Omri Evron, a 19-year-old from Tel-Aviv, is weeks away from earning his B.A. in ethical philosophy from the Tel-Aviv University (TAU). He started studying for this degree when he was still a high-school student.
Omri is known around the campus of TAU as a leading social activist. Last month, for example, he started a petition of university and high-school students from around the country, protesting the exploitation of maintenance and cleaning workers in educational institutions.
At least once a week, Omri visits the Palestinian village of Bili’in, showing his support for the local Palestinian farmers who are campaigning against the Israeli separation wall that separates them from about 50 percent of their lands. In Bili’in, just like in Tel-Aviv, Omri has earned the reputation of a respected human rights activist.
However, Omri is considered a criminal by Israeli authorities because he refuses to enlist to the Israeli military, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). National military service is compulsory for all Jewish citizens of Israel, which means every Jewish Israeli must enlist in the IDF at the age of 18.
But Omri Evron decided early on at the age of 16 that he would not become “a soldier in the forces of the occupation”. He reached this decision after many visits to the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT).
“Most young Israelis don’t know what the IDF is doing to the Palestinians”, he told me a day before his imprisonment. “Most young Israelis had never visited a Palestinian town or talked to a Palestinian. Many don’t know what life is like on the other side of the border. But I have gone there, and I know how the Palestinians suffer as a result of the occupation. That’s why I just can’t become a soldier in the IDF. I simply can’t do it”.
On September 2006, Omri sent a letter to the military and the security office, declaring his intention to break the law by refusing to enlist. In the letter he wrote:
“I, Omri Evron, refuse to serve in the IDF because I am faithful to the moral principles in which I believe. My refusal to enlist is in protest against the longstanding military occupation of the Palestinian people, an occupation that deepens and entrenches the hatred and terror between peoples. I oppose participation in the cruel war for the control over the occupied territories, a war waged in order to protect the Israeli settlements …Omri requested to be recognized as a conscientious objector, which means being released from the IDF, and afterwards doing two years of “civilian service” - the Israeli civilian alternative to military service. But the IDF denied his request, and made it clear that there were only two options for Omri - enlisting or going to jail.
Though I am aware that this act constitutes an infringement of Israeli law, I am compelled to stand by my democratic, humanist and egalitarian values. Military rule over millions of Palestinians is not democratic. It is my duty to oppose any law that makes it possible to deprive others of their rights and freedom, or to treat them with such violence that their fundamental humanity is negated”.
Omri chose the latter. On Tuesday, October 16th, he arrived to the IDF recruiting station near Tel-Aviv, accompanied by family, friends and supporters. When thousands of new recruits boarded the buses and went off towards their boot camps, Omri declared his refusal to enlist, and was quickly sentenced to 21 days of incarceration. This was only a temporary punishment. In the coming months, he will be sentenced again and again, each time to a longer period behind bars. “They will try to break me”, he explains. “I know it won’t be easy, but I know it is the only option for me”.
I ask Omri, “There are many soldiers in the IDF who serve outside of the occupied territories, within Israel’s borders. Why didn’t you consider this option?” He responded, “It is naive to think that one can join the IDF without contributing to the occupation. All soldiers are part of the machine. There is a pilot who bombs Gaza and kills innocent children, there is an intelligence soldier that provides the pilot with data about the targets, a teleprocessing soldier that provides electronic maps, and a flight mechanic that checks the plane after the mission is completed and the people are dead. I’m not going to be any part of this, no matter at what level”.
Many young Israelis who oppose the occupation choose to join the IDF and some even fight in the occupied territories. In Israeli society, the military is considered an exciting rite-of-passage. Omri does not agree with this way of thinking.
“There is a great falsification in Israeli public debate concerning the IDF”, he says. “Many Israelis feel guilty and sad when they hear in the news that a Palestinian boy was killed from an artillery shell in Gaza. But few people realize that the murderers of this boy are 18-year-old Israeli soldiers like their sons and the sons of their relatives and neighbours. People don’t think about the fact that ‘our beloved sons and daughters’, which is how many Israelis talk about soldiers, are responsible for killing women and children”.
He adds, “For that reason, when people think about the military, they think of friendship, courage, ‘a great experience’. But when I think about the military, I think of bloodshed, death and destruction. Doesn’t sound like my idea of having a good time”.
Omri has no idea how long he will be in and out of jail, but he says he feels ready for an extended struggle. I ask him, “Every year, a few hundred soldiers get released from the IDF by faking medical problems. Why did you decide to declare your refusal and go to jail instead of simply asking to see a doctor?”
Omri responds, “It is absolutely fine that young people who feel bad in the IDF and want to get on with their lives try to cheat the system. I totally support these people. However, this isn’t the case for me. I’m not trying to avoid my military service for personal reasons, but because of moral issues that concern my conscience. I chose to become a ‘refusnik’ in order to stand up for what I believe in, and try to make a difference”.
“How would you be making difference by sitting in jail?”, I ask him, to which he responds, “When people hear that somebody is willing to spend time in jail in order to protest something, it makes them think about the issue. People ask themselves, if this guy is actually in jail because of what we are doing to the Palestinians, maybe he has got a point. The refusal act encourages other people to think. That already is a big change”.
“In addition”, Omri explains, “I hope that my act would change the way some Palestinians look at Israelis. An average Palestinian my age has only met two kinds of Israelis during his or her lifetime: soldiers and settlers. They think all of us are like that, but that isn’t true. There are many good Israelis who object the occupation and the settlements, and hope for a peaceful solution. Maybe after hearing about a different kind of Israeli, one who isn’t a soldier or a settler, some people will change their mind”.
Finally, I ask him, “Are you afraid of being in jail for a long time?” Omri answers, “Obviously I have some concerns and worries. But I have a family that supports me, I have friends who are doing all they can in order to help me. Most importantly, I have a feeling in my heart that this is the right thing to do”.
Amir Tibon is a young Israeli journalist from Tel-Aviv.
Letters of support to Omri Evron and other Israeli conscientious objectors can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org