Israel’s war on dissent

5 May 2009

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Israeli policemen beat and arrest women at a demonstration held by the feminist movement New Profile in support of six activists from the group who were arrested from their homes by the police, 30 April 2009. (Shachaf Polakow/ActiveStills)


About six months after Israel’s attorney general publicly announced an effort to criminalize dissent, state authorities have upped the ante in their “war” — as the Israeli daily Haaretz called it last September — against Israel’s youth; against the broad, grassroots movement slandered by officials as “draft shirkers.” On 26 April, a day before Israel’s Memorial Day, Israeli police produced a hyperbolic piece of political theater. As if facing down a dangerous organized crime “family,” they “raided” — to quote their press release — the homes of six activists in different parts of Israel, who were detained for interrogation. Exploiting the ritual emotions of a day of mourning for military dead, the police action singled out and branded anti-militarist activists as non-members of the legitimate community, implying that they (we) are fair game.

As of this writing, police have summoned 10 additional activists for interrogation. The activists targeted are members of New Profile, a feminist movement working for over a decade to reverse the militarization of state and society in Israel, of which I have been a member since its inception. Our founding event, in October 1998, confronted us with the existence of an unorganized social movement borne then, as it is still, by young people in Israel. Recognizing the central importance of this nascent movement, New Profile upholds their right to open discourse on the crucial issues they face. We provide them with full and accurate information about their prospects — information with which the authorities are not forthcoming, to put it mildly. This effort is only one of many ways in which New Profile works to change the militarized thinking holding us, all the residents of Israel/Palestine, hostage to the prioritization of military force that has characterized all of Israel’s governments to date. While they may enrage some, our activities are totally legal.

The reality today is that rising numbers of young Jewish Israelis (as well as members of the Druze minority also subject to conscription) find themselves unable or unwilling to accept the overused Israeli dictate: “There’s no other choice.” Four generations and more than six decades of “military solutions,” a cycle of violence failing miserably to reach a resolution, have engendered a broad based social movement of young men and women who experience and express severe internal struggles in face of the duty to serve in the military. While Israeli law offers virtually no legal provision for conscientious objection, Israel’s courts — both military and civil — have presumed to compartmentalize these personal processes, classifying them as purely “political,” or (very rarely) as “conscientious” or as exclusively “psychological.” Each young individual’s experience, however, is both ideological and emotional; involves a complex combination of views, feelings, ideas, beliefs, personality and sense of self. The internal fissures aroused by this process cause many young people dangerous personal distress. In sad testimony to this fact, in recent years, Israeli soldiers’ suicides have accounted for more deaths than all the other types of military casualties combined.

According to Haaretz, the criminal investigation of New Profile is motivated by “growing concern at the defense establishment of a growing trend of draft evasion. In July 2007 Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi declared publicly that they would fight the trend.” Clearly, it is not New Profile that is worrying them. New Profile is an easy, visible scapegoat through which they hope to sow fear and intimidate future draft dodgers, whom they stigmatize as “shirkers.”

The state has declared a war against its youth, against the many thousands who resist the draft and refuse to place their bodies, their minds, their morality at the disposal of visionless politicians. Rather than studying the emerging social change, listening to the rising voices of future citizens and responding with innovative policies, state officials are attempting to criminalize the reality and make an example of the open, legal work supporting some of the young people comprising it. Contriving to identify “felonies” in political resistance, the move is distinctly characteristic of a militarized state abusing its power in a bid to maintain an old, cracking order.

The numbers of draft resisters, in and of themselves, are not the only thing that is worrying state officials. For years now, the army has regularly been exempting tens of thousands from service without difficulty. In fact, several years ago the military and the (very same) defense minister declared a downsizing program, towards creating “a small, smart army.” Their worry, today, is the apparent popular vote of no-confidence in their habitual, easy use of the lives and health of soldiers — a vote no longer limited to alienated, impoverished parts of society but spreading deep into the middle class as well. The actions of young people from all parts of society, more than a few supported by their parents, are threatening to undermine the unlimited freedom with which the army formerly picked, chose and channeled conscripts as it saw fit. These youths’ actions and their growing legitimization in Israeli society are also evidence of slippage in the stranglehold of national fear, supposedly “for our very existence” that has, for so long, riveted public attention to the image of an (ever-changing) “ruthless enemy” outside. Those in power, both from the right and the right-called-left, are struggling to keep in place this long-serving means of obscuring corruption and political stasis, of feeding a semblance of “national unity” in the form of “the people’s army.”

Intensification of this state war on youth is taking place in tandem with the action of a new “High School Seniors Letter” (the Shministim), openly declaring refusal to comply with conscription law. A few years ago, a military court sentenced five members of a previous group to considerable prison terms. And yet, despite this threat, another, consecutive group of young men and women are now publicly declaring their adherence to conscience and their refusal to serve. The timing of a simultaneous investigation into New Profile’s alleged “incitement” of so-called “shirkers” seems to indicate fear, on the part of the administration, that declared refusal is merely the tip of a truly extensive, largely submerged movement.

This war on youth is being fought within a broader context of heightened state repression of political dissent. Palestinian citizens of Israel were detained by the hundreds for protesting Israel’s attack against Gaza last January. Many remain in detention still, without charges, trial or due process. Activists taking part in nonviolent protests against the land-gobbling dragon of Israel’s separation wall are regularly attacked with lethal fire. Just weeks ago Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahme of Bilin was killed by soldiers. Dozens of activists, both Palestinians and Jews, are detained at demonstrations and incarcerated for varying periods. In most cases, the repressive measures applied to Jewish activists still bear no comparison, in terms of their arbitrariness and brutality, to the means employed against Palestinians.

However, the political theater of repression being played out against New Profile is of great importance. First, because every act of repression is important and should be resisted. Second, because when applied to a group of relatively privileged, middle class, largely middle aged, feminists — such repression may be more visible to mainstream Israeli society, more easily exposing its fabric of lies and ludicrous, trumped-up charges and allowing decent but uninformed people a concrete grasp of the reality of repression. Third, because in the balance, yet again, lie the future of freedom and rights for everyone in Israel/Palestine. Fourth, because what is at stake are the lives of Israeli youth against whom the state is waging this war. What we are struggling for is the future and nature of a democratic, civil society.

Rela Mazali is an author, independent researcher and a feminist peace activist from Israel.