As US-made Hellfire missiles and white phosphorus rained down on the entrapped people of the Gaza Strip earlier this year, a number of “refuseniks,” young Israeli men and women who refuse to serve mandatory military conscription after high school, along with anti-occupation activists attempted to shut down the Israeli Air Force base near Tel Aviv. It was from this base that airborne weapons of war, flown by their former classmates, took off to kill Palestinians just miles down the beach in Gaza.
From chronic checkpoint beatings, to the use of Palestinian children as human shields during invasions, to widespread use of torture and interrogation in detention camps, to the killing of unarmed civilians during incursions and wide-scale massacres that spur international condemnation, Israel’s soldiers are the face of the state’s expanding and illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine. And a new generation of conscripts have just finished boot camp, eager to carry on this vicious tradition of occupation.
Within mainstream Israeli Jewish society, mandatory conscription into the military is regarded as a rite of passage; a normalized violent adventure meant to codify nationalism and Zionist supremacy while carrying out Israel’s policies of aggression. (Paradoxically, a few thousand non-Jewish, “Arab-Israeli” citizens have also served in the army — see Jonathan Cook’s recent article “False promise of integration for Palestinian soldiers in Israel.”) Recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeated an oft-heard mantra as he attempted to defend the state’s criminal massacres in Gaza earlier this year. “Israel,” Lieberman claimed, “has the most moral army in the world.”
However, a growing number of Israeli Jewish youth facing mandatory military conscription — the Shministim — are breaking the chain of conventional cooperation with the occupation. Refusing to participate in a system they agree to be immoral as well as illegal, these young people exemplify complicity with their ethical values rather than their state’s colonialist policies.
The Shministim have also started linking up with American military resisters to strategize and build an international movement of opposition to the state-sponsored violence of occupation — from the West Bank and Gaza to Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, these young people are speaking directly to Jewish audiences across the US who may romanticize Israel’s perceived “need” for an aggressive military system, hoping to inspire critical thought centered on the actual reality for Palestinians affected by Israel’s actions.
Since 1970, groups of Shministim — Hebrew for 12th-graders — have emerged, turning against the overwhelming current of generational militarism. Writing public letters to Israeli heads of state, Shministim cohorts refuse to participate in the system of occupation, and, more broadly, vociferously challenge a national attitude of supremacy and racist entitlement over historic Palestine’s indigenous population.
Though personal stories of revelatory tenacity are wholly unique for each young person who stands up, the shock of collective reality and personal responsibility is a common theme. After witnessing brutal violence carried out by Israeli occupation soldiers against Palestinians in the West Bank village of Bilin, 19-year-old Shministim member Maya Wind says that “the only moral option for me was to refuse.”
Not surprisingly, the Israeli government does not concur with Wind’s revelation. Shministim refuseniks face draconian jail sentences in repeated cycles until they reach 21 years old or manage to secure a discharge on the basis of medical or mental health.
Israeli youth who refuse to cooperate with Israel’s military occupation are sent into a lengthy and relentless labyrinth of court martials and consecutive jail terms in what Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, representing Shministim, calls a “price tag” meant to deter other young Israelis from non-participation. “Otherwise,” he says, “[the Israeli government’s] argument says, everyone — of ideological or personal reasons — will refuse to serve.”
I recently interviewed Wind and her Shministim cohort, Netta Mishly, during their tour in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Wind says that the political and ultra-religious environment in her high school led her to question the reality behind the ideologies of her government and her fellow students. “A lot of my classmates were settlers, including extremists from [settlements in] the West Bank … there were a lot of questions that surfaced for me. I didn’t even use the word ‘occupation’ back then.” Through a discussion group with Palestinians in Jerusalem, Wind says that she awakened to a different reality than the one offered to her inside Israeli-Jewish society. “I figured I needed to learn more. Through a conversation with a Palestinian girl, I started to question more. I started going to the West Bank.”
