'I realised the stupidity of it'
His uncle is the hawkish former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. But Jonathan Ben-Artzi is a conscientious objector who has already spent months in prison for refusing conscription - and today faces a full court martial. He tells Chris McGreal why he will not fight
Jonathan "Yoni" Ben-Artzi finally came to understand his objection as he wandered the acres of white crosses spawned by a war far from the one he is being ordered to fight. Defiant, if boyish and vulnerable, the 20-year-old physics student says that from the time he was old enough to understand about the army - which is pretty young in Israel - he has known he would never wear its uniform. But he did not really know why until he went to Verdun, where more than 700,000 men were sacrificed to futility in the first world war. "I always knew I wouldn't go into the army but I came to realise why when I was 14. We visited France and some of the battlefields and I saw the rows and rows of graves," he says. "Then I realised the stupidity of it. So many lives sacrificed and they didn't really know what they were fighting for. They were never told the truth."
For his views, Ben-Artzi has now spent more time in prison than any other Israeli conscientious objector. He is also the best known of the refuseniks because he is the nephew of Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's belligerent former prime minister. Theirs is a family of Israeli war heroes. Ben-Artzi's grandfathers were renowned fighters for Israel's independence, and he shares a first name with a Netanyahu he never knew, who was killed during the daring raid on Entebbe in 1976 to rescue Jewish hostages from German and Palestinian hijackers in Idi Amin's Uganda.
As one of 10 young men locked up for refusing to do three years' conscription, Ben-Artzi has found courage of a different sort. He has spent more than 200 days in prison, punctuated by monthly appearances before a military court - that is longer than any soldier has been jailed in recent times for the "illegal killing" of an innocent Palestinian. Now the Israeli army is upping the stakes with a virtually unprecedented attempt to lock Ben-Artzi away for years when he faces court martial today. But it could yet backfire and force the military to recognise what it has so far refused to acknowledge; that there is such a thing as a Jewish pacifist.
Ben-Artzi and his fellow objectors stand apart from the several hundred older refuseniks who served their conscription fighting to the gates of Beirut or confronting Palestinians during the first intifada. Today, they refuse to do their call-up because they oppose the continued occupation of Palestinian land or the tactics of an army imposing its own brand of terror and collective punishment on the subjugated.
Ben-Artzi is different. His objection strikes at the heart of what Israel has become, and it clearly unnerves the army. "In Israel, the army is a kind of god and I was expected to worship it from as young as I can remember," he says. "There were military activities in school. High school students go to army "fire shows", to convince them to join. They are making a bid for these children, to recruit them to the paratroopers or engineering corps or whichever. They are guided down a mental corridor to the military. There's a lot of social pressure from the principal, teachers, friends."
The military has mythological status among many Israelis. Almost every man is identified by his army unit as much as his career. But while other schoolchildren chose essays on the heroics of Moshe Dayan, Ben-Artzi wrote about pacifism. He refused to take part in a judo class because it required the use of force, and he made no secret of his abhorrence of the militarisation of Israeli society.
"When I was 14, we had a trip to the Sea of Galilee through the occupied territories. I told the teacher I wouldn't go because it's not OK to have kids on a trip going through villages where [Palestinians] are trapped in their homes under curfew. I always had arguments in school. It just grew until my last year when I was 17 or 18 when the first orders came to be interviewed by officers. I came to everything they told me to come to and said I wouldn't serve."
Yet the army insists that Ben-Artzi is not a pacifist. Israeli law obliges every young man, except ultra-orthodox Jews, to serve three years' conscription. Seven months ago, Ben-Artzi stood before Colonel Deborah Chassid at the army induction centre and told her he had no intention of signing up. He was not alone. A few days later, another teenager came before Chassid and made much the same arguments.
"I told her I object completely to killing," says 19-year-old Uri Ya'akovi. "I can't imagine myself being part of killing, even if it's indirect. I told them this but they don't listen. They just try to scare you. They tell you you will be raped in jail. They say you are a traitor. Other boys said they would also object, but after that only a few still make a stand and go to jail."
