Balk at Occupation, Roiling Israel
JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 - More than 100 Israeli Army reservists signed a statement published today saying they would refuse to continue serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because Israel's policies there involved "dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people."
The statement, by combat officers and soldiers, amounted to the largest organized refusal by reservists to serve in the West Bank and Gaza in the last 16 months of violence.
A week ago, 52 reservists began the campaign of defiance with the statement in the newspaper Haaretz. But their number has now almost doubled, to 102, and a national debate about their stand is in full swing. The campaign has so unsettled the military command that the army's chief of staff suggested today that the objectors were inciting rebellion. The officer, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said on Army Radio that he suspected political motives rather than moral concerns were behind the dissent. "If there is someone who is organizing a campaign on an ideological basis," he said, "in my eyes this is more than refusal to serve. This is incitement to rebellion. There is no act more serious than that."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned in a newspaper interview, "It will be the beginning of the end of democracy if soldiers don't carry out the decisions of the elected government."
Protests by army reservists after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which Mr. Sharon, as defense minister, took all the way to Beirut, are widely considered to have contributed to a subsequent military pullback to southern Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew two years ago.
The declaration today in Haaretz by the dissenting reservists said: "The price of occupation is the loss of the Israel Defense Forces' semblance of humanity and the corruption of all of Israeli society.
It continued: "We will no longer fight beyond the Green Line with the aim of dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people." The Green Line is the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It remains to be seen whether the organizers will meet their goal of collecting 500 signatures and forming a critical mass of resisters that could force a change in government policy. But the prospect that more may join their campaign has prompted a swift response from the army, which has increasingly relied on reservists to back up regular conscripts in the ongoing fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After completing three years of compulsory military service, many Israeli men under 45 continue to serve about a month a year of reserve duty. Since the uprising began, reservists are much more likely to find themselves going on patrols in the occupied areas and guarding Jewish settlements.The military does not release manpower numbers for security reasons, and therefore it is not known exactly how many reservists there are, or how many are serving at any one time. Although the number of objectors is small, their stand has drawn strong responses from a wide segment of the public.
General Mofaz said that the resisters should be suspended from their posts and could be permanently relieved of their command duties. He said that senior officers would decide what disciplinary action to take. The commanding officer of the two reserve lieutenants who drafted the petition, David Zonshein, 28, a software engineer, and Yaniv Itzkovitch, 26, a university teaching assistant, said that he had already suspended them from his paratroop battalion. "An officer who decides which mission he will perform and which he will not is in my view an officer morally unfit to command," Lt. Col. Yaron Appel, the battalion commander, said in a radio interview.
Reservists ready to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip published their own petitions today. One petition called the resisters' declaration "dangerous and antidemocratic," and another asserted that such actions "undermine the basic principle of the rule of law and the state's very ability to defend itself." Since the start of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000, at least 400 Israelis, mostly reservists, have refused service in the Israeli-occupied territories, and in most cases they were quietly released from duty, according to a resisters' group, Yesh Gvul, which means, There is a Limit.
About 40 have been summoned to disciplinary hearings and jailed for up to 28 days, the group said. It is not known what punishment the reservists protesting now might face.
The reservists' public declaration has set off heated debate over the limits of civil disobedience and about the legality and morality of the army's methods in fighting the Palestinian uprising.
With the credibility and moral authority that combat veterans command in Israel, the signers of the petition, many of whom served in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have taken the debate to a new level. Organizers declined interviews with the foreign news media to avoid accusations of stoking international criticism of Israel.
But in interviews in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most widely circulated newspaper, they reported incidents during their service in which they said that soldiers had fired at Palestinians who did not endanger them, including stone-throwing boys as far as 100 yards away.
Their accounts have not been disputed by the army, and General Mofaz said the reported incidents would be investigated. Ariel Shatil, 32, said that in the Gaza Strip last September, his squad was supposed to fire heavy machine guns at a Palestinian town in response to mortar fire. "The gunfire penetrates thin walls and windows, and that kills people, and you don't know who you're killing," he said. Mr. Zonshein said that in an area where he served, houses and orchards were bulldozed in response to Palestinian gunfire.
"We all have limits," he said. "You can be the best officer," and "suddenly you're required to do things that you can't be asked to do: to shoot at people, stop ambulances, destroy houses when no one knows who lives in them."
The resisters reject a contention by some Israelis that, by doing reserve duty in the occupied territories, they can work from inside the army to ensure that it behaves humanely."You can't be both an occupier and moral," said Mr. Itzkovitch, who said he had done combat service in Lebanon and the occupied territories. "Zionism is not occupation."
Refusing to kill