The deterrent power of Israeli refuseniks: interview with Peretz Kidron

Peretz Kidron, editor of “Refusenik!: Israel’s soldiers of conscience” (Zed Books, 2004). Photo: Ali Abunimah/EI

Peretz Kidron is an Israeli who has been fighting battles all his life, but many of them with the country he emigrated to as an idealistic young man in 1951. Now campaigning to spread the messages of Israeli military personnel who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, Kidron was one of the founders of Yesh Gvul (“There is a limit”), the movement of soldiers that sprang up in 1982 to oppose Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

Kidron, who has been touring the US promoting his new book “Refusenik!: Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience,” (Zed Books, 2004) was recently in Chicago and spoke to EI’s Ali Abunimah about the movement and the political situation in Israel. Since Israel’s violent crackdown on the intifada began in September 2000, Kidron says that a total of 1,400 Israeli soldiers, officers and reservists have refused orders to serve in the Occupied Territories - a group that includes extreme right-wingers, communists, Zionists, anti-Zionists and religious and anti-religious Israelis.

His book is an edited collection of 50 personal declarations by refuseniks, as they are known, sometimes in the form of court statements, letters to the premier or defense minister, and all made, says Kidron, “at the crucial moment of deciding to refuse.” In Israel’s hyper-militarized society, voices of opposition from within the army have taken on a particular significance in public discourse for which there is no equivalent in the US.

Kidron aims his message in several directions, and the ultimate goal of the refusenik movement is to end the Israeli occupation. By publishing and touring in the US, he hopes to acquaint Americans, and especially American Jewish supporters of Israel, with what he calls “massive opposition inside Israel and inside the Israeli Army, to the occupation and everything the occupation is doing to the Palestinians and Israelis.” What impresses Kidron is that this opposition is not merely verbal, but animated by individuals willing to “deliberately flout orders and risk prosecution and prison.”

Kidron draws on his own history in describing the path refusers take: He knew many of the first Israelis to refuse service in 1971-72, but he himself could not bring himself to refuse until 1975. “Until I made my decision,” he recalls, “I was in pain.” His main fear was that his children would be stigmatized and their father labeled a “traitor.” Once he made the decision, “it was very easy. Now it was no longer my problem, it was the problem of the officers and commanders.” Kidron was not prosecuted for refusal to serve.

Kidron also directs his message at an Israeli audience, and this is perhaps where he hopes the refuseniks’ impact will be greatest. He sees the psychological, moral and political impact of the refusenik movement as being greater than its numbers might suggest. Of the 1,400 current refusers, “each one has five, 10, 20 friends,” Kidron explains. “How many of them are thinking, ‘If he refused, why shouldn’t I?’”

Consequently, Kidron believes, “the refusenik movement has a great deal of deterrent power, because the generals don’t know how far they can rely on the army.” Refusal, he says, is a “potentially contagious disease,” citing the example of an Israeli Air Force pilot who gathered 27 signatures on a letter refusing bombing missions in civilian areas. “The pilot told me he spoke with 100 pilots who agreed with him. Twenty-seven signed. The question is: When will the other 73 sign?”

Kidron was born in Vienna. When he was 5, his family fled just months before the 1938 Nazi invasion. While most of his father’s family survived, his mother’s side was almost completely wiped out in World War II. He grew up in England, until he immigrated to Israel where he lived on a kibbutz for 20 years before becoming involved in radical politics. Kidron acknowledges that within Israel today, “we are operating in a very hostile climate.” He attributes the apparent collapse of the Israeli peace movement to the notion that Israelis have been “double brainwashed.” He estimates that 80-90 percent believe the myth that the Palestinians rejected a “generous offer” from Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000, and that the Palestinians then launched an all-out violent assault on Israel.

Kidron believes that “the eruption of the intifada was largely an Israeli provocation, prepared by the Israeli Army,” but he also says that Palestinian attacks on civilians within Israel had a dramatic effect on public opinion and paved the way for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “I have no argument with Palestinian resistance to the army of occupation, to the settlers. This I understand; I justify and I am prepared to defend.” But bombings of buses in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv are no more than “terrorism” in response to “Israeli terrorism” and cannot be justified, he says.

Kidron embodies many of the contradictions of the Israeli left. While a staunch ally of Palestinians suffering under Israeli military rule, his views diverge from the Palestinian mainstream at critical points. His simple message to “end the occupation” crumbles in the face of the messy reality Israel has created in the West Bank, where 400,000 Israeli settlers live scattered among several million Palestinians.

Kidron cites polls that consistently show a majority of Israelis in favor of ending the occupation. But trying to agree on what this means in practice is where all efforts at peacemaking have broken down. When talking about practical solutions, Kidron sounds less like a mold-breaking radical and more like former Premier Shimon Peres. Although he says he would support the removal of all settlements, he believes most of them will have to stay where they are and be annexed to Israel. Taking the example of Ariel, a settlement of 20,000 Israelis in the heart of the occupied West Bank, he says, “Israel has built the settlement of Ariel and wants to hold on to it. Ariel is what, 50 square kilometers? Okay, so let’s haggle. The Palestinians should receive 50 kilometers somewhere else.”

The 1967 line is not an absolute line to which Israel must withdraw, but simply a “good basis for negotiations.” And, like a majority of Israelis, Kidron absolutely opposes allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise their right to return to homes and lands inside Israel, although he admits that Israel expelled the refugees and is “legally, morally and financially responsible” for them.

While Kidron still firmly believes in a two-state solution and rejects one state alternatives as a “disaster” - because “the best solution is one that separates the bulk of the Palestinian people from the bulk of the Israeli, Jewish people” - he acknowledges that time is running out and that within the Israeli left there is “quite a lot of discussion” about a one-state solution. Kidron refuses to predict the future though: “One thing I’ve learned in the Middle East is never prophesy. All I know is we have to keep campaigning.”

Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Daily Star.