israel`s refuseniks - a crisis of conscience

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    Israel`s Refuseniks - A Crisis of Conscience
    Dateline, SBS TV (7 August 2002)

    Just a few minutes ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to an Israeli plan for a conditional pullback from Gaza. But, even so, Israel hasn`t paused in its military campaign to this point. Late this afternoon, the Tulkarm head of the al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was killed by Israeli forces. Many Israelis, however, don`t believe such actions can stop the suicide bombings. And surprisingly, some of the most vocal sceptics have come from within the ranks of the Israeli military itself. Matthew Carney reports.
    REPORTER: Matthew Carney

    We are right in the heart of the Gaza Strip at the Israeli army post of Marganit. After three years of compulsory military service, Israelis continue doing reserve duty - a month in the army every year. This is a reservist platoon, a mixed bunch from all over Israel - tradesmen, engineers, IT workers and students. They've been coming together for more than 10 years. In Israel, the army is a rite of passage - it's the institution that binds the nation together.

    ARMY RESERVIST: Here everybody is equal, everybody comes for the same reason, for a limited time, and you depend on each other. This makes the bond strong.

    Their mission this year is to protect the 7,000 Jewish settlers, who have chosen to live among the one million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. To do that, almost as many soldiers have been sent in to throw a cordon around the settlements.

    ISRAELI SOLDIER: We are guarding actually the civilians behind us. You can look over there. It's 500m behind us, and the border over here is 60m from us, so it's actually very close, everything. So our job is to let the civilians behind us live normal, without fear, without terror, without anything.

    The day is their down time. The night will bring the Palestinian militants who try to infiltrate the settlements. And tonight they are expecting trouble. Yesterday, an elite army unit assassinated two senior Hamas militants in the nearby Rafah refugee camp. They anticipate a revenge attack. As night falls, company commander Amnon Cohen undertakes the dangerous task of checking surveillance equipment at the camp's perimeters. Amnon hears gunfire. The militants have arrived. The Palestinians have engaged the next Israeli platoon a kilometre away. Amnon expects his turn to come and falls back to base. Amnon and his troops wait and wait.

    AMNON COHEN, ISRAELI COMPANY COMMANDER: If you will say now this night is like the other nights, they will hit us. They can improve every day, the terrorists. They learn us. We are static and they have the surprise.

    After six hours, there's still no sign of the militants. Israel is the military superpower in the Middle East. No Arab nation can match it. But it's not equipped to fight a popular uprising. In part frustration and part show of strength, the soldiers let off live fire into the darkness, at an unseen enemy, in a war they can't win.

    AMNON COHEN: A lot of time and a lot of blood to the both parts to understand that there is no other way to divide the land and to live together.

    REPORTER: Do you think they should have a state, or not, in the end? Or what do you think?

    AMNON COHEN: I think yes. I think they have to have a state, but they will have to accept us and we will to accept them.

    This is what the soldiers are protecting - a block of Jewish settlements called Gush Khatif. Built on land conquered in the Six Day War of 1967, these settlements are illegal under international law. Palestinians see them as one of the biggest obstacles to peace, preventing the creation of a viable state. The Sappersteins are typical of the people who live here. They moved from New York City to Jerusalem and then onto Gush Khatif. Moshe was injured fighting for Israel in the war of 1973. He and his wife believe that by returning to the Promised Land, they are doing God's work.

    RACHEL SAPPERSTEIN, SETTLER: We feel a special purpose being here. We feel that God put us into the right place at the right moment. We feel that this is an important moment in our life. We've always participated in all the great miracles of Israel. And this is also a...I don't know whether you would call it a great miracle, but there's something going on within the land of Israel at this point, which is only going to be good.

    MOSHE SAPPERSTEIN, SETTLER: I grew up on John Wayne movies in the US, World War II movies. I can give you the dialogue from 'Sands of Iwogima', to 'Back to Bhutan', to 'Corrigador', to any movie you want. OK? We feel we have a mission - does that make us missionaries? And, you know, we are carrying it out. I don't mind admitting that psychologically I get off on this sort of thing. OK? I know it's a terrible thing to say. I'm supposed to be a balanced, reasonable human being, but I've always been nuts, so I am very happy being here and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

    The settlers live in an unreal world behind barbed wire, cut off from the chronic poverty and anger of the Palestinians who surround them.

