Israeli Defensive Force

Between refuseniks, deserters and 'Intifada Syndrome', Israel's military is experiencing similar problems to other armies.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘These are the bravest of the brave. Can you imagine defying a military machine as mighty and unforgiving as Israel’s?’

Saima, and 50 other students, peace activists and ‘Jews for justice’ crammed into a meeting room at the London School of Economics on 25 November 2002, had come to hear Israeli refuseniks explain why they ‘refused to be a part of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory’. Under Israeli law, every 18-year-old man and woman must sign up for military service and spend two to three years in the Israeli Defence Force – but a growing number of young Israelis are refusing to fight.

‘I am 18 years old and I refuse to cooperate in the occupation’, said the first speaker, to rapturous applause. She told us about her group called the ‘High School Refuseniks’, who ‘flat blank refuse’ to join the army after leaving school. ‘Some of us refuse to enlist’, she said. ‘Others refuse to serve beyond the green line. But we all refuse to take part in the attack on the Palestinian people.’

Dan, a 27-year-old reserve captain in the Israeli army, was taking time off from his military duties to explain the thinking behind his refusenik campaign Yesh Gvul (rough translation: ‘There’s a limit’). ‘We object to the use of military might for wrong ends’, he said. For Dan, being a refusenik is about expressing ‘universal, moral values of peace’ over ‘anything political or territorial’.

The LSE meeting was the latest stop in a whirlwind tour of England, Scotland and Wales, where refusenik speakers, we were told, have ‘wowed audiences with their bravery’. According to the Independent, the refuseniks are ‘the most compelling example of simmering dissent within Israel’ (1). The Scotsman says they are ‘spearheading a reawakening of the Israeli left’ (2), while one American journalist praises them as ‘the soldiers who dare to feel empathy’ (3).

So how big is the ‘refusenik movement’? Dan’s campaign avoided the question, instead claiming that resfuseniks’ ‘willingness to pay the price imbues our protest with a moral and political effect [that is] out of proportion to our number’.

In fact, the refusenik numbers are relatively low. The official refusenik website currently has 504 signatories, all Israeli soldiers who have ‘conscientiously refused’ (rather than deserted) to take part in military action at some level (4). Under the headline ‘What Israeli refuseniks?’, Canadian policy analyst Neil Seeman writes in America’s National Review: ‘One must compare the number of “refuseniks” against a standing Israeli army of 186,500 troops and 30,000 reservists. Thus the ratio of “refuseniks” to participants is less than two per 1000 draftees, a trifling figure.’ (5)

Yet this apparently trifling number of refuseniks have made a big impact in Europe and the USA. ‘At home they face official condemnation’, says one report. ‘But the movement is gaining international support – refuseniks have spoken in the US, Canada, Japan and Germany, and have plans to visit Italy, Turkey and Sweden’ (6).

The refuseniks’ popularity seems to reveal more about how we in the West view Israel now, than it does about the refuseniks’ own strength of numbers or argument. For many in the West, Israel has become the bad boy of international relations, the unapologetic military state in our supposedly humanitarian age, when war is supposed to care as well as kill. As one audience member said yesterday, ‘These speakers show that Israel doesn’t have to be the way it is – it doesn’t have to have that image’.

Just as Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has become the punchbag of the anti-war movement, the war criminal we all love to hate, so the refuseniks have become its darlings. According to Neil Seeman, where Russian deserters (currently leaving the Russian Army in their hundreds) are seen as ‘pitiable’, ‘Israeli refuseniks are the Western media’s darlings’ (7).

The refuseniks seem particularly attractive to those commentators and anti-war campaigns who are concerned about Israel’s old-fashioned aggression, but who feel uncomfortable with expressing support for Palestinian action. Generally pro-Israel and even pro-military force, as long as it ‘doesn’t target civilians’ and is ‘limited to defending Israeli territory’, the refuseniks express, in the words of one US journalist, ‘the kind of moral action that Israel should aspire to’. Despite their relatively small numbers, refuseniks seem to have been adopted by some as the way forward for Israel.

Indeed, some in the West really are adopting refuseniks. Keen to exploit its ‘broad support in Europe and the USA’, Dan’s Yesh Gvul campaign has launched an ‘Adopt A Refusenik’ option – where those concerned about the ‘Israeli army’s ways’ can adopt jailed refuseniks, to whom they send letters and funds (8).

