Think before you “take part in occupation and war,” says jailed Israeli refusenik

Smiling young man stands in front of building

Natan Blanc walks into Tel Ha’Shomer military base near Tel Aviv, where he refused once again to serve in the Israeli army, 2 April.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Natan Blanc, a 19-year-old from Haifa, has spent more than 120 days in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military.

He began thinking about resisting conscription during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Israel’s Defense Service Law — introduced in 1949 — gave the Israeli military the authority to enroll any Israeli citizen who turns 18. After finishing a mandatory service of one year, Israelis remain in a reserve unit in the army. This requires Israelis to spend one month in the army each year until the age of 40.

Conscientious objection to military service is considered a felony in Israel. It is usually punished by imprisonment for a few weeks — during which pressure is put on an objector to change his or her mind. Following that spell in jail, the objector is summoned again to a military recruitment committee. Continued refusal to serve can lead to further imprisonment.

In total, Blanc has been summoned to a recruitment committee eight times. On each occasion, he has been sent to jail. He is scheduled for release in three weeks’ time.

Recently released for two days for good behavior, Blanc spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sawsan Khalife’.

Sawsan Khalife’: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Natan Blanc: I’m 19 years old, from Haifa. I studied cinema in high school. When I turned 18, there was a one-year education program with 12 places in Jerusalem, after which we were supposed to serve in the Israeli military.

All the other 11 volunteers continued to their military service in the IDF [Israeli military]. I knew from the beginning I would not. I also volunteered in a youth leadership program for MDA [Israel’s national medical service] and as an editor for Wikipedia.

SK: How did you come to be politically aware?

NB: My political awareness comes from home. My parents are political activists; I participated in demonstrations with my parents from an early age. When I grew older I was a member of a youth leadership program, which I left because everyone was going to serve in the military and I found myself alienated and in an extremely different place than they were.

SK: How would you describe the IDF (the Israeli army)?

NB: The IDF is just a tool of the Israeli government to practice its authority; the IDF follows decisions that come from higher places. For decades the IDF has been violating basic human rights by implementing the government’s decisions and policies.

I have been summoned to the recruitment committee eight times now and each time I was imprisoned for my refusal to be part of the IDF. Last time, which was over a week ago, was over my refusal of their offer to serve in a hospital as a part of the national service. I refused because I would have to wear the IDF uniform.

As a result they put me in prison again, for the eighth time, and I got released yesterday. I was put in Prison Six near Atlit [a coastal town south of Haifa], which holds Israeli soldiers who violate the law while doing their service, or in my case, who refuse to do the military service to begin with. There are not many cases like mine in prison. I was the only prisoner who got convicted for service refusal this year. Our percentage is very small.

SK: But you could have avoided prison time and still not serve in the military?

NB: Yes, as a lot of people claim mental or medical problems to avoid prison time. I do not want to lie. It is important in this case to tell the truth as it is. There is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of by stating what you believe in.

SK: And what is it that you believe in?

NB: I stated several times in court my refusal to be part of the occupation. I am against what the IDF does; I have a moral problem with it and won’t take part in these actions.

All this injustice towards the Palestinians under the Israeli regime: there is no democracy, they don’t choose their own fate as they have no right to vote under a regime that forces its decisions on them. It is the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] that votes and decides for the Palestinians; it decides their fate without including them in the decision-making process. I will not take part in that either.

SK: Do you believe the State of Israel will damage your possibilities of getting a job or education in the future?

NB: I think all these stories about not being able to get a job are the government’s attempt to scare people from avoiding military service. As for the society’s approach towards me, I believe there are a lot of people who understand and support my cause, but a lot more will have a hard time accepting it.

SK: Are there any organizations who support exemptions for serving on ideological grounds?

NB: There are two main organizations, Yesh Gvul and Ta’ayush. They hold demonstrations in support of exemptions for military service in front of Prison Six. They send letters to all those who have refused to do the service, offering them support and legal counseling.

SK: What would you say to Israeli young men and women when they turn 18 and have to serve in the IDF?

NB: Serving in the military will not only affect your life, but a lot of other people’s lives. You should have a clean conscience. You should think carefully before you take part in occupation and war.

I know it is compulsory to serve in the military, but it is possible to refuse like I have. Of course, there are consequences, but if your conscience is not clean, do not do it, no matter the price you will pay.

Sawsan Khalife’ is a political activist and journalist from Shefa Amr in the Galilee region of Palestine.