Rights groups call on Israel to free Druze army refuser

Young man smiles among crowd making victory symbol with their hands

Omar Saad (center, in red shirt) with supporters outside an Israeli military induction base on 4 December 2013.

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Sixteen human rights groups and political parties, including Amnesty International and bodies representing Palestinians in Israel, published a petition yesterday calling on Israel’s minister of defense to put an end to the repeated detention of refuser Omar Saad.

Israel has jailed 18-year-old Saad for 150 days since 4 December, when he reported to an Israeli military induction center to declare his refusal to serve in the army.

“I refuse to take an assault rifle and point it at another human being. I abhor this violence and everything connected to violence. I detest and hate all violence,” Saad told Amnesty International last year.

In 2012, Saad sent an open letter to the Israeli prime minister and defense minister stating: “I couldn’t imagine myself wearing [a] military uniform and participating in the suppression of my Palestinian people or fighting my Arab brothers.”

The letter adds:

“Many of the youth from my community have done the compulsory service in the army, what have we received? Discrimination in all areas, our villages are the poorest, our lands were confiscated, there are no master plans, and no industrial zones. Percentages of university graduates in our villages [are] of the lowest in the region, the unemployment rates in our villages are the highest. This mandatory [conscription] law has kept us away from our Arab connection.”

Saad is a member of the Druze religious minority in Israel. Unlike the majority of Palestinian citizens of present-day Israel, Druze are not exempted from compulsory military service. However, growing numbers of Druze youths are refusing to serve in the army.

In the last month Israel has sent hundreds of voluntary enlistment notices to Palestinian Christian citizens, a new initiative that has been met with resistance by Palestinians in Israel who call it a divide-and-rule tactic intended to foster sectarianism and supress Palestinian national identity.

Hospitalized

Omar Saad was hospitalized earlier this month for a liver infection and is currently recovering at home, but may be sent back to prison after 28 May to serve the remainder of his latest sentence of forty days of imprisonment. Saad’s father has blamed the prison conditions for his son’s deteriorated health: “Omar went into prison a healthy person, a musician, an athlete, this is how he came out,” he told blogger Raanan Shemesh Forshner.

Another army draft refuser, Uriel Ferara, is currently serving his first prison sentence and the army is “systematically” denying Ferara access to mail and has begun to bar him from accepting phone calls from his attorney, according to an email from the anti-militarization group New Profile sent to The Electronic Intifada.

“I cannot participate in the anti-democratic occupation of Palestinian land by the military, in the civil inequality between us and the Palestinians who live under Israeli rule,” Ferara states in a video published on YouTube last month:

The Israeli website +972 published a translation of the testimony which Ferara gave to his mother over the phone in Hebrew after his first few days of detention. Ferara, an Orthodox Jew who was born in Argentina and whose family settled in present-day Israel when he was six, describes humiliating treatment in military Prison 6 where the authorities attempted to force him to wear a uniform.

Ferara states:

They physically dragged me to the [prison] wing, where they left me and pressured me to put on the uniform. Despite it all, I didn’t stop praying. They also laughed at me and [told me] to stop praying and said god can’t hear me because he’s too busy, and that he won’t get me out of there. It was then that I realized that if they are humiliating a Jewish boy — like them — in such a way, one can only imagine what they do to Palestinian youths in the territories.

Meanwhile, according to an April statement from Amnesty International released before his latest sentence, Omar Saad is one of the longest-serving conscientious objectors in Israel:

Natan Blanc, a Jewish Israeli and one of the longest-serving COs [conscientious objectors] in recent years spent seven months going back and forth between prison and home, spending some 158 days in military prison before being exempted finally from service. Omar Saad has already spent almost three quarters that time in jail over a period of four months.

Natan Blanc started questioning conscription when he was 15 years old during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in Operation “Cast Lead” during which Gaza was subjected to aerial and ground attacks by the Israeli military leaving hundreds of Palestinians dead, including more than 300 children.

Three Israeli civilians were also killed in rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups.

In February 2013, Natan Blanc told Amnesty International, “No one is talking about granting Palestinians equal rights, or even the right to vote. I do not want to take part in this situation … I want to stand behind my actions and not to do things that are against my conscience.” He wanted to serve instead in the Israeli emergency medical service, Magen David Adom (the Israeli branch of the Red Cross), but the authorities deny objectors the right to do an alternative civilian service. No civilian service alternative to military draft exists in Israel.

Imprisoned refuser Ferera has also requested and was denied civilian service instead of the military draft, according to +972. Approximately fifty Israeli teens of draft age recently sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating their intent to refuse their draft papers in protest of the military occupation.

Druze objectors

By imprisoning him longer than other conscientious objectors, Israel may be trying to make an example out of Omar Saad to discourage other Druze youths from refusing to serve. There appears to be no law setting a limit to how many times and for how long conscientious objectors may be imprisoned.

Amnesty International notes that:

Druze objectors are believed to receive harsher treatment than their Jewish peers. According to Samer Swaid, Secretary of the Druze Initiative Committee, Druze refusers have over the years received prison sentences ‘double and more than those of other refusers’ as ‘part of a deliberate policy to scare and intimidate young Druze men, and send them a message that those who don’t enlist shall be punished severely …’

Omar Saad told Amnesty International that on three occasions his lawyer was refused access to him while he was in prison. This followed a Military Police order preventing inmates from meeting with lawyers who did not hold permits for legal representation in military courts. Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) consequently wrote to the Israeli Military Attorney General (MAG) Corps raising concerns about the prisoners’ rights and the legality of the Order. Amira Hass reported in Haaretz newspaper on March 4 that the order was withdrawn. She quoted the MAG Corps response to Adalah: “There is no barrier to any attorney visiting an inmate, even if he isn’t a military defense attorney or someone with authorization to appear in military courts … it was a misunderstanding.” Omar Saad told us that following media attention, he now sees his lawyer regularly. According to Hass, the order came to public attention in January 2014, when a lawyer from New Profile was prevented from visiting a conscientious objector in the IDF’s [Israeli military’s] Prison 6 on the grounds that she wasn’t authorized to appear in a military court. Before then, such lawyers had apparently not met with problems when visiting clients in military prisons.

Despite these repressive measures, upon receiving his seventh prison term last month Saad stated on Facebook that “I Omar Zaher Alden Saad will not serve in the Israeli military army and I demand respect for my faith and I yearn for my freedom.”

Saad told Amnesty International that being in prison “is very hard,” adding that “As a musician it’s very hard, to be away from my viola for four months … normally I would play the viola [several] times a day … It’s hard but this time has given me a lot in experience … what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Saad performs in a string quartet with his siblings and they performed outside of the military induction base before Saad was first imprisoned in December.

With his siblings Saad appeared on a cultural program produced by Ehna TV, an online media source for Palestinians in Israel, telling host Amal Murkus that his refusal is from a position of “conscience and nationalism,” and that “I prefer prison to conscription.” Video of Saad and his siblings’ appearance can be watched below:

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.