"I refuse to fight for
February 18th 2009
Peace activist Sahar Vardi, 18, has
served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into
Israel's military service. She is one of the Shministim Ė Israeli
teenagers who oppose serving in the army because it enforces Israelís
occupation of the Palestinian territories. Last year 100 young Israelis
signed the Shministim letter, which they sent to the government to
express their objection
Israeli conscripts return from a combat mission.
Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
Activism is in my family Ė my father refused to do
his military service in the first intifada and then in 2002, during the
second intifada, he became active with Taíayush, a coexistence group of
Israelis and Palestinians that mostly works in the occupied territories.
Most of their work is agricultural, they help plant trees and that kind
of thing. From the age of 12 I joined him, in the safer places, and
thatís how I came to know about the occupation.
When I was 14 I started going to demonstrations against the [Israeli
separation] wall, mostly in Bilíin, which is a village next to Ramallah.
I went there every single Friday and from there started being active in
Anarchists Against the Wall [an Israeli group supporting Palestinian
resistance to the wall].
I canít really say when it was that I decided to refuse to go into the
army; I had been active since such a young age and it was almost obvious
from the beginning that I wasnít going to enlist. Iíve been in
demonstrations where the army shot at me and Iíve stood in line for
hours at checkpoints, so it seemed natural to me that I wasnít going to
be a part of it.
Explaining what the Israeli occupation means and why every single
Israeli soldier is responsible for it is something that not everyone
understands, even inside the left. I believe that itís one thing to
criticise the occupation, but if you become a part of it then it is your
responsibility, even if youíre under orders and even if the law makes
you do it.
At 18 every Jewish Israeli has to enlist in the army Ė boys for three
years, girls for two. We show up on the arranged date and form a queue Ė
itís called the line of enlistment. We refusers say "no"; I wore a
T-shirt saying "I refuse to occupy". I was the only refuser in a line of
about 100 girls.
I was put on trial for refusing the order to become a soldier and
sentenced to military prison. The problem is that the moment weíre
released weíre supposed to enlist again, so we go back to the same
procedure Ė they send you to trial again and to prison again. Legally it
can go on for ever.
Iíve been put on trial five times, but only four of them ended in
punishment and only three of them in prison Ė the first time for a week
and the other two for three weeks.
Most of the military prison population is relatively rightwing, so I did
a lot of trying to convince the girls there that Arabs are human beings,
which wasn't easy.
Prison life itself is boring as hell. You wake up at 5:15 every morning,
then at 5:45 you stand in the courtyard, where you are counted for an
hour. They count us again and again and again, and when they finally
decide they have enough prisoners we have breakfast and then we clean
the whole complex. We clean our barracks and the courtyard twice a day.
The rest of the time we sit down for a few minutes and try to read or
talk and then the officers call us to stand in line again, and then we
sit again and then we stand again, and thatís more or less all we do all
The exception is that sometimes we have lessons. A representative of the
educational corps of the army comes and tries to teach us. Usually itís
For me the upside of these lessons was that when there was more than one
refuser in prison we had more confidence and we were the only people in
the classroom who actually knew history Ė we knew it better than the
teacher Ė so we really controlled those lessons.
In Israel the only history we learn is Jewish history. We start with
antisemitism, we go through the Holocaust and from there we get to the
1948 war and how we finally got our state. In prison we had the
opportunity to teach that in a different way, and to people who usually
donít see the other side. In the middle of these lessons we started
talking about the Nakba Ė the 1948 war as seen from the Palestinian
According to the Israeli narrative, the Palestinian refugees ran away
for no apparent reason. We explained that there were massacres and they
had been drawn out of their houses. That was really interesting to do,
we really enjoyed that.
My family were supportive about my refusal. But my family is also
divided Ė the whole of Israeli society is like that. Although my father
supported me, my motherís boyfriend is an army pilot and my brother is
in the army Ė heís a career soldier.
Almost all of my classmates are now in the army. My school has a very
high rate of enlistment Ė in my year group there were 250 kids and only
two, including myself, didnít go into the army.
But luckily for me it didnít interfere with my relationships with
people, mostly because when I moved to the school in the 10th grade I
knew I was going to refuse and it was obvious to everyone around me. On
my first day I handed out leaflets of the shministim letter of that
year, 2005. From that day to the end of my senior year, three years
later, I had kids in my class who didnít speak to me only because of
Iím trying to keep up a relationship with my friends from school but
theyíre now all in the army and if we sit together and talk, all they
talk about is the army. Itís the only thing in their world and I canít
be a part of that.
In a way, refusers are excluded from the population because of that,
because we donít have those army conversation topics. I can even see it
at home, which is sad; my father was a combat soldier and my brother is
in the army, and half of their conversation is in army lingo.
The whole culture revolves around the military. It doesnít seem weird to
us that everyone around us is with weapons Ė here everyone has weapons.
The fact that half the kids in kindergarten dress up as soldiers for
Purim doesnít seem weird to us either. Itís everywhere and we donít even
ē Sahar Vardi was speaking to Andrea D'Cruz.