Wind was sent to jail during the third week of the Gaza massacres, and spent several weeks behind bars. Sentenced four times, she spent a cumulative two months in detention and another 42 days in a military prison altogether. She was subjected to a “humiliating” array of psychiatrists and psychologists sent by the military to determine her mental fitness, required to serve in the army. Wind says that all of the Shministim were labeled mentally unfit by these health professionals, therefore giving Israel the excuse that the problem was not with the policies or the morality of the military, but with the Shministim themselves.
Netta Mishly, also 19 years old and from Tel Aviv, was active in several political groups from early adolescence and supported by parents who encouraged her to think critically. She said that her decision to refuse was made clear during her activity against Israel’s wall in the West Bank. “After I was there, and I saw how the soldiers attack civilians without any security justification, after I saw how the state steals land from [Palestinians] … For me, not going to the army was a decision I came to after visiting the West Bank for the first time.”
She says that her life changed completely after returning to school. “I kept hearing the same line [in class] — that we need to defend ourselves, and we need to go to the army. I couldn’t believe this anymore because I saw how the soldiers act on the ground. I connected with other activists and we started thinking about how we were going to take this difficult step, and we decided to keep working in the same tradition that started before us. We drafted a letter to the government, saying that we wouldn’t take part in the terrible crimes that Israel is doing in our name. After that, one by one, each one of us went to jail.”
Mishly was sentenced to a week in detention at the military base because there was “no room” in the regular prison (during the December-January attacks on Gaza, hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel who participated in protests were rounded up and thrown into Israeli jails, on charges of treason and incitement). After the trial, one of the highest-ranking Israeli military justices decided they could re-try Mishly and she received another 20 days. “When you make the decision not to go to the army, you don’t know where [the punishment] is going to end,” she says.
Meanwhile, as US President Barack Obama readies another “troop surge” to entrench the interminable American occupation of Afghanistan, Wind and Mishly are meeting with US military resisters in order, Wind says, to expand international rejection of militarism. “I think that’s why Netta and I have come to the US. It’s not just about the Israeli occupation. It’s not just an Israeli thing. The US is occupying. And there are all forms of racism, prejudice and violence … these are not just phenomenons particular to the Middle East, you have this in the US as well. It’s towards immigrants, Mexicans, towards Iraq and Afghanistan. I think we’re trying to show that these are global phenomenons and we all have to create a broader justice movement.”
Sarah Lazare of the Bay Area-based GI Resistance support organization Courage to Resist is helping to organize an upcoming delegation of US war resisters to Palestine-Israel, she says, to connect with Israeli refuseniks. Calling itself Dialogue Against Militarism, the group intends to discuss similar experiences and learn from each other’s strategies for confronting war and occupation, while engaging with the effects of militarism in their respective societies.
“It is extremely powerful that war resisters in Israel are connecting with war resisters in the US,” says Lazare. “Given the close relationship between the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the Israeli occupation, it is vital for resisters in these two countries to join forces, in order to build a movement strong enough to take on the forces we’re up against. Israeli and US war resisters are having exciting discussions, sharing experiences, and showing direct solidarity with each other, and I think this is a powerful step towards stopping US and Israeli-led occupations.”
In January, upon her sentencing, Maya Wind offered her declaration of conscience to the military court. “We can no longer term our military a ‘Defense Force,’” she asserted.
“A defense force does not conquer lands of another people. A defense force does not assist in the building of settlements on those lands. A defense force does not permit settlers to throw stones at Palestinian civilians, nor does it deny them access to their lands and source of livelihood. None of these are acts of a defense force.”
“The occupation has no defensive advantages. On the contrary, the pointless occupation of millions of people only leads to radicalization of opinions, hatred and the escalation of violence. Violence is a cycle that feeds into itself. This cycle will not stop until someone stands up and refuses uncompromisingly to take part in it. This is what I am doing today.”
Several other Shministim are gearing up for a similar speaking tour in South Africa during October.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio and travels several times a year to occupied Palestine to document the situation. She is also a freelance reporter for Inter Press Service. She can be reached at norabf AT gmail DOT com. Her website is www.norabf.com