So what is the refuseniks’ campaign all about? No doubt some refuseniks are genuinely opposed to the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinian civilians, and are taking a stand against being compulsorily conscripted to do things they don’t believe in. But listening to Dan and other refuseniks, it seems that the broader refusenik movement is less a collective stand against Israeli policy than a collection of diverse and personal ‘issues’ with different aspects of army strategy.

The refuseniks are more concerned by the Israeli army’s tactics than its broader aims and ambitions. Dan made clear that his Yesh Gvul campaign was not about encouraging soldiers to refuse military action, but about making them think before they act. ‘We don’t say “refuse” to soldiers’, he said. ‘We say “think”. We say get your orders and carry out your orders, but scrutinise them first with a critical view.’

Indeed, Dan remains an active reserve captain who does some things for the army, but refuses to do others. ‘This is selective refusal’, he said. His campaign argues that it is ‘the right and duty of every soldier to scrutinise the order he receives, and reject the duties he finds morally or politically repugnant’. ‘We are not pacifists’, Dan made clear, claiming that ‘selective refusal recognises circumstances when force is legitimate’.

Dan also pointed to the big difference between conscientious objectors and refuseniks. This is true. Whatever you may think of conscientious objectors of old, they at least had an active objection to serving in the military, based on political or religious beliefs. The refuseniks’ campaign makes ‘refusal’, rather than ‘objection’, its central message – and seems to be a much more passive form of opting out of military service (or aspects of military service).

For some in the anti-globalisation movement, the refuseniks’ passive refusal is their greatest asset. According to the trendy Adbusters magazine, ‘The Israeli refuseniks didn’t follow any hero. They didn’t even set out to do right, but rather to avoid doing wrong…’ (9).

This focus on avoiding doing wrong – echoed by Dan when he said ‘I personally choose not to do these things, but other choose different paths’ – captures the strong personal character of the refusenik movement. Some refuseniks seem to be washing their hands of Israel’s war and its aggressive tactics, rather than challenging the government or the military. The refuseniks often express a personal distaste for the Israeli occupation, rather than a political opposition to it.

In this sense, the refuseniks have much in common with the Western anti-war movement that has taken them to its heart – where the ‘Not In My Name’ protest against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan captures how being anti-war is increasingly about salving one’s private conscience rather than trying to effect public change (10).

The refuseniks may be making the headlines and stealing the limelight, but they aren’t the only ones leaving the Israeli army. Like other military forces around the world, Israel’s army has been hit hard by desertions and soldiers claiming to be too ‘stressed’ to carry on fighting.

According to one report in November 2002, ‘The Israeli Defence Force has been hit by a sharp rise in the number of desertions among its troops. Military police are dealing with at least 40 percent more deserters than last year, the result of increasing numbers of reservists refusing to perform military service. One report put the increase as high as 67 percent’ (11).

Deserters are different to refuseniks, in the sense that they refuse to serve in the army without making an issue of it and without voicing concern with military tactics. But they are similar to the extent that they, too, leave for largely personal reasons. Most cite ‘economic reasons’, others claim they ‘don’t want to kill people’, while some admit ‘feeling fearful of taking that kind of action’.

And their numbers are rising – there have been 2616 deserters this year (five times the number of refuseniks), compared with 1564 last year. According to the UK Guardian, ‘The rate of desertions [has] increased massively since the beginning of the intifada. The rate of desertion in 1999 increased by seven percent, by 31 percent in 2000 and by 40 percent in 2002’ (13).

Others are leaving the army claiming that they are suffering from high levels of mental stress – and indeed, like conflicts from the Gulf to the Balkans and from Chechnya to Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern conflict now has its own syndrome: ‘Intifada Syndrome’.

According to one report, 100 soldiers so far are off work with Intifada Syndrome. ‘A special “rehabiliation village” has been set up to take care of former combat soldiers who suffer from a deep mental crisis, a hundred of whom are undergoing treatment’, it says. ‘Some suffer from nightmares and are unable to face up to operational failures and having harmed civilians.’ (14)

You might expect that the hardened Israeli army, not known for treating either its own soldiers or Palestinians with kid gloves, would scoff at the notion of Intifada Syndrome. But in fact, the army backs the rehabilitation village, which is staffed by reserve officers and supported by Orit Mofaz, the wife of Israel’s defence minister (15).

