KIRYAT SHMONA - Called up to serve in the conflict against Hezbollah, reserve soldier Israeli Tom Mehagel decided he couldn’t fight.
“I don’t believe that Hezbollah has any goal but destroying Israel,” the artillery staff sergeant told IRIN. “But we shouldn’t use our force against civilians.”
Mehagel is one of a small group of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reservists who have refused to fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon because they don’t think it is right. Soldiers in Israel who refuse to fight are known as ‘refuseniks’.
Using disproportionate force, including attacks against civilians, is a violation of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused both sides of committing war crimes, specifically for attacking civilians.
IDF spokesman Captain Erik Snider said that refuseniks are wrong to believe the IDF is targeting Lebanese civilians. “Under no circumstances does the IDF target those who are not involved with terrorism,” he said.
The current conflict started after the armed wing of Lebanese political party Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July. In response, Israel launched a military offensive that has focused largely on the south of Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been firing rockets into Israel from.
To date, 1,020 Lebanese, most of them civilians, have been killed by the IDF, according to the Lebanese Higher Relief Council, a government body set up specifically to manage relief efforts during this conflict.
Meanwhile, 58 Israeli soldiers have died and 39 civilians have been killed by Hezbollah, according to the IDF.
Every Jewish Israeli male is required to serve in the IDF for three years from the age of 18. After that, they are called in to train for a month every year, and can be called up to serve, until they are in their forties.
Mehagel was among thousands called up by the IDF when it became clear that the fight against Hezbollah would be prolonged.
About 4,000 Israelis have refused to serve in military campaigns since the birth of the refusenik movement in the 1970s, according to Perets Kitron, author of the book Refusenik. Around a quarter of these were sent to prison for their action.
Whether or not refuseniks are sent to prison depends largely on the mood of their commanding officer, said Kitron, a 73-year-old who refused to serve in occupied territories. If the officer is angry about the refusal, he may send the case to court. If he thinks it is better to avoid the publicity surrounding a jailed refusenik, he may just send the soldier home, he said.
Arab Israelis are not obliged to serve, although refusing results in them missing out on state benefits such as mortgage discounts for ex-servicemen.
Although there have been numerous small anti-war demonstrations, attracting from a few dozen people to several thousand, the conflict has broad public support in Israel.
Nonetheless, Mehagel and other refuseniks say their conscience won’t allow them to take part in the fighting. “I didn’t want to go into the army. I might have helped people in Haifa or something but I didn’t want to open fire,” said Mehagel, 29, who lives in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s attacks in southern Lebanon, which have killed hundreds of civilians, do not help Israel’s cause, he said. “The opposite, in fact. It just fuels extremists.”
He chose to do a ‘grey refusal’ - not openly confronting the commanding officers. “The officers asked me if I was willing to fight and I told them I wasn’t sure, that I was confused. After three days they sent me home.”
Mehagel also refused to serve two years ago, when manning a roadblock in the West Bank. He said his commanding officer told him the roadblock had no purpose other than punishing the residents of three villages because militants in the area had killed an Israeli soldier 10 months before.
For refusing, Mehagel was sent to jail for 28 days. Refusing can lead not only to a jail sentence but also to bitter conflict with family members and to discrimination in the Israeli job market, Kitron said.
“The number of refuseniks isn’t very large but that’s not the point. The impact each individual refusenik has is enormous,” Kitron said.
On 28 July, reserve Captain Amir Pasteur became the first to be jailed for refusing to fight in Lebanon. He is spending a month in a military prison.
At his trial, he said, “Taking part in this war runs contrary to the values upon which I was brought up,” according to the Yesh Gvul group, which offers support and advice to refuseniks. The group was formed in the early 1980s in reaction to Israel’s war with Lebanon; the name in Hebrew means ‘There Is a Limit’.
Yesh Gvul’s spokesman, Ishai Menuchin, said tens more reserve officers and soldiers who have received emergency call-up orders plan to refuse to fight in Lebanon.
Kitron said, “Pasteur is an officer, he has a prestigious position in the army and by being prepared to go to jail he helps Israel sober up after the initial euphoria of going to war.”
Israeli soldiers in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona preparing for war took a dim view of the refuseniks’ actions.
“I can understand refusing in the occupied territories, but there’s no dilemma here - this is a war we have to fight,” said one soldier, who asked not to be named.
Another soldier, who also requested anonymity, said, “They don’t have anything political to say - they are just scared to fight. If I meet one after all this and I find out he refused, I will punch him in the face.”
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