Yuval Lotem phoned
another defiant old soldier who refuses to serve in
the Israeli army just to remind himself what prison
felt like. Then the 45-year-old former paratrooper
reported to the local barracks, expecting a swift
transfer to an army jail.
"I arrived at the
base and told them I'm not going to the West Bank,"
"Some of the other
soldiers got upset. They started arguing and
shouting. Then they said, 'OK, but surely you can do
a few days training new soldiers'.
"No I can't. If I'm
not prepared to go to the occupied territories, I'm
not going to train someone else to do it."
Lieutenant Lotem, a
film-maker, was called up this week to guard
isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He
spent yesterday at a depot in Tel Aviv waiting to
find out whether his refusal will earn him a third
spell in prison or whether the army will quietly rid
itself of a troublesome soldier.
He is not alone:
nearly 500 Israeli soldiers have signed a petition
refusing to serve in the occupied territories.
They form a tiny
proportion of the citizens' army, which numbers
several million, but their defiance irks the defence
force and the government because many of them are
men with a record of exemplary service who question
the morality of Israel's policies.
"The Israeli army
is doing terrible things in the occupied
territories," Lt Lotem said.
"I regard it as
real crimes, always in the name of protecting our
women and children."
Most of those who
have signed the petition say they are willing to
fight in defence of Israel but they condemn military
service in the territories as the "war of the
settlements" and "nothing to do with the security of
They are not
without support. More than 300 academics at Israeli
universities have signed a petition in support of
refusenik students who face prison and a lifetime of
official discrimination when applying for education
and social benefits.
But Israeli public
opinion generally takes a different view. Support
for the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has surged
since he ordered the army to crack down on the
Palestinian territories in response to suicide
"Some people call
me a coward or a traitor. That's not the worst thing
that can happen to me," Lt Lotem said.
"The worst thing
that can happen is that I kill a 10-year-old
Palestinian boy the age of my daughter."
One of his stints
in prison led him to form an unlikely alliance.
Five years ago he
refused to guard Palestinians in one of Israel's
notoriously harsh internment camps. A newspaper
article on his defiance caught the eye of Imad Sabi,
a Palestinian detained indefinitely by the Israelis
for "political activity".
Mr Sabi tracked him
down in an attempt to understand his unusual
They began a public
correspondence which revived the long-extinct debate
between Israelis on the nature and extent of
detention without trial. They finally met when they
But while a
condition of Mr Sabi's freedom was his exile, Lt
Lotem was released to face an annual ritual of
refusing to serve.
Perhaps the army
will send him to prison again, perhaps it will seek
a compromise. But he is less ready than ever to give
"There was a time
when if they had said I could do a desk job then I
would have done it," he said. "But now I won't do it
if there is a single piece of paper that crosses
that desk that is connected with the occupation."