    RACHEL SAPPERSTEIN: I love this view - I love it, I love it. We wanted a warm area with a view of the Mediterranean and, as you can see, we have one straight out of our window. It's gorgeous here. The people here are lovely, they're warm, they're friendly, it's sort of America 1950 with a very laid-back atmosphere, it's an agricultural community.

    The settlers are extremists in Israeli society. Israeli negotiators at Camp David had agreed to dismantle Gush Khatif before peace talks broke down in 2000. But the settlers here won't go. They believe the Palestinians should leave.

    MOSHE SAPPERSTEIN: See, I'm one of those who walks around saying "end the occupation". It doesn't make me one of them, because when I say "end the occupation", I mean end the occupation of Jewish land by Arabs.

    RACHEL SAPPERSTEIN: Yes, they have a wonderful land called Jordan, which is already settled by 80% of these Palestinians, and they should join their brothers and live under King Abdullah and have a wonderful, wonderful life in their own land. They could call it Palestine, change the name, and they will have a wonderful, wonderful life there. I believe that they should emigrate, be in their own land of Jordan.

    Back in civilian life, company commander Amnon Cohen can talk more openly. He is a civil engineer who lives in Israel proper in the coastal town of Haifa. Like most of his soldiers, he doesn't believe in the settlers' ideology. What's more, 19 Israeli soldiers have paid with their lives defending the settlements of Gush Khatif.

    AMNON COHEN: We have to leave all the settlements in Gaza because I've been there now - you saw me there - I didn't tell you then because I was a soldier, but now we have nothing to do there. It's their country. We have to go out, we have to give them all of the Gaza. To go to the border - there is a border there, there is a fence.

    But Amnon isn't torn between his political beliefs and his duty as a soldier. He will go back to his post when called up next year.

    AMNON COHEN: It's a conflict only in the mind, because when I go there, first I'm a soldier, a trained soldier. So I understand what I have to do. Second, these are people. There is children there, wives, husbands, old people. They are there - they are there now. I have to protect them. If I won't protect them, they will die.

    But many are refusing to go. In greater numbers than ever before, Israelis are saying no to military service in the occupied territories. They call themselves refuseniks. There have been refuseniks before, but this time, it's different. The majority come from the elite units in the army.

    YANIV IPZCOVITZ, REFUSENIK: Nobody can tell us, well, you know, you're just cowards or something like that. Each and every one of us fought and fought a lot for this country, and we've been to the territories. We know exactly what's going on there, and that's the force of our refusal.

    After 10 years of service in the occupied territories as an elite paratrooper, Yaniv Ipzcovitz refused to serve in Gaza last January. Soon after, he and 50 others published a full-page letter in an Israeli newspaper, announcing their intention to refuse. They called their group "Courage to Refuse". 474 others have now signed on - soldiers unwilling to fight a war for the settlements.

    YANIV IPZCOVITZ: We are giving more and more money for an unjust war. It is corrupting us because the extreme and fundamentalistic sides of our society are getting stronger and stronger. The society is becoming less compassionate, less human.

    MICHAEL SFARD, CO-FOUNDER "COURAGE TO REFUSE": We grew up, we were told many things we found out that were lies. We were told that the IDF was the most moral army in the world and we served there in combat units and we discovered that it's not so true.

    The refuseniks say the occupation has nothing to do with the security of Israel. In fact, it's corroding the very principles of justice and democracy upon which they believe Israel was founded.

    CHOME VISE, REFUSENIK: We can be moral or occupy. We have to make a decision. Because the occupation is immoral. We cannot have the privilege of sitting in coffee shops in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, not suffering from what we are doing next door.

    MICHAEL SFARD: We got used to people being killed on a daily basis in the occupied territories. We got used to mistakes. We got used to holding a whole nation without any civil rights, and this being 'used to' corrupts ourselves from within.

