Deciding to refuse

Guy Grossman
10 September 2003

It is a truism that heartless terrorism against Israeli civilians plays into the hands of extremists from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Terrorism provides an ideological justification for Israel’s permanent presence in the occupied territories: a tangible threat that serves to justify the occupation, both internally to Israeli society and externally, to international public opinion.

In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult for an Israeli to explain a refusal to serve in the occupied territories.

Israeli society has recently committed itself to recognising the right of conscientious refusal based on absolute pacifism – a stance that receives institutional and legal defence. But ‘selective refusal’ – by those, like me, who are willing to serve in the military, but refuse to serve specifically in the occupied territories – is generally regarded as illegitimate, unpatriotic, if not an act of downright treason. It is fiercely attacked by the military, governmental institutions, and many academic. It has no legal protection at all.

Its implicit duality also makes selective refusal hard to justify. It is after all an act of civil disobedience which is at the same time private and public, personal and social, civil and military, conscientious and political.

My choice of selective refusal depends on my political understanding of the conflict and the best way (a two-state solution) to resolve it. I believe that Israel’s long-term security is only harmed by its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I also believe that civil disobedience can both exemplify the moral duty to eliminate unnecessary evil and to strengthen democracy and civil society.

In this light, the decision exists on two levels: the underlying (personal and conscientious) motive behind the decision to refuse, and the political and moral reasoning behind making this personal decision a public matter.

Moral obligation, civic duty

For me, the decision to refuse was not a reaction to a specific event or even a series of events, but was crystallised over many years of arduous soul-searching, while I served as a combat officer in the occupied territories.

With my own eyes, I have seen the humanitarian disaster, the filth, the poverty and the humiliation caused by infinite curfews, closures and roadblocks. I have seen the violation of civil and human rights, mainly the non-existence of freedoms such as movement, speech and expression of opinion. I have witnessed the deaths and injuries of many innocent lives, both Israeli and Palestinian. I have shot people and felt responsible for their loss of life.

Within this chaotic disastrous landscape, etched with pain, I have always looked for a justification. Instead, I found only a myth, the greatest of our mutual existence: the idea that we have to militarily occupy the West Bank and Gaza in order to defend our homes in Tel Aviv, Netanya and Hadera.

After many years, I finally understood that our presence there has little to do with Israel’s security. My friends and I realised that the possible price of the everlasting occupation was to more than our bodies and our mental stability. Refusal became not just a moral obligation, but also a civil duty.

Only a close observer can be aware of the depth to which the occupation is slowly tearing Israeli society apart. Step by step, the occupation dismantles civil solidarity, turning many Israelis against their own national sentiment, which I believe lies at the heart of community life and collaboration. In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “What I have to do is to see, at any rate that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn”.

From personal decision to public act

Now, why make this personal decision a public matter? Politicising and publicising the conscientious decision turns the refusal into a ‘speech act’, directed towards Israeli society and its leadership, while it delivers a message that there is a viable alternative to the ruling discourse of militaristic security.

It also sends an important message of conciliation and hope to the Palestinian side, bridging the atmosphere of zero-sum negotiation policy, deception and distrust. Refusal is a constant reminder that there could be a different path, politically, militarily and morally. It symbolises the civil and moral obligation which the Israeli public is under, to pressure its government to bring an end to the conflict by every means and as quickly as possible. In that respect, all movements of ‘refusal’ and in the world have an important role as emergent members of a vibrant and democratic global civil society.

This civil duty, I feel, is two-fold. It lies in both the fact that we Israelis live in a strong, tolerant democracy: but also in the big moral debt we owe – after all, we are the stronger side and the ones sitting on Palestinian land.

The need for intervention

But one also has to acknowledge the limits of both the Israeli and the slowly emerging Palestinian civil societies in ending this complicated conflict. The two peoples are basically held hostage by extremists on both sides, who are constantly wielding a veto power on political progress.

I agree with Tony Klug and Steven Evert’s insightful descriptions of the deadlock that prevents a substantial breakthrough in the so-called peace process. All our efforts are rendered hopeless after a single terror attack.

The deadlock could be summed up as a tragic Catch-22 – the Palestinians will not stop terror until they are sure Israel is going to evacuate the occupied territories, just as the Israelis will not evacuate the settlements and face the possibility of a civil war before the Palestinian Authority dismantles the terror infrastructure.

Only a direct and decisive international intervention can provide the requisite safeguards for both sides to proceed. This could not be led by the US alone, since it would not be considered impartial by the Palestinians: nor by Europe alone, since Israelis tend to mistrust European intentions. This is one intervention that requires a delicate equilibrium of force and persuasion.

Max Abraham’s claim that only the warring sides can find a path to conciliation ignores this deadlock. In any event, to invoke the peace accords with Egypt and Jordan as a blueprint for solving the conflict with the Palestinians is quite inappropriate: these conflicts with Israel’s neighbours were sideshows, albeit bloody ones, compared to the fundamental clash of nationalism that lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt and Jordan did not have to give up parts of their land and their right to return. And Israel did not have to give up its sovereignty over holy places, not to mention the eastern neighbourhoods of a unified Jerusalem.

I further disagree with Emanuele Ottolenghi’s conclusion that: “It is time to reject the time-honoured western assumption that every problem has a solution. The Israel-Palestine dispute defies this conceptual offspring of the Enlightenment. The Palestine crisis is a problem that currently lacks a solution”.

He might be prepared to wait as long as it takes for the right conditions to emerge, even if this fails to acknowledge the challenge posed by demographic facts. But I believe we all have a very short window of opportunity for a two-state solution, after which only a bi-national state will become possible. This, unavoidably, as Yossi Alpher convincingly argues, will either be Jewish and not democratic, or democratic yet not Jewish. The forming of a ‘refusal movement’ is one of the more conspicuous products of the resulting sense of urgency.

The principle of hope

A refusal to serve in the occupied territories is also a means of challenging public apathy: our mental shield against the abnormality of living in constant fear. Refusal does not emerge out of moral arrogance, as is so often alleged. On the contrary, it acknowledges the fact that the Israel Defense Forces probably constitute one of the most moral armies in the world. The soldiers are moral; it is the occupation which is corrupt. The blunting of the moral sense we are starting to turn towards Palestinian suffering is unfortunately one of the primary legacies of the suicide bomber.

Against the backdrop of the “war on terror”, the ‘refusenik’ tries to give a historical dimension to Israel’s presence in the occupied territories and to affirm that Palestinian terror did not bring about military occupation; rather, the civil occupation manifested through the settlements project brought this horrifying terror upon us.

Refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza is also a reminder of a simple yet elusive fact – that no army can eliminate national terrorism in ways and means acceptable in democratic states. It is not possible, simply because the occupation is the infrastructure of terror.

Any Israeli must admit that in the past three years, since the outbreak of the second intifada, we have had little if any relief from fear. Although we have held the Palestinians under an extremely tight and fierce occupation, in no way have we come any closer to “destroying the terror infrastructure”. The much-debated, and now broken, hudna (temporary ceasefire) has proved at least one thing: that the Palestinians can stop the terror only if Israel and the international community can give them a good enough reason. That reason is hope.

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