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Courage to Refuse > Press > From Fringe to Centerstage - Michal Levertov
From Fringe to Centerstage - Michal Levertov 21/01/2004

Though we invested a huge effort in the election campaign, we were unable to make an impact on an indifferent electorate. It looked as if the future was doomed, with both Israelis and Palestinians entrenched in bereavement and mistrust. How, I wondered, could a mere citizen do anything to change this?

A year ago, on the last day of Hanukkah, Chen Alon was released from military jail. My friendship with Chen, a Tel Aviv university lecturer and theater actor, goes a long way back, ever since he married a girl from my kibbutz. We often traveled long hours on the road together, from Tel Aviv to our kibbutz near the Lebanese border, and in the process we developed a special bond. Although we shared the same political views, we tended to talk about personal matters: our childhood in the kibbutz and how it affects our adult lives, Chen and his wife’s experiences as young parents, and of course, the latest kibbutz gossip.


But this routine changed last Hanukkah, after Chen finished a 21-day sentence for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Our discussions were now more pointedly political. We talked a great deal about Chen’s experiences. A major in the Israel Defense Forces’ armored corps, he had fought in the Occupied Territories during his compulsory service, and during the month-long stints Israeli men have to spend in uniform each year. As a young officer, he had even volunteered for an additional year, serving in every refugee camp, village and city in the Territories. "I have behind me 11 years of reserve service," he told me in an uncharacteristically sentimental tone, "but I feel that those 21 days in military jail were the most significant service I have ever given to my country."


That was just before the general elections of January 2003, when I felt helpless, watching the political right — parties insisting on harsh military action against Palestinian terror, but not willing to consider any political solution — scoring massive gains. As an activist for the left-wing Meretz party, I witnessed for myself the despair of the pro-peace camp. Though we invested a huge effort in the election campaign, we were unable to make an impact on an indifferent electorate. It looked as if the future was doomed, with both Israelis and Palestinians entrenched in bereavement and mistrust. How, I wondered, could a mere citizen do anything to change this?


While I was mired in despair and self-pity, Chen was taking action. He and many other fellow refuseniks had established a group called Courage to Refuse: some 600 reserve combatants signed a letter declaring that, as humanists and Zionists, they would not serve the IDF in the Occupied Territories. "We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the Occupied Territories destroy all the values that we were raised upon," the letter said, "shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose — and we shall take no part in them."


I had some misgivings about this pledge. What if this refusal tore apart Israeli society in which the army played such a central role? Didn't such a severe act blur the borders of democracy? I also worried about the international impact of this act of refusal — wouldn’t those who want the destruction of the Israeli state use it as propaganda material? Chen’s response to my reservations was to remind me that a climate of such desperation demands drastic action. Chen and I kept up our discussions, and when, a few months later, I was asked to join the refuseniks’ public campaign, I was convinced that this was an effective, as well as just, struggle. We spent the next months trying to break down the Israeli tendency to ignore the misdeeds of the occupation and our side’s contribution to the ever-widening cycle of blood. For a long time, it seemed a thankless, hopeless task. "The time now is extremely bad," an angry friend wrote to me, when he found out who I was working with, "and in such a time I tend to think more about myself than on the other side. I am more occupied with the security of my family and friends, than with the living conditions of the Palestinians."


The founder of Courage to Refuse, David Zonshine, told me that he had received more then harsh words. At a funeral of a friend who was killed while serving in Gaza, one of the other mourners punched him.


But gradually, the refuseniks’ message began to penetrate into the Israeli psyche. On Sept. 27, a group of élite IDF pilots got huge media coverage when they publicly refused to carry out any more "targeted assassinations" of suspected Palestinian terrorists in civilian neighborhoods. In December, 13 reservists from the ultra-prestigious commando unit "Sayeret Matkal" joined Courage to Refuse, declaring their concerns for Israel’s future in a letter sent to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


Last month, Chen Alon was called again to his annual reserve service, this time within the 67 borders: he readily complied. "I could see the change," he told me, "Reservists who formerly opposed refusal are now appreciating the public debate that it stimulated. Many of them are considering refusal themselves." At the end of 2003, many political analysts were crediting the refuseniks’ campaign with the revival of the Israeli left, the surprising seriousness with which the Geneva Initiative has been received in Israel, and even to Sharon’s declaration of a limited unilateral withdrawal from the Territories. The refuseniks "moved from Israeli society’s margin to its center" the daily Maariv wrote. In 2002, David Zonshine, a captain in the paratroops, was nominated as "person of the year" by the daily Yedioth Ahronot. He didn’t win the title then, but in moving from the fringes to the forefront of Israeli political and public discussion, Courage to Refuse won big in 2003 as a generator of a new, saner, spirit.


Link to the source: http://www.time.com/time/europe/me/article/0,13716,572234,00.html


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