The black flag of illegality

Issue 

Refusenik! Israel's Soldiers of Conscience
Compiled and edited by Peretz Kidron
Zed Books
120 pages

REVIEW BY KIM BULLIMORE

On October 20, 1956, Israeli soldiers killed 47 Palestinians from the village of Kafr Qasem, who were returning home from work in their fields. The villagers didn't know that Kafr Qasem had been placed under curfew by the military. In a subsequent investigation into the massacre, Israeli judges ruled that some orders should not be obeyed, saying "the black flag of illegality" flies over them and that this flag "rescinds the soldier's duty to obey and charges him with criminal accountability for his actions".

It is this black flag of illegality that has been taken up by Israel's soldiers of conscience and has become the central political plank of the Israeli refusenik movement.

Peretz Kidron, in this small but powerful book, provides the reader with a fascinating, and at times harrowing and moving account of the illegal Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Kidron, a refusenik himself and an active member of the Israeli organisation Yesh Gvul ("there is a limit"), documents how the refusal to serve started as a trickle but now threatens to become a torrent that undermines the Israeli government's claim that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are the most "moral" army in the world.

Kidron succeeds in both documenting the history of the refusenik movement and painting a vivid portrayal of a brutal occupation through the personal stories, poetry and letters of Israeli military conscripts who refused either to be conscripted or to carry out military duty in Israel's "wars of choice" in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In his own personal story, "In solidarity with the Almond Trees", Kidron notes how he and many refuseniks were motivated to carry out civil disobedience by what seemed to others trivial and undramatic events. For Kidron, it was the bulldozing of Bedouin almond trees in preparation for the building of an illegal Israeli settlement and the subsequent lies by the Israel government to cover up what was being done.

"The bareface lie hit me like a physical blow in the face", writes Kidron. "On top of all its other sins and iniquities, my government was covering up for its misdeeds in the occupied territories by resorting to deliberate untruths."

In other testimonies, refuseniks like Mike Levine write of "discovering the Palestinians", and how this changed their world view. Levine, reveals the bitter arguments he's had with his prominent right-wing family over his refusal to serve, and their refusal to accept that there existed "a Palestinian people with rights of its own".

In his contribution "Spiral of Evil", Stephen Langfur observes that the first intifada came as a shock to many Israelis. "The relative submissiveness of the Palestinians from 1967 to 1987 lulled us into thinking that the occupation was normal. It was abnormal. When one people sits upon another, intifada is normal", he writes. "One can not sit upon another people without dehumanising them. This is my greenline. I refuse to dehumanise the Arabs."

Refusenik Omry Yeshurun, one of the 500 reserve and combat personnel to sign the Courage to Refuse Declaration in 2002, writes in his contribution that for 25 years he lived in "a wonderful dream in which I am brave soldier defending the state of Israel from its foes". This dream was shattered, however, when Yeshurun was posted to the occupied territories.

"The dream got a little blurred there", he writes. "It didn't take a lots of guts to hunt down Palestinian labourers slipping across the 'borders' to bring food for their hungry families."

Yeshurun recalls, "One night I had a dream. About the kid I dragged from his parents' home in the middle of the night; he pissed his pants and wept all the way to the Paraa prison. In the morning, I wondered what that kid was doing now. And deep down inside, there was the answer, the answer I should have known long ago: the kid is now shooting at IDF roadblocks, or maybe he has blown himself up with an explosive charge. Did I have a hand in that? Abruptly, I woke from my years' long dream."

Interspersed with these personal stories, Kidron also explains the concepts of selective and full refusal. Selective refusal was shaped by the 1967 war when Israel attacked both Jordan and Egypt, invading the Sinai and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. In its wake, soldiers brought up on the myth of the IDF being solely a "defensive" apparatus had their illusions shattered as they took on policing a subject Palestinian population. This came as a "major shock to a segment of the IDF reservists", writes Kidron.

In a highly militarised society such as Israel, where every able-bodied person is expected to serve and where such duty is seen as both sacred and an honour, even limited or "selective" refusal was seen as unthinkable. However, in 1972, IDF reservists Yossi Kotten and Yitzhak Laor stunned Israel by becoming the first soldiers to engage in selective refusal. While they were willing to engage in "legitimate duties" inside the 1967 Green Line, they indicated that they would refuse orders to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Selective refusal, according to Kidron, challenged blind allegiance to the Israeli state and the military machine. Confronted with selective refusal, the military originally adopted a "cautious" approach and forbade the court martialling of refuseniks. This changed in 2002, when the government was confronted with the mass refusal of more than 300 high school students to be conscripted.

According to Sergeiy Sandlers, an activist with the Israeli anti-militarist group New Profile, the students' refusal to serve and the 2001/02 Shministim letter explaining their position, "started a chain of events" that "generated considerable public attention and was widely debated in the mainstream media" and inspired others to refuse. As a result, Haggi Matar and five other leaders of the Shministim letter were court-martialled and jailed for two years.

In his statement of refusal issued on the day he was sent to prison, Matar wrote: "I wish to acknowledge my companions, the unseen heroes of our struggle: the Palestinian who endures the occupation without turning to violence against the Israeli civilian population, in spite of his lack of hope for a decent life; the Palestinian citizen of Israel, who keeps striving for co-existence despite day-to-day humiliations; the youth who avoids serving the occupation, her upbringing notwithstanding; the European peace activist, who physically defends Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; and my friend, a girl raised in a right-wing family, who fell in love with an Arab and was consequently banished from her home.

"While in prison, when forced to salute State and Army, I shall, in my mind and heart, be saluting all my brave friends, who I cannot equal, because of my identity; all those who sacrifice so much more than I do — for peace, against the occupation."

The refusal to perform military service has now become a permanent issue on Israel's public agenda and has started to bring about considerable public debate and changing attitudes. Refuseniks, opposed to Israel's "wars of choice", were once a fringe group, but today in Israel the ideas that they expound and their resistance to war is seen as legitimate by roughly one-third of Israel's population and almost half of Israel's youth. As a result, Kidron's book documenting and explaining the concepts of refusal is both important and timely.

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From Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.
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