"In my government there will not be a minister who supports soldiers' refusal of orders" declared Prime Minister Netanyahu at the beginning of this week, and his words got banner headlines in the papers. It has been long since the last time that soldiers' refusal got to the focus of public attention in this country. And all due to Naftali Bennett.
A few weeks ago I took a long ride in a taxi, and in talking with the driver I found out he was among the first of the Israeli military refusers. In the early 1970's, when the West Bank military government and settlement movement were brand new, he was called up for reserve duty in the city of Hebron, was ordered to accompany Rabbi Moshe Levinger in the streets of Hebron and refused to obey and got sent to a military prison. At the time, this kind of act was not published and did not get into the media at all. "I'm not a political person. It is just that this Levinger is a bastard. He was going around in Hebron marketplace and overturn the Arab vendors' stalls. I told my commanding officer that I did not join the army to help bastards like that."
In the early years of the occupation, refusers were few and isolated. The poet Yitzhak Laor spent time behind bars at the beginning of his literary career, and Giora Neumann was repeatedly jailed and graffiti calling for his release remained for many years afterwards on the streets of Tel Aviv. The organized refusal movement, began in June 1982 when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Peace for Galilee which became the First Lebanon War and later became known as the War of Deception.
It was the time when soldiers heard their Prime Minister Menachem Begin stating on the Knesset floor that the army will not go deeper than forty kilometers into Lebanon and looked at the map and saw that they were already on the outskirts of Beirut, at least a hundred kilometers from the Israeli border. And they sung "Go to Lebanon/Fight for Sharon/Return in a coffin"(in Hebrew it rhymes). And a few months later they were ordered to shoot flares over the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and then found that they had illuminated the path of those who indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of men and women, elderly and children.
Sharon's followers dismissed it as "Just Arabs massacring Arabs", but resentment and disgust of the war grew ever higher. Thousands signed a petition declaring their refusal to go to Lebanon, entitled "Yesh Gvul" – translated as both "There is a Border" and "There is a Limit". It was in 1984 that I went to the military prison for the first time, when I refused to take part in escorting supply convoys to the military outposts established throughout South Lebanon.
In December 1987 the Palestinians revolted and demanded to have the right which Israelis long enjoyed, the right to be a free people in their own country. It was just as the occupation became twenty years old, and at the time it seemed that twenty years was a long time, even that it was too long. There were Israelis who considered the Palestinians right in their aspiration to be free, Israelis who could not wholeheartedly take part in the army's operations aimed at suppressing the Palestinians and keeping them under occupation. Again, thousands signed the re-launched and extended Yesh Gvul refusal petition, and some spent time in prison instead of going into battle against the stone throwing youths.
In April 1988 I was doing a term of military reserve service and on the evening news I heard of soldiers forcing a Palestinian passer-by to climb an electricity pole and with his bare hands remove the Palestinian flag flown on it, whereupon he was electrocuted and died. On that night I went through the camp where I served and I wrote on 117 tanks, trucks and forklifts the following words: "Soldiers of the IDF, refuse to be occupiers and oppressors! Refused to serve in the Occupied Territories!".
After I was apprehended by Military Police Investigative Arm, the Southern Command Court Martial sent me to three months' imprisonment and also demoted me from corporal to private. And after another round of confrontation with the military authorities and a hunger strike in prison I was taken to a military psychiatrist who prescribed a psychiatric discharge from service. At that time I wrote a letter to the Army Chief of Staff: "If, in the army under your command, my conscience is considered to be madness, than I'm proud to be crazy."
In 2002 my son Uri got to the age of eighteen at the height of the Second intifada, and took the decision to refuse to join an army of occupation. I accompanied him during six months that he went in and out and in and out of the military prison, again and yet again, until a military committee declared him "unfit for military service" (which he is). He was lucky - five of his fellow refusers ended up facing a court martial and spending more than two years in prison. Among them was Hagai Matar who later became known as a journalist and intrepid anti-occupation activist, most recently also heading a workers' union.
This was also when the Courage to Refuse movement flourished, a special breed of Zionists who demonstrated with large banners stating "Refusal of the Occupation is Zionism." And there was David Zonshein, the paratrooper officer who specifically wanted and indeed demanded of military authorities to court martial him for his refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories, which would have ended with his being sent for years behind bars - and, oddly, the army high command vehemently refused to take up the challenge.
A year later came the Pilots' Letter, whose signatories announced that they would refuse to bomb Palestinian cities. They did not yet know that in January 2009 other Israeli pilots, of a bit less sensitive conscience, would go out to bomb Gaza and manage to kill 1300 people in three weeks.
Altogether, during the forty-five years of the Israeli occupation over the Palestinians, there were thousands of refusers and objectors – conscripts and reservists, young people at the start of their adult life and family men in their forties, and in the past decade also quite a lot of women. Many of them spent time behind bars, at Military Prison 4 and Military Prison 6 and Women's Prison 400. The latest is Nathan Blanc of Haifa, who had so far three times gotten the order to join the occupation army and three times refused and was three times sent to prison where he is incarcerated at this moment.
