The war to annihilate Palestinian civil society

On 19 December 2002, Israeli activists held an event at Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv to protest the indefinitely extended prison sentences currently being handed to the young men refusing conscription. The event was sponsored by conscientious objector organisations Yesh Gvul and Shministim, the latter a group of high school seniors who have declared their refusal to serve in the Israeli army. The following is the text of a speech made at this event by Anat Matar, a veteran anti-occupation activist and the mother of Haggai Matar, one of the men in prison for refusing to serve. Minor edits have been made for clarity.

(19 December 2002) The IDF rules the current government, just as it ruled the previous one and the one before that. The prime ministers and ministers of defense, Barak, Sharon, Ben-Eliezer, Mofaz, and some of their reigning cheiftans, know no thought or feeling that is not militarized. The IDF, and the state it tows behind, are waging a war the sole goal of which is the utter subjugation of the Palestinian people living in the occupied territories. We should not forget this for a moment. The IDF is a criminal army. Immersion in the details of daily events — including the shootings of children and elderly women — diverts our gaze from the overall view, from the broad move being undertaken here, minute by minute, by well-disciplined soldiers.

The soldiers’ role is to crumble the Palestinian population. Unthinkingingly, they are destroying not only the physical infrastructure of West Bank and Gaza Strip cities, not only homes and roads and fields and orchards, but also every trace of the human spirit. Over 50% of the Palestinians in the occupied territories are suffering from malnutrition. Overall health conditions verge on a catastrophe, and people in need of more than a bare minimum of health care fade silently away, uncounted among the casualties. At least 75 people have died in the last two years because the curfew, the road blocks and the ruined passes prevented them from receiving medical attention in time. Just yesterday we got word of two stillborn babies whose mothers could see the ambulances waiting from a distance, but couldn’t reach them. The Palestinian educational system is limping along, functioning with extreme difficulty, and the universities hold classes in warehouses and private homes, in order to keep alive a small ember, so as not to burn out altogether. Family visits, travel from cities to villages, going to the beach — all these are concepts long forgotten.

Some of those present here today were justly stirred to strong protest against the transfer of Palestinian farmers out of the South Hebron Hill region and the village of Khirbet Yanoun. But the transfer is not limited to these, and it isn’t waiting for photogenic scenes of truck convoys. A terrible and hidden transfer is constantly ongoing, as alongside the weakening of the weak, the educated Palestinian middle class dwindles continuously. The Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University recently published a survey in which 50% of the schools in the Ramallah area reported a growing phenomenon of emigration: at least 422 children had dropped out of these schools due to their families, emigration. This is no coincidence, and it is not the byproduct of some mysterious war against terror. This is the war that the IDF is waging: the war to deplete and annihilate Palestinian civil society as a living, healthy, unified, educated, working, potent factor.

Everyone who lends a hand to the IDF today is complicit in this move. Not just the soldiers of the combat units bearing idyllic names and insignias of birds and flowers, but the sentry at the army headquarters in mid-town Tel-Aviv as well, the “grease-monkey” in the Negev armor corps, and the woman soldier working in military intelligence, and the woman computer programmer at the army adjutancy center, and the flight instructor. All of them are accomplices to the crime.

My son Haggai has chosen the route of resistance. For succeeding not to drown in the IDF fascism that the education system in Israel tried so hard to teach him, he is now paying the price of imprisonment. Like him, in prison too, are Yoni, Yoni, Uri, Matan, Shimri, Hillel, Adam, Dror, Dror, Eshel, Itzik, Ido and my student Ori. Alongside the major war against Palestinian civic life, the IDF is conducting a minor but stubborn battle against its own — other — those citizens of Israel who refuse to be militarized, who understand that any service in the IDF is service of the IDF and of its horrendous goals. Early this afternoon we heard that the commander of military prison number 4 has decided to separate the refusers who signed the “Shministim (Seniors’) Letter” dispersing them among the various military prisons and their platoons, so that they won’t be able to help each other keep up spirits.

These young objectors teach us an important lesson and I call on the people here in the audience, and equally — or perhaps even more — on those speaking here tonight, the Israel Prize Laureates, to understand and internalize this lesson. Haggai and his friends are realizing in full the concept “citizen.” To be a citizen means, first and foremost, to act. Just as being a soldier means being passive, obedient, well-disciplined, being a citizen means the exact opposite: action, resistance. In Israel in 2002 it is very difficult to be a real citizen. Precisely because of the near-total rule of IDF over everything, it is almost impossible to give expression to its civic, civilian “other.” But people unwilling to be swallowed up by fascism are compelled to turn resistance into practice — not into a single, one-time performance.

There are many wonderful left-wing organizations struggling due to lack of activists and poor funding. Help them! Write letters to the editors of the press, letters to the authorities, articles, poems, speak out on television, make noise, noise, noise to counter the sleepy IDF silence, or the IDF-style pitter-patter of news announcers. Uncover what they wish to hide, screen the banned film, demonstrate in support of the marked Knesset Members. Come out in support — public, stubborn, clear and consistent — for refusers. All of these acts are successful expressions of citizenship.

To conclude I mention the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who served a six-month prison sentence for criticizing the policy of the British government in World War I, a fact he was proud of till the end of his days. I end with thanks to those who have insisted on being citizens in the past few years, Yesh Gvul, New Profile, Knesset Member Tamar Gozansky who accompanied Haggai and continues to encourage him and the other refusers, and to two ‘future laureates of the Israel Prize,’ poets Yitzhak Laor and Aharon Shabtai, who dedicated poems to Haggai on the occasion of his refusal.

Anat Matar