on this typical storyline. A few soldiers from a “good” unit refuse to serve and do so in a celebrity seeking way by signing letters and having them delivered in a show with media coming to see.  It comes in waves, often for political reasons and during war time.  For instance refusal increases when the right wing has been in power, and recedes when the left is in power.  That is part of the theory that the control of the West Bank is “moral” when certain groups do it.  The media feeds a frenzy about it.  For instance in 2004 there were several stories, see here and here for instance, looking at female refusers and the left-right divide.  It is part of the larger NGO framework of groups like New Profile and Breaking the Silence that vie for foreign backing for their endeavors of political opposition, using the army or refusers as tools in the struggle.

Increasingly the view is that the elites on the left are the only ones who can refuse and should be listened to.  The “canaries in the gold mine”, in a sense.  The Yitzhak Rabin Academy sponsored by Oranim Academic College is an example. A pre-military academy, it published a list of testimonies about abuses during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Ironically it was being run by the same Danny Zamir who reports had noted had himself refused.

Refusal takes the form of deciding how and where the soldier will serve over the years.  Sometimes it is not willing to serve in Lebanon, then it is Gaza, or the West Bank.  “Pacifism” or blanket claims of “conscientious objector” status are sometimes made.  In a 2013 article I asked how many health exemptions there are in the IDF and thus how much “grey” refusal there is.  The article quotes a Tel Aviv University Professor, “The members of the younger generation refuse to be your suckers anymore. I’m not sure you are aware of this, but polls indicate that Israel’s secular youth regard the ultra- Orthodox as the most hated and threatening community in the country… pray with us for the success of your integration.”  The article notes that 6% of those granted exemptions from military service are “unhealthy” and quotes a Christian Science Monitor piece “One trend that disturbs many Israelis is an increase in middle- and upper-class teens – considered the potential leaders and brains of the army – who seek health-related discharges to avoid military service.”

Refusal to serve, both grey refusal and letter writers and those who actually refuse is tainted by race, class and geography in a sense.  Yitzhak Laor, a leftist writer, notes that “new immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia are the ones sent there. The soldiers who grew up more comfortably by and large end up serving in cushier positions like Intelligence Corps Unit 8200 or at Army Radio.”  At the same time prison in the IDF is reserved primarily for soldiers in units that tend to be made up of soldiers from poor backgrounds, such as the Border Police.  Fifty-three percent of male Ethiopian Jews do time in military prisons during their service, compared to only 23% of non-Ethiopians; 91% of Ethiopian men serve in the army, versus only 74% of non- Ethiopians.  Periodic surveys show declines in enlistment rates in many wealthy communities (except Modi’in) and among secular elite groups.  A Ynet report noted that one of the richest communities had almost no one enlisting.  “This is the first time the IDF Personnel Directorate has fully ranked Israel’s local and regional councils. Councils whose enlistment fell below 60 people were not included in the tally. For example the Kfar Shmaryahu Local Council sent only 11 youths to enlist last year.”

So what is refusal in the military in Israel?  Is it an economic choice (one that could be remedied by a professional army in place of a draft, as Mati Wagner and I looked at in an article for Tablet)?  Is it just the people signing the letters? How much “grey” refusal is there in health exemptions.  Anecdotal evidence from conversations with people in North Tel Aviv and academics reveals a pattern of people who say “Yossi didn’t want to serve so he just got a medical exemption.”  The same pattern is true among Jewish women, around 40% of whom do not serve by claiming they are religious. The army has tried to crack down on both phenomena.



And what of units like 8200.  Do they have different standards than others? The recent Gaza war brought the issue into the light again.  Open letters, such as one to the Washington Post, almost always concern reservists.  They write “We are more than 50 Israelis who were once soldiers and now declare our refusal to be part of the reserves.”

They noted:

We oppose the Israeli Army and the conscription law. Partly, that’s because we revile the current military operation. But most of the signers below are women and would not have fought in combat. For us, the army is flawed for reasons far broader than “Operation Protective Edge,” or even the occupation. We rue the militarization of Israel and the army’s discriminatory policies. One example is the way women are often relegated to low-ranking secretarial positions. Another is the screening system that discriminates against Mizrachi (Jews whose families originate in Arab countries) by keeping them from being fairly represented inside the army’s most prestigious units. In Israeli society, one’s unit and position determines much of one’s professional path in the civilian afterlife.

But since they are reservists the likelihood is they won’t face reprisal.  Actual refusers, even the high school students’ letters to the Prime Minister that are reported on every year, are relatively rare for an army with an eligible draft of something like 80,000 people a year (mostly Jews) of whom 30% are exempt.  It is thought that 6,000 of the “draft dodgers” are Haredi.  A few dozen refusers doesn’t make a difference although IDF recruitment rates, which hit a 20-year low, do make a difference.  Maybe the 39% increase in Haredi enlistment can fill the gaps of a few reservists saying they won’t go work in unit 8200, and might diversify the unit?








One response to “The politics of refusing Israel’s draft

  1. Pingback: Patriotism and Dissent: Not a Zero-Sum Game·

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