Naftali Bennett was certainly not among these refusers, neither among the early ones not among the latter. An occupation lasting forty-five years did not bother him at all, and he remained unmoved by the ongoing oppression of millions of disenfranchised people. And quite certainly he did not mind that the Israel Defence Forces became more and more The Settler Defense Forces, an army whose primary role is to take over the land, pass it on to settlers and to protect and maintain tight guard over the settlers as they take firm control of the land.
All this was, in fact, quite to Naftali Bennett's liking. He had joined the army, and served in the ranks of Sayeret Matkal and other elite units (and definitely was not among the Sayeret Matkal refusers of 2003) and reached the rank of major, and then went into high tech and took up a position in Netanyahu's bureau until they broke in an angry row. Then he took charge of the settlers' Judea and Samaria Council and struggled mightily against the construction freeze in the settlements and for their expansion and deepening without limit and without restraint. He also came up with a sophisticated ,plan for perpetuating the occupation and annexation of the settlements and all lands around them and thus confining Palestinians in tiny enclaves which would be "autonomous under supervision of the IDF and the Israeli Security Services" (in South Africa they used to call it "Bantustans"). And in recent months Naftali Bennett managed to take over an old and rotten political party and make it seem brand new and fresh and attract the right-wing voters and pose a tangible electoral threat to the Likud Party of his former friend Binyamin Netanyahu.
But still, a refuser? His words on TV echoed throughout the country in the past week. If Major (res.) Bennett is ordered to evacuate settlers, he will regard that as an order on which a black flag flies. He would not be able to carry out such an order, he would ask his superior officer for a personal exemption from doing it, if no option presents itself he would also go to prison. After the big furor which followed, he half retracted his words, at least partially, and asked it to be clear that what he had said had been a cri de coeur, truly from the very depth of his heart.
A cri de coeur? Quite possibly it truly is such . One may grant that indeed in Naftali Bennet's eyes the settlements are dear and precious and downright sacred, and the idea of evacuating settlers arouses in him horror and repugnance, and that for him this a genuine issue of conscience.
Still, all that a politician says and does is liable to be suspected of having political motives. All the more so with what a politician says at a very hot moment of an elections campaign. And Naftali Bennett certainly has a political interest in flirting with refusal and insubordination. First of all, according to recent polls this seems to helps him capture the hearts of voters in his segment of the political spectrum, towards the January general elections. In the longer term, there might be a consideration of creating a kind of deterrence.
Bennett belongs to and represents a sector of the Israeli society which in recent years is taking an increasingly prominent place in the army, among both conscripts and reservists as well as in the officer corps, over and above their proportion in the general Israeli citizen body. For an obvious reason: they are the only sector that truly identifies, ideologically and emotionally, with the role that the army plays vis-s-vis the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
What if at some future time this military is asked to play a quite different role, under a different government pursuing a different policy? What if there would be on the agenda such issues as ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state and evacuation of the settlements? Would observant soldiers and officers, placed in key positions, in great numbers take Naftali Bennett's road, declaring "It is not that I'm refusing, I just cannot do it, this is really a cri de coeur from the depth of my heart"?
And then, what? Should consideration and respect for people's acts of conscience be extended also to the conscience and sincere faith of the settlers and their supporters? And if so, how could an Israeli government ever take the way of peace – either from its own free choice or out of recognizing the facts of life in the international arena in which the state of Israel must survive? Was an impassable barrier erected here?
Here, history might come to our aid. All of this had happened before. France ruled Algeria for a hundred and twenty years, and sent hundreds of thousands of settlers to live there. The war which ended French rule in Algeria was harsh and bloody, more so than even the worst moments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. French settlers in Algeria were bitterly opposed to a French evacaution, and fought with all their might for the preservation of l'Algérie Francaise, and they had quite a few supporters within the ranks of the French Army. Moreover, there were more than a million settlers. Even without any refusal of orders, had soldiers and officers been required to physically grab each and every settler and drag them on board a ship sailing off to France, the entire French Army would not have been equal to the task.
French President Charles de-Gaulle, the man who got France out of Algeria, did not dream of such foolishness. In 1962 he signed the agreement which ended French rule in Algeria. This agreement stipulated that French settlers were free to choose whether to return to France or remain in independent Algeria. In the second case they could choose between French citizenship, Algerian citizenship or dual citizenship. In practice, almost all of them chose to evacuate, getting by their own power on the ships leaving the coast of Algeria.
If ever an Israeli government takes the path of peace - either from its own free choice or out of recognizing the facts of life in the international arena in which the state of Israel must survive – it can be assumed that it will do so using the De Gaulle Method. The settlers will receive in good time a notification of the date for the evacuation of the Israeli military and the enactment of full Palestinian control and sovereignty. They will be able to decide freely on their future, each in his or her own way. Those who wish could remain in Palestine and establish there a Jewish community. Those who prefer to leave together with the army will get free of charge furniture removal trucks to transport their belongings. No soldier or officer will get the repugnant order to go in and drag them off by force.
Naftali Bennett and his fellows will not be faced with the difficult dilemma. They will not have to ask for a personal or a group exemption, nor face the possibility of refusing to obey an order. Will that satisfy them? That is far from sure.