Middle East

Voting With Their Boots

Hanan Shemesh. Photo courtesy of Erik Schechter.

Hanan Shemesh, a 43-year-old business lawyer, was sitting with his wife in a Yehud cafe, late one Friday morning, when an article in the weekend edition of the Ha’aretz set him off on a crusade. The Israeli newspaper reported on Jan. 7 that 34 Orthodox officers, reservists in the Benjamin Brigade, had signed a petition promising to refuse orders to remove Jewish settlers from territories captured by Israel in 1967.

The right-wing reservists were protesting the Sharon government’s plan to force 10,000 mostly religious settlers out of the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, but Shemesh, a major in the reserves, was appalled that they would mix politics and military service. So for the next two hours, he crafted a letter to the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.), volunteering himself and his army buddies to replace those who failed to do their duties in the territories.

By Sunday, Jan. 9, a new soldier-activist group, Kav Adom (“Red Line”), was born, and its online list of volunteer reservists swelled to 350 signatures in the following two weeks. It’s ironic that one needs a group to say that soldiers should follow orders. But in the last few years, the issue of conscientious objection, first on the left and now on the right, has captured the media spotlight.

History of Refusal

Until the Lebanon War, conscientious objection hardly existed in Israel, which has a draft and a mandatory reservist system. Then, in 1982, Israel invaded its northern neighbor in order to wipe out Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) bases there. In response, a group of left-wing reservists formed Yesh Gvul (“There’s a Limit”), which declared its support for “soldiers who refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature.”

At least 168 soldiers were jailed for refusing to take part in the Lebanon War, and another 200 were imprisoned for similar reasons during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, of 1987-92. The intifada may have burned itself out, but Yesh Gvul activist Ofer Neiman says that the I.D.F.’s withdrawal, in 1985, to a buffer zone in southern Lebanon — which it occupied for the next 15 years — is partly due to conscientious objection.

Yesh Gvul’s ranks have dwindled over the years, though. “We have a small amount of members,” admits Neiman. “People get worn out.”

Today, it is Courage to Refuse that has grabbed much of the media’s attention with its anguished war hero posture. Established in February 2002, the activist group authored the now-famous Combatants’ Letter, signed so far by 635 ex-combat troops, which reads, “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.”

The defiant letter has led to copycat petitions. In September 2003, 23 pilots wrote a letter saying they would not bomb targets in civilian areas — even if the houses in question were shielding terrorists. Three months later, a group of ex-Sayeret Matkal commandos wrote a letter of their own.

In April 2004, the Sharon government presented in detail its plan for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass later told Ha’aretz that the government felt compelled to act because, among other reasons, “we were hit with letters of officers and letters of pilots and letters of commandos. These were not weird kids with green ponytails and a ring in their nose who give off a strong odor of grass.”

Ironically, the disengagement plan produced a new, potentially more threatening conscientious objector movement on the right. In mid-October, some 60 prominent rabbis called upon soldiers to refuse orders to forcibly remove Israeli settlers from their homes, an action they decried as “ethnic cleansing.” That the Sharon deal included tacit American support for Israeli annexation of the large West Bank settlement blocs did not impress the ideologues.

Then came the Benjamin Brigade officers’ refusal letter that so upset Shemesh. It stated, “We think that every order to execute the disengagement is a blatantly illegal order. … Soldiers are forbidden to carry out such orders, according to the country’s law and according to the I.D.F. code of conduct.”

On Jan. 9, the same day that Shemesh formed his anti-objector group Kav Adom, the officers gave their brigade commander a new, toned-down letter expressing their grievances, but like their first, it too was rejected. The following day, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, then-commanding officer of the Central Command, dismissed from the army six of the reserve officers.

Still, the settlers have allegedly signed up thousands of active soldiers and reservists to their refusal petition. On Jan. 23, Ma’ariv quoted one infantryman who said of his friends, “Not only will we not agree to removing settlers, we will hand our weapons to our commanders and go over to the other side.”

So far, though, there’s only been one soldier who has done so.

For its part, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, says a spokeswoman, opposes ultra-nationalist conscientious objection: “In the last few days, we have tried to cool tempers and find a solution — either a referendum on disengagement or new elections.”

Orders Are Orders?

Shemesh is not taking any chances. An ex-naval commando and Lebanon War vet, he rallied his friends in early January to sign a letter saying they would volunteer to serve as a back-up reservist force in the event that the government goes through with its disengagement plan. (The financial compensation bill for the settlers, the very foundation of the plan, is still stuck in Knesset committees.)

“We thought originally that, if we could get 34 officers to sign it — we chose the number for symbolic purposes — we’d send it to the chief of staff,” says Shemesh. “Then it became double that number. We now have 350, among them a brigadier general, six or seven colonels, and about 40 lieutenant colonels.”

Kav Adom’s long-term goal is to sign up 3,000 soldiers to fill three volunteer reservist brigades. The petition form can be found online (www.kav-adom.org.il).

It’s unlikely that so many would really show up to remove settlements, but something about the petition seems to speak to the average Israeli. A day after the letter was sent, Shemesh was already debating one of the settler officers on the Erev Hadash program on TV’s Channel One. “There’s a feeling of frustration that, to remove a single caravan at Yizhar, you need half an army,” explains Shemesh.

The left-wing lobby group Peace Now is also running a soldier-for-objector program, but Shemesh says he’s keeping his distance because he wants Kav Adom to have a broad ideological appeal. Yet, though he may paint his group as one of apolitical soldiers doing their duty, he admits, “If I were a settler from Neztarim, I wouldn’t be establishing this movement.”

So does only the left have the right to conscientious objection? Yes, says Courage to Refuse. The settlers are refusing army orders, argues the group, in order to maintain the status quo, which leaves the Palestinians bereft of sovereignty or democratic freedoms; therefore, their refusal is illegitimate. Yesh Gvul members are divided on the subject.

Shemesh says he supports the right of the individual, dove or hawk, to claim conscientious objection, but he believes that organizing others to flout the law is illegitimate. And that, he says, is what distinguishes settler disobedience from what came before it.

If only the line were that clear.

“We did not write that we would refuse orders,” Lt. Col. Haim Morad (reserve), from the Benjamin Brigade, told the settlers’ Arutz-7 news service. “Each of the officers who signed the letter would judge for himself whether to follow the evacuation order or not.”

By contrast, Noam Weiner, a former infantry officer and Courage to Refuse activist, says that his group’s letter was meant to discourage others from serving in the territories. “I think there’s no middle ground between obeying and disobeying the law,” says Weiner. “For there to be a reason not to obey an order, it has to be so strong that no one ought to be doing it.”

Ultimately, it is numbers, and not tactics, that separate right from left. Instead of tens or hundreds, the settlers are amassing thousands of objectors — or so they say.

“It’s demagoguery to talk of conscientious objection on the Zionist left,” says Aviezer Ravitzky, an expert on religious-nationalist radicalism at Hebrew University. “It’s statistically marginal, practically non-existent. If the settlers organized only twenty times the number of refusers on the left, then the situation would be acceptable.”

For now, Kav Adom is trying to capitalize on its brief exposure to the TV cameras. Political ads will be drawn up, politicians will be met, and demonstrations will be organized. (“The next time the army removes caravan,” says Shemesh, “we’ll be there.”) But it is clear that Israeli society will not be reassessing public pronouncements of conscientious objection.