Hell No, We Won’t Go
March 8, 2002
Back in the ‘60s someone came up with a clever bumper sticker that read: “What if they gave a war and no one came?” The Sharon government may soon be trying to find an answer as a growing number of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) reservists openly refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
A group of 52 soldiers published an open letter in the Israeli press Jan. 25, declaring that “the price of occupation is the loss of the IDF’s human character, and the corruption of the entire Israeli society,” and henceforth they would refuse “to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.” The number of signers has grown to 314 at last count (for up to date figures and the letter see www.seruv.prg.il/defaulteng.asp), and while the government has downplayed the revolt, polls indicate that close to 30% of Israelis support the refuseniks. The signers range from privates to colonels, most from the broad middle strata of Israelis that voted for Sharon 11 months ago.
“Almost no one asks the main question,” Sergeant Major Asaf Oran of the Giv’ati Brigade told the Israeli press: “Why would a regular guy get up one morning in the middle of life, work, the kids and decide he’s not playing the game anymore? And how come he is not alone, but there are 50…I beg your pardon, 100…beg your pardon again, now almost 200 regular, run of the mill guys” doing this? His answer is simple: “We are putting our bodies on the line, in an attempt to prevent the…most unnecessary, most idiotic, cruel and immoral war in the history of Israel.”
Sgt. Oran and his fellow IDF comrades are resisting the consequences of Sharon’s iron-fisted policies on both communities: over a 1000 Palestinian dead (248 of them children), and more than 300 dead Israelis, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
The signers also reflect a growing unease about the occupation’s impact on the Israeli economy. According to a poll in the daily Ma’ariv, 79% of Israelis are unhappy with the Sharon government’s economic performance. As well they should be.
Israeli GDP fell 4.7% in the second half of 2001, the worst economic performance in 50 years. Unemployment jumped from 9.6% to 10.2%, higher in Arab-Israeli towns. While the Sharon government blames the worldwide recession, an increasing number of Israelis draw different conclusions. “Nobody dares touch on the real reason for the crisis: the lethal conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority” the daily Haaretz editorialized Feb. 20.
But the realities of occupation, not the troubled shekel, sparked the January letter. Lt. Ishai Sagi told the London Independent that during his stint in the West Bank, he was ordered to open fire on Palestinians who picked up stones, regardless of whether they were “a child, a woman or an elderly man.” He went on to say, “Everything we do there—all the horrors, all the tearing down of houses and trees, all the roadblocks, everything—is just for one purpose, the settlers, who I believe are illegally there. So I believe the [orders] that I got are illegal and I won’t do them again.”
The settlers Sagi refers to are the 200,000 Israelis living on land seized in the 1967 war, settlers the Israeli government recruits through a combination of religious fervor and economic bribery. Mortgage rates for settlers on the West Bank are a quarter of those in Israel proper, plus settlers receive tax breaks, 10% on income, and 7% on Social Security. Since the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement the settler population in the Occupied Territories has doubled and the land crisscrossed by a web of “security roads” that divide Palestinian communities into a tapestry of bantustans.
The settlers make up only 5% of Israel’s population, but as Yossi Sarid of the Meretz Party notes, “They have us all in thrall.”
Supporting the reservists are traditional peace groups such as Gush Shalom, Women in Black, and Peace Now, as well as newer organizations like Green Line: Students for a Border. They are also backed by Gush Gvul (There is a Limit), the organization that successfully pressed for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
The reservists are beginning to identify more with the population they oppress than the generals and politicians that send them into towns like Ramalla and Hebron or to man the forest of roadblocks that lock Palestinians into what is rapidly becoming a national prison. “Soldier” asks the letter. “Is there a people anywhere in the world that will not resist an occupation regime? If you were in the Palestinians’ shoes, would you be willing to bow your head to a foreign ruler?”
The late Hebrew University Professor and intellectual Yershayahu Leibowitz, a dedicated Zionist but a critic of the occupation, once predicted that if as many as 500 soldiers openly refused to serve in the territories, the occupation could not hold. That formula may well be tested in the coming months.