Israeli public pressure on Sharon’s militarised regime to withdraw from Gaza and the occupied territories is growing. This comes not only from civilians and organisations active in the peace movement, but — to the great alarm of an Israeli government with deep military links — also from the country’s military and security forces. Sharon would be foolish not to heed the similar experiences of other leaders who faced growing resentment from their army and police commanders as their militarised policies failed.
In September of 2003, 27 pilots in the Israeli Air Force wrote an open letter to the Commander of the IAF, expressing their unwillingness to take part in military operations in occupied Palestinian territories. Yonathan Shapira, an internationally respected pilot and Blackhawk helicopter trainer led the initiative. In their letter, the highly-decorated pilots wrote that operations in densely populated, occupied Palestinian territories were illegal and immoral and that the continued occupation was corrupting Israeli society.
The number of war resisters in other branches of the Israeli military is growing, especially amongst the youth. Increasingly, soldiers and pilots are no longer prepared to put innocent Palestinians civilians in danger through their military operations. Recently, a group of 46 reservists, including a commander of the Israeli special forces of the Alexandroni Brigade wrote Sharon that they were not prepared to die for the settlers in Gaza.
Lieutenant Colonel Eitan Ronal returned his insignias to the chief commander of the Israeli army, in response to the army’s shooting of Palestinian civilians who were participating in a demonstration.
The honour of taking personal responsibility
A further voice of criticism comes from Captain Allon, a reserve pilot with eight years of active service who has also refused to be involved in strikes in the occupied Palestinian territories. In a documentary that was broadcast recently on Dutch television, Allon sent an honourable message to other pilots and soldiers to take personal responsibility for their actions that would violate international law.
As a child in primary school Allon spoke of learning about the Holocaust:
“Why did no one scream? Why did no one stop this? These questions I ask myself now about the killing of Palestinian civilians … children. And this is what I do. I take responsibility and don’t want to be involved in these killings anymore.”
The Israeli response has been unswerving. Several officers and recruits have been imprisoned and decommissioned as a result of becoming refusniks.
Violations of international law and disregard for democratic principles
By carrying out military operations against civilians, Israel violates basic, fundamental rules of international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians, rules that Israel has long agreed to abide by. Through its insistence that soldiers carry out orders which violate international humanitarian law, and by punishing those who refuse, Sharon shows his disregard for democratic principles. The government’s continued support for this outrageous policy proves that Israel is not a democratic state.
The truth behind the so-called “withdrawal” from Gaza
Prime Minister Sharon has expressed his intention to withdraw from Gaza, still an Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory that, under his authority, has been under almost constant military attack by the Israeli army since 2000. During the latest strikes and demolitions carried out by the Israeli Defence Forces in Rafah, over twenty Palestinians have been killed and over a thousand have lost their homes. According to UNRWA, some 17,000 Palestinians in Gaza have lost their homes due to house demolitions conducted by the Israeli army.
It appears that Sharon’s agenda in “disengaging” from Gaza is not to liberate Palestinians, but to deepen the separation between Palestinians living in Gaza and those living in the West Bank. The creation of two separate enclaves, one being surrounded, the other already totally surrounded by a barrier renders a future Palestinian state virtually unworkable. Sharon’s decision to withdraw should therefore not be seen as a step in a peace process, but rather the next phase of a hawkish army commander who knows it will be impossible to continue defending the lives of Israelis living in Gaza without massive, continued loss of life, both of young Israeli soldiers and countless numbers of Palestinian civilians.
A political farce
The manner by which Sharon has steered the Israeli government in an attempt to garner support for the policy is farcical by any standard. In early May, Sharon called for a referendum among the 193.000 members of (his own) Likud party. Only 50% of party members chose to vote, rejecting the plan with a 60% majority. Sharon nevertheless decided to continue working on this plan to “withdraw”; yet, after informal discussions amongst cabinet members, he decided not to push for a vote, as there would clearly be no majority.
In the next stage of the farce, Sharon gave his reluctant ministers one week’s time to change their view. To be sure about the outcome he came up with the outrageous plan to sack two of the most right wing ministers in his cabinet (members of the National Union party) to ensure he would win the vote in the cabinet meeting. In advance of the cabinet vote, Sharon diluted the plan for withdrawal to a mere “declaration of intent”, skipping concrete measures, a time schedule, and any freezing of building activities. By eliminating virtually every credible element, Sharon succeeded in getting a majority behind his plan for “withdrawal” from Gaza.
Ignoring the views of ordinary Israelis
Sharon ignores the views of his own party and ordinary Israelis at his peril. Different opinion polls have shown that the majority of Israelis would vote in favour of dismantling all settlements. According to the outcome of the Da’haf opinion poll in 2002, 59% of Jewish Israelis supported a unilateral withdrawal from most of the occupied territories, and dismantling most of the settlements.
Lessons from South Africa?
Sharon could learn a very simple lesson from former President De Klerk of South Africa, who faced not only international criticism of violations of international law by the country’s military and security forces, but also stiff resistance in his own political party towards plans for peace negotiations with the African National Congress. Ignoring many of the hawkish voices within his party, De Klerk called for a national referendum on whether to proceed with the peace process.
De Klerk recognised that most South Africans were longing for peace. Young white men refused to join the army to fight bloody “proxy wars” in neighbouring countries and to set high-calibre military weapons and vehicles against defenceless civilians living in South Africa’s townships. Countless army recruits fled the country to avoid compulsory conscription. Members of the South African police organised a union based on principles of human rights and democracy.
In putting the referendum to South African voters, who supported overwhelmingly De Klerk’s proposal in spite of the continued violence in the country, the government obtained a mandate to continue peace talks.
If Sharon were sincere about peace, he would do what former South African president De Klerk had done when faced with a similar situation: ask the Israeli public about their opinion on withdrawal from militarised zones. Such a referendum should address withdrawal not only from Gaza, but from all occupied Palestinian territories.
The writers are both human rights advocates, based in The Netherlands.