Saturday, July 7, 2012

To shirk or not to shirk – is that the question?

This week the Palestinian news agency Ma'an published a short news item. Settlers from the "Havat Gilead" outpost near Nablus came at night and destroyed 41 olive trees belonging to Nayif Raihan, inhabitant of the neighboring Palestinian village of Tel.

The inhabitants of Havat Gilead ("Gilead's Farm") outpost where people have an extensive history of such acts. It is one of the settlement outposts which are considered illegal, also according to Israeli law, and whose dismantling Ariel Sharon promised to President George W. Bush back in 2003. In practice, early this year the Havat Gilead settlers reached a compromise agreement with the government of Israel, whereby they agreed to move their houses to a distance of one hundred and fifty (150) meters and in return the government provided them with a legal status under Israeli law; placed more land under their control; and - as it turns out - gave them a tacit permit to uproot olive trees.

Of none of this could even the smallest mention be found in the Israeli media. Settlers destroying Palestinian olive trees are pretty much of a routine, not really news. Under the well-known media principle, it is more "dog bites man" then "man bites dog." And virtually the same with regard to the military authorities' decision to completely destroy the village of Susya in the South Hebron Hills and raze all of its fifty-two houses. Very few Israeli media editors regarded this as news worthy of publication. Nor did the news pay much attention to villagers together with Israeli peace activists holding a protest, even though it greatly disturbed the Israeli Defense Forces who took care to deploy a considerable number of troops and prepare a particularly violent reception to the demonstrators. The demolition of Palestinians homes is an everyday occurrence, as is the dispersal of demonstrations by the military. All this, too, is "dog bites man."

When a Border Policeman kicked a nine year old Palestinian boy in Hebron, this did receive some media attention - at least for one day. Government speakers explained that this was a rare and unusual case. (Is what was rare and unusual, the kicking of a child, or the presence of a camera to capture the event and make it known?)

And just this week it occurred to someone in the military leadership to make   very blunt threats against Lebanon. "The next time Israel's response will be more severe. [The events mentioned in] the Goldstone Report will pale compared to what is going to happen here. We'll have to make stronger and more violent attacks to prevent damage to our home front. (...) The IDF is preparing thoroughly for another war. Next time there will be an exchange of heavy fire on both sides. We'll have to go in very forcefully, including widespread destruction inside the Lebanese villages – not as a punishment but because that is where the enemy is. The State of Lebanon will sustain far greater damage than in the Second Lebanon War. We will give the Lebanese Army a chance to not to be our enemy, but if the other side opens fire we will respond sharply and painfully: Kill thirteen out of unit of fifteen soldiers so that the remaining two could tell their commanders what happened ".

The words of Brigadier General Hertzi Halevy, Commander of the Galilee Division, did get published. They even got a rather prominent place in the middle of the news pages. But still they did not make much of a stir. Hardly any  commentator bothered to get deeply into the matter or why are such threats being made exactly this week, for no obvious apparent reason, or whether a brigadier general would say such things to the media on his own authority or if he had been guided by higher echelons. And if the latter –  who were these higher echelons and what are their intentions?

All of that was very marginal this week. There was only one hot topic to take up the headlines and rock the boat of the Netanyahu Government – should the Ultra-Orthodox be drafted to the army?. This weekend, there are in the Israeli society and political system two opposing camps, bracing for a titanic clash.

On the one hand are those who stridently demand that the Yeshiva seminaries be penetrated, their students forcibly hauled away, directly to the IDF recruitment centers, and severe sanctions and penalties on any recalcitrants. And some also used the opportunity to come up with the idea of demanding of Israel's Arab citizens to perform "National Service" (in the service of which nation?) and of course impose heavy penalties on them, too, if they refuse. A fine of one hundred thousand shekels was what the renowned Plesner Parliamentary Commission proposed, to which the famed commentator Dan Margalit suggests adding the denial of access to a driver's license, to Social Security benefits and to academic studies. In the list of sponsors of the rally, to be held tonight in Tel Aviv with the demand for "Equality in the Burden", are organizations which define themselves as belonging to the left (or at least "left of center ") - alongside "Im Tirzu", a grouping which some consider as a full-fledged Fascist organization while others dismiss it as simply extreme right.