Chassid sentenced both young men to a month in military prison number four, notorious for its life under canvas and harsh discipline.
Ben-Artzi exercised his right to see one of the "conscience committees" reluctantly set up by the government after it signed up to international human rights conventions. When he walked into the room he discovered every member of the committee was a serving military officer. "I was asked questions. I answered. Their decision was that I'm not a pacifist. It's an automatic decision. No one has ever been accepted as a pacifist. Israel is the only country that officially declares there are no pacifists."
The committee came to the remarkable conclusion that his persistent resistance to the army was evidence of the qualities of a soldier and therefore he could not be a pacifist. "It's politics," Ben-Artzi says. "The only type of conscientious objection they recognise is from the Jewish religion."
There are other ways out of conscription. Every year, thousands of young men find a psychologist to declare them mentally unsound. Uri Ya'akovi's father, Adam Keller, did that more than a decade ago. "I refused to do duty in Lebanon so they made me a dishwasher in a tank regiment. In 1988, at the beginning of the intifada, I went out one night and wrote on the tanks: 'Soldiers refuse to be occupiers and aggressors. Don't go to the occupied territories'."
Keller scrawled the graffiti on 117 tanks before he was caught on the second night. "I did three months in prison for that," he says. "When I was in high school, some pupils passed out leaflets on what was happening in the occupied territories. People said it couldn't be that our soldiers would do such things. Now you read worse things in the mainstream media and people don't care. We used to say that if only people know about it, it would stop. Now they know about it, and it hasn't stopped."
Eventually, Keller slipped out of the army by getting himself declared mentally unfit. "A psychiatrist asked me what was my motivation. I told him it was the people in history who fought for right that motivated me. Then he said: 'Can we say you hear the voice of history?' That's how I got my discharge - he wrote on my report that I was hearing voices of history."
Ten days ago his son, Uri Ya'akovi, finally decided to play ball with the army before a "competence committee". "They told me they didn't want to hear about pacifism or conscientious objection," he says. "I said I didn't want to be in the army because I don't like the uniform. It's half true, you know. I don't like the uniform, but I made it sound bigger."
The military's official reason for getting rid of Ya'akovi was because his "low motivation and morale made him unfit for the army", without conceding the pacifism principle.
Last week, Ben-Artzi was called in for a chat by a brigadier general. "I am not talking to you as a general to a draftee, but as Avi to Yoni, OK?" he said. The general had an offer. If Ben-Artzi agreed to enlist he would be granted "an easy service, without a gun, uniform or military training". A job would be found for him in a hospital. Ben-Artzi replied that he would do three years' service, but not in an organisation dedicated to killing. The army changed tack. It declared Ben-Artzi was already conscripted and ordered the first court martial of a conscientious objector in three decades. The maximum sentence is three years - the length of conscription. Although a model prisoner who made no attempt to escape during his first 200 days in prison, Ben-Artzi was handcuffed when he left his new cell. This one had no furniture and food was served without a knife or fork.
At the initial hearing, the military prosecutor described Ben-Artzi as "no better than any deserter or drug addict," and said the young prisoner was not a pacifist because "the competent military committee has already reviewed his case" and decided he was not. He added that to let Ben-Artzi go would "undermine discipline in the army".
Opinion is divided on whether Ben-Artzi is being singled out because of his uncle. Ya'akovi thinks so. "They think Yoni is the leader of this protest, that we're all following him because his family is powerful. But it's not true," he says.
Ben-Artzi disagrees, and may be right. His absolute refusal to give an inch to the army has made him a uniquely awkward customer.
Netanyahu has not involved himself in the case, other than to say that he wishes his nephew would change his mind. Ben-Artzi seems unlikely to do so, and it may yet be that the army is the one forced to change. Today's court martial opens the way to the supreme court where human rights lawyers believe the young refusenik will finally get to put his case before civilian judges - who are more likely to be persuaded that there is such a thing as a pacifist in Israel