These recent developments in the Israeli military show that Israel isn’t as immune to international trends as people think. Many believe that Israel exists in a timewarp, getting more right-wing as the rest of the world adopted the Third Way and using tougher and more deadly military tactics as everyone else opts for humanitarian warfare. There is a sense that Israel is an all-powerful force in the Middle East, which plays outside of the rules of international relations.

Of course there is an element of truth in this. Israel, unlike other nations, relies on military force for its survival. This means that, even at a time when military intervention seems to be entered into reluctantly, Israel is more likely than other nations to fight. If there really was a widespread refusenik movement, with thousands of Israelis refusing to fight, Israel would implode. It needs soldiers who are prepared to fight.

But even Israel has been affected by recent international shifts – showing just how far these changes have gone and how deeply they impact on nations around the world. Across Europe and the USA, young people are either refusing to sign up for military service (as in Britain and America) or are deserting the army in droves (as in Russia and Eastern European states). Now even Israel, a largely military state, is having difficulty keeping people in the military.

Likewise, every major conflict today seems to be followed by its own syndrome. There’s been Gulf War Syndrome, Balkans Syndrome, Kosovo Syndrome, Chechen Syndrome, and even talk of an emerging Afghan Syndrome. Military intervention has become increasingly susceptible to our domestic obsession with stress and trauma, and the notion that anything too strenuous and demanding (not to mention bloody and horrific) can ‘damage’ people and cause them mental problems. A similar susceptibility seems to be creeping into the Israeli military.

Such trends mean that training for and fighting wars is not as straightforward as it might have been in the past. Israel now seems to be realising this, with some of its young refusing to sign up, others leaving the army due to stress, and others sticking around but being selective about what orders they will carry out and what regions they will serve in. As an audience member asked Dan at the LSE, ‘How can a military force be effective if soldiers do some things but not others?’

But perhaps what best captures the changes in Israel is the government’s response to the deserters and refuseniks. This isn’t the first time that Israeli soldiers have refused to fight. During Israel’s bloody conflict in Lebanon in the early 1980s, hundreds of soldiers refused to go in – largely because the conflict was particularly violent and dangerous. Similarly, during the first Palestinian intifada from 1987 to 1992, some Israeli soldiers deserted the military.

The Israeli government responded by imprisoning hundreds of deserters. During the Lebanon conflict the Israeli authorities imprisoned 467 deserters, and during the first intifada over 300 were jailed. Now, according to one report, ‘The Israeli army has imprisoned only a fraction of the objectors, fearing that a crackdown might spark an even broader revolt in the ranks’ (16).

Looking after Intifada Syndrome sufferers, failing to convince young people to sign up for the military, cautious about clamping down on deserters….despite its continuing and sometimes bloody operations in Palestinian territories, Israel doesn’t seem to be living up to its international image as a hardcore and unchanging force.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume

(1) Rebellions grow among Israeli reserve officers, Independent, 1 February 2002

(2) The soldiers who refuse to fight, Scotsman, 4 March 2002

(3) Refuseniks, Adbusters, July/August 2002

(4) See Courage to refuse: combatants’ letter, Official Refusenik Website

(5) What Israeli refuseniks?, Neil Seeman, National Review, 19 April 2002

(6) Refuseniks, Adbusters, July/August 2002

(7) What Israeli refuseniks?, Neil Seeman, National Review, 19 April 2002

(8) Yesh Gvul leaflet

(9) Refuseniks, Adbusters, July/August 2002

(10) See Opting out on Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) Israeli army desertions rise, Guardian, 19 November 2002

(12) Israeli army desertions rise, Guardian, 19 November 2002

(13) Israeli army desertions rise, Guardian, 19 November 2002

(14) What have I done! A hundred soldiers treated for Intifada Syndrome, Eitan Rabin Ma’ariv, Jewish Voice for Peace, 5 November 2002

(15) What have I done! A hundred soldiers treated for Intifada Syndrome, Eitan Rabin Ma’ariv, Jewish Voice for Peace, 5 November 2002

(16) Refuseniks, Adbusters, July/August 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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