    Their moral stance comes at a cost - the refuseniks are going to jail in increasing numbers. This is Military Prison Six, where about 40 refuseniks are currently serving terms of up to 40 days for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. A total of 80 have been jailed following closed military hearings. Every week those still on the outside hold a demonstration opposite the prison to support the cause. Through their mobile phones, they speak with their colleagues inside.

    VOICE OVER MOBILE PHONE: ...something as important as being here in jail. It's the most significant thing I've done in the reserves. The importance of each refusenik lies in his refusal to take part in the activities in the Territories. And I would ask that we all keep on trying to get more and more refuseniks. That's what I wanted to say. Thanks.

    Serving in the army is seen as almost a sacred duty in Israel. It's also a passport to sought-after jobs in government and business, by attacking it, the refuseniks are isolating themselves from Israeli society. But it's a price they are willing to pay.

    YANIV IPZCOVITZ, REFUSENIK: I believe that the most religious thing to do today, if you are really a Jewish believer, is to refuse, because I think that the tradition of Judaism or the legacy of Judaism is the moral legacy. You know? We should know best. We were the ones that everyone persecuted all over Europe and all over the other places in the world, and we should know what is freedom. We should know what is equality. We should know what is morality.

    Michael Sfard is a lawyer as well as refusenik. In an unprecedented move, he's now taking the refusenik case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Sfard represents another refusenik. David Zonshein was jailed following a closed military hearing and is now demanding a public hearing. This will give the refuseniks the opportunity to put the occupation on trial.

    MICHAEL SFARD: The file would be called "The IDF versus David Zonshein", but in the same courtroom, there would be a simultaneous, another case, and this is "David Zonshein versus the Israeli occupation".

    Today they have won their first battle. The Supreme Court orders that David Zonshein be released from military custody. And a month later, an even more significant victory - the case will be heard by a tribunal of Supreme Court judges. A ruling isn't expected for several months. The refuseniks also have received support from an unlikely source. The Council of Peace and Security is a group of 1200 serving and retired generals, colonels, Shin Bet and Mossad agents. These are the men that made Israel a regional superpower, but their combined experience tells them there is no military solution to the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada.

    NATI SHAARONI, RESERVIST GENERAL: Here you fight amongst civilian population who supports subversion. This is a war that cannot be won by force. This is the kind of war that, if you want to win by force, you have basically to think in terms of genocide, because if you don't perform a genocide, then there will be always somebody who will initiate subversion against you, because national feelings cannot be killed by force, only if the person who feels it is being killed. And we have learnt through history - I'm talking about modern history. It didn't work with the Brits in Malaya. It didn't work with the French in Algiers. It didn't work with the Kurds, and it doesn't work in Chechnya.

    The council has a clear plan to end the conflict.

    DAVID KIMCHE, FORMER VICE HEAD OF MOSSAD: We think that we have to leave the territories, we have to leave the West Bank and Gaza. We think we have no place to be there. We think the settlements have to be disbanded. There can of course be arrangements made along the 1967 Green Line, in which we would be able to encompass some of the settlements near the line, but basically, we believe that we have to go back to the 1967 line as the starting element for negotiations and disband the settlements and to reach peace with our Palestinian neighbours.

    Despite its level of experience, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to meet the council and hear its demands. It's now attempting to collect a million signatures to present to the government. In places like Tel Aviv, its plan resonates with the young and secular.

    MOSHE SAPPERSTEIN: Somebody asked me yesterday, do I feel resentment against Arabs for what happened to me, or something like that? And my answer, which I'm afraid is not politically correct, was "If you live in a jungle and lions attack you, do you feel resentment? No. That's what lions do." OK? The people that I feel resentment against are the left-wing liberal Jews who feel that Zionism is original sin and that we stole land from people who were here before us and we have to make up for it by compensating them, by giving them this, that and the other. These are the people who will argue against the settlements.

    Settlers like the Sappersteins are not going to go without a fight, and they have the full backing of the Prime Minister. The Government has allocated an estimated A$1 billion to settlement security this year.

    YANIV IPZCOVITZ: The occupation is killing us economically. I think that morally we will not know right from wrong. I think we will start to have civil wars inside Israel.

    The voices of moderation are hoping the Israeli public will realise that the cost of defending these outposts is too great.

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