And why is all this fuss? Because all must bear their part in the burden of military service. Because service in the IDF is a sacred duty and a moral act, the most important one which an Israeli citizen can perform. Because by definition the one who serves in the Israeli Defense Forces stands on a moral level a hundred higher than the "shirker". But what is the moral significance of military service in a country which is maintaining a military occupation regime over millions of people for more than two-thirds of its history? How moral is service in the army whose main business in recent decades is to maintain this occupation? And what about the moral implications of what the Israel Defense Forces did in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and in Gaza in 2009 and may well do in 2013 in Lebanon again or in Gaza again or in Iran? And who truly stands on a higher moral level, the one who serves in the army and obeys any order given to him without ifs and buts, or the "shirker"?

Such is one side in the titanic struggle unfolding in front of us. And on the other side of the ring - the Haredim or Ultra-Orthodox. Those who regard the study of the Holy Torah as the essence of being, and would fight tooth and nail to keep their students inside the Yeshiva study rooms. The Haredim who build and maintain the largest settlements in the Occupied Territories, Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit, and who extend and increase them at the expense of the lands of Bil'in and Ni'lin and dozens of other Palestinian villages. But they strictly require secularist soldiers to perform for them the theft of Palestinian land and the guarding of the Haredi settlements built on them, leaving their own sons free for full-time holy studies at the seminaries built on the same land.

The Haredim call themselves "anti-Zionists" but consistently support every  aggressive, warlike and adventurous step - as long as their own sons will not be required to pay the price. And the leader of one of the main Haredi parties has placed himself at the forefront of a campaign of incitement and hatred against African refugees migrant workers, and the manhunt conducted all over the country for citizens of South Sudan who are placed on airplanes for "voluntary deportation", and the detention and deportation of children who were born and grew up in Israel but whose parents were defined "illegal immigrants". And in all this Interior Minister Eli Yishai seems to enjoy the support and backing of his constituents and his party members and his spiritual leaders. Just as they strongly back his struggle to forefend any possibility of Yeshiva students being, God forbid, recruited into the army and forced to suspend their religious studies.

Whose side, then, can a decent person take in this titanic struggle? What result can one hope for? Maybe just that this free-for-all will weaken and undermine the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, a government which perpetuates and intensifies the occupation on the Palestinians and the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of everybody else. That Netanyahu's brilliant maneuver of two months ago, the adding of the Kadima Party to his government coalition to produce a huge Knesset majority, will turn out to an own goal for the Netahyahu team. That the crown would soon fall from the head of "King Bibi". May it be so.

Yesterday "Yediot Ahronot" published an interview with two reserve soldiers, Ethan Tiberger and Yuval Harari. Both of them are veteran reservists who over many years came anytime the army called them. In fact, they often volunteered for service above and beyond the time which was required of them by law. In 2002 they had gone without hesitation to fight in the alleys of the Jenin Refugee Camp - that event over which the debate is still raging, whether it was a massacre or just a brutal battle in which many civilians were killed because of regrettable mistakes and because of not having enough time to leave their homes when these were destroyed by the bulldozers of the Israeli Defense Forces . But now, both those reservists have decided that the continued non-recruitment of the Haredim is the last straw. Regretfully, they informed their commanding officer  that they would no longer perform military reserve service.

"Now they have really done it. They pissed in our faces. They sold us out. Finally, we have had it. I have no motivation left to continue. It is no longer an issue of Left or Right, of the occupation or the Iranian issue. This is about our children's future" said Harari.

One should perhaps not complain too much that it was this straw which broke the camel's back, and no other.