Refusal to serve in the Israeli military
includes both refusal to obey specific orders and refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) in any capacity due to pacifistic
views or disagreement with the policies of the Israeli government
as implemented by the army, or simply youth who are not interested in military service and wish to pursue other activities.. The conscientious objectors
who object to being drafted are sometimes called "Sarvanim" (סרבנים) in Hebrew
which is sometimes translated into the word "refuseniks".
Although Israel has a universal draft, many Israelis do not serve in the military for various reasons. Israeli Arabs
are not drafted, though they may enlist, and small numbers serve voluntarily. Haredi
Jews are exempt so long as they study in yeshivas
, based on an arrangement worked out with David Ben-Gurion
in 1948, though small numbers of them do serve. Orthodox
women can avoid service on the basis of their religion upon filing certain paperwork. After becoming officially exempt, religious women may choose to do national service work instead, although this is not required. Also, many people who are "unfit" or "unqualified", either mentally or physically, are also exempt. Military service can often be postponed for further education—either college or university, or technical studies. Finally, a number of people refuse to serve because of pacifist views, or refuse certain orders based on their disagreement with government policy.
Some distinguish between refusal to serve in the military because of a pacifist world view that rejects any manifestation of violence and encompasses a refusal to submit to compulsory military service in any form, and partial refusal to serve, such as the Courage to Refuse who "do their reserve duty wherever and whenever they are summoned, but refuse to serve in the occupied territories." The diverse range of opinions regarding the refusal to serve is the reason why there is no single umbrella organization that encompasses all groups of refusers. While most instances of refusal to serve have historically been found among left-leaning Israelis, there is a rapidly expanding awareness among right-wing soldiers to refuse orders to evict Jews from settlements in the West Bank (and formerly in the Gaza Strip).
Contemporary instances of refusal to serve occur among individuals and in groups. Some claim that the rise in instances of soldiers refusing to serve, as well as the gradual shift in public opinion regarding the phenomenon, has been influenced by the growing politicization of the IDF.
In February 2004, Israeli Chief of Personnel Major-General Gil Regev told a Knesset committee that the number of soldiers refusing to serve in the territories had dramatically decreased in 2003 despite the increase in the number of high-profile refusals. He said that eighteen reserve soldiers and eight officers had been imprisoned for refusal in 2003 compared to 100 reservists and 29 officers in 2002, a decrease of 80%. Members of the refusers' organization Yesh Gvul claimed in reply that actually 76 people, including eleven officers, had been jailed for refusal in 2003. They also said that 79 soldiers and eighteen officers had added their names to the Courage to Refuse letter in 2003, and that the number of high-school refuseniks had risen to 500.
The first well-known instance of an individual refusing to serve in the IDF occurred in 1954 when Amnon Zichroni, a lawyer, asked to be released from military service as a pacifist. Initially, then Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon refused to release Zichroni, though he was eventually discharged from the army reserves.
Refusals actions and movements
Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, many Haredi Jews refuse to serve in the Israeli military for religious reasons. Typically they are learning Torah
in yeshivas, and as such are legally exempt
from military service. Also refusing any Israeli military service are people affiliated with various Hasidic
groups (most notably Satmar
), the Brisk yeshivas
, and the Neturei Karta
. Most of these groups are followers of the Edah HaCharedis
The high school seniors' letter
On April 28, 1970, a group of high school seniors about to be drafted sent a letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir
expressing their reservation about the occupation of the West Bank
, the War of Attrition
and the government's failure to take steps to avoid conflict. In 1987, a new group was formed, also made up of high school students intent on refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. They gave themselves the name that the press used to dub the previous effort - 'Shministim' (Hebrew: שמיניסטים), literally "twelfth graders". In 2001, a high-school refusers movement - also called Shministim
followed in their stead. Over 3000 Israeli high school students are currently members of Shministim.
(Hebrew: יש גבול, can be translated as "there is a limit" or "the border exists") is a movement founded in 1982 at the outbreak of the Lebanon War
by reservists who refused to serve in Lebanon
. A petition, delivered to Prime Minister Menachem Begin
and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon
was signed by 3,000 reservists, some of whom were court martialed
and served time in military prison for refusing to obey orders. Currently it sees its main role as "backing soldiers who refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature."
It also engages in other political activities of a distinctly left-wing nature, such as petitioning British courts to issue arrest warrants for IDF officers.
The Adam Keller Court Martial
In the Adam Keller Court Martial which drew considerable public attention in April-May 1988, Reserve Corporal Adam Keller
was charged with "Insubordination" and "Spreading of Propaganda Harmful to Military Discipline" in that while on active military duty he had written on 117 tanks and other military vehicles graffiti with the text: "Soldiers of the IDF, refuse to be occupiers and oppressors, refuse to serve in the occupied territories!"
as well as placing on electricity pylons in the military camp where he was serving - and on inside doors of the stalls in the officers' toilet - stickers with the slogans "Down with the occupation!".
Keller was convicted and sentenced to three months imprisonment - considered a relatively mild sentence, as the maximum penalty could have been six years, three for each of the charges. Keller was an active member of Yesh Gvul, but declared that he had done his act on his own without consulting anybody else. For its part, the movement did not take responsibility for his act, but did provide his wife with the monetary support given to the families of refusers.
Courage to Refuse
In January 2002, 51 reserve soldiers and officers signed a "Combat Troops' Letter" or "Combatants' Letter"
in which they declared their refusal "to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.
" They established the group, Ometz Le'sarev
, which distinguishes itself by using conspicuously Zionist discourse
: "Refusal to serve in the Territories is Zionism."
633 combatants from all units of the IDF and from all sectors of the Israeli society have since signed the letter.
is a movement for civilianization of the Israeli society. It's a voluntary organization that acts against the compulsory law of enlistment and supports people who refuse to enlist in the Israeli army. New Profile is a feminist organization and most of its activists are women.
The pilots' letter
"The pilots' letter," published on September 24, 2003, was signed by 27 reserve pilots and former pilots already exempt from reserve duty. One of the signatories was a famous former pilot Brigadier General (res.) Yiftah Spector
. In their letter, the pilots stated:
- We, veteran and active pilots alike, who served and still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories. We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians. These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.
The signatories clarified that they do not reject military service in the IDF but declared:
- We ... shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force for every mission in defense of the state of Israel.
In response, the Chief of Staff announced that the pilots would be grounded and will no longer be allowed to train cadets in the country's flight school. In response to their letter, hundreds of IAF pilots signed a petition denouncing the pilots' letter and their refusal to serve. Because of the harsh response, several of the pilots who originally signed the letter reneged and removed their signatures. Later, in an interview given to Israeli journalist Dan Margalit, Yiftah Spector stated that the letter was misunderstood and that pilots should not refuse to perform "targeted killing" of "terrorist leaders".
The commandos' letter
This letter, dated December 2003, was signed by 13 reservists of Sayeret Matkal
, an elite commando unit, serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (nine commandos in Sayeret Matkal, 2 soldiers who had been removed from reserve duty because of prior refusals to serve there, and 2 additional combatant soldiers). Their letter, addressed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, stated:
- We shall no longer lend a hand in the occupation of the territories. We shall no longer take part in the deprivation of basic human rights from millions of Palestinians. We shall no longer serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements. We shall no longer corrupt our moral character in missions of oppression. We shall no longer deny our responsibility as soldiers of the Israeli DEFENSE force.
The letter, released just three months after the Pilots' Letter, was condemned sharply by politicians on both the right and the left of the Israeli political spectrum. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz claimed that the soldiers were exploiting the reputation of their unit in order to attack the government's policies.
Refusal to remove settlements
There are some Israeli rabbis, former generals and public figures who call on soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle Israeli settlements
and remove their residents. One of the prominent figures who call soldiers to refuse removal order is Uri Elitzur
, a publicist and former civil servant. Eliztur claims that settlers-removal order is an illegal order, and therefore soldiers must refuse to obey it. He used the Hebrew term פקודה בלתי חוקית בעליל (literally, a clearly illegal order), which is a judicial term for an order that a soldier must
refuse, coined in relation to the Kafr Qasim massacre
. He used a Yossi Sarid
(a left-wing politician, Yachad
) quotation that an order to transfer Palestinians should be resisted by any means, as a legitimation to a total and even semi-violent resistance against transfer of settlers.
Elitzur's and others calls to refusal were condemned by some of the settlements' Rabbis and by the settlers leadership, including senior right wing politicians such as Effi Eitam of Ahi.
On June 2004, MKs Effi Eitam and Aryeh Eldad (National Union) initiated a law bill called "Unity of the Military Law." The law says that only Israeli police officers could engage in the removal of Jewish settlements, and soldiers could not.
In 2005, as a reaction to the Israel's unilateral disengagement plan, a group called "Mateh Chomat Magen" (the name referring to Operation Defensive Shield) published a letter with 10,000 signatures of soldiers who signed a petition saying that they would refuse to uproot and remove Israeli settlements. The group now claims to have gathered over 30,000 signatures.
Reaction to the conscientious objectors
Almost all the political factions in Israel have condemned refusal to serve on ideological grounds, using terms such as dangerous
. The conscientious objectors, or refuseniks as they call themselves, found support within left-wing and the Arab parties, Hadash
and parts of Meretz
(Zehava Galon, Roman Bronfman and Shulamit Aloni
). The Israeli Labor Party
and other Meretz members have condemned the refuseniks and said that although their protests against the occupation are justified and understandable, the means they are taking to manifest it are wrong. Some major left-wing politicians expressed the fear that left-oriented refusal to serve in the territories will lend legitimacy to right-oriented refusal to remove settlements.
Right wing politicians have claimed that the refuseniks' actions are helping the enemies of Israel in their anti-Israeli incitement. Some have even accused the refuseniks of treason during war-time. This viewpoint was given some support when the book The Seventh War, by Avi Yisacharov and Amos Harel was published in 2004; it contains extensive interviews with Hamas leaders, at least one of whom explicitly stated that the actions of the commandos' and pilots' letters encouraged to promote and continue the use of suicide bombers.
The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that refusal to serve was legal on the grounds of unqualified pacifism, but "selective refusal" which accepted some duties and not others was illegal. The court said that allowing selective refusal would "weaken the ties that bind us as a nation". The court also said that the refusal to serve in the territories is selective refusal and not conscientious objection.
On January 4, 2004, a military tribunal imposed one-year prison terms on five young activists who refused to enlist in the IDF. The court accepted that the five acted in accordance with their conscience but "ruled that they did not refuse to serve as individuals, but rather as a group, with the explicit goal of bringing about a change in Israeli policy in the territories. As such, the court ruled, their action strayed from the norms of classic conscientious objection into the realm of civil disobedience" (Haaretz).