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Courage to Refuse > Press > In the service of refusal - Amir Ben-David
In the service of refusal - Amir Ben-David 01/10/2004

Now that he and the group he leads are candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, David Zonsheine is looking toward the next stage of the struggle. His charisma gave the refusal of soldiers to serve in the territories a measure of legitimacy in Israeli society. The same just cause, he believes, will ultimately lead the country to come to its senses.

Now that he and the group he leads are candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, David Zonsheine is looking toward the next stage of the struggle. His charisma gave the refusal of soldiers to serve in the territories a measure of legitimacy in Israeli society. The same just cause, he believes, will ultimately lead the country to come to its senses. 


It seemed to be a routine interview to one of the many foreign media outlets that have shown an interest in the intriguing phenomenon of which Zonsheine is the leader: combat officers in the reserves who are telling the state that they are no longer willing to take part in the occupation of the territories.


The Norwegians wanted to hear about the circumstances that led to the creation of Courage to Refuse, the organization of the refusenik soldiers. Zonsheine, experienced in interviews, described the night in 1995 when, as a young platoon commander, he and his troops escorted two Shin Bet security service agents to arrest a suspect. They surrounded the house, Zonsheine related, and then, as instructed by the agents, burst in and found a frightened, destitute family. The agents subjected the father of the family to a cruel interrogation, on suspicion that he was in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle. Afterward, they dragged out the bleeding man, who was unable to stand on his feet after the pummeling he took, and dragged him to a nearby field, in order to trap his 14-year-old nephew, who according to the suspect, knew more than he did. They found the boy sleeping next to his herd of goats on a light blanket in the middle of the field. He was roughly roused from his sleep and underwent a brutal interrogation, which landed him in hospital.


Zonsheine has dealt extensively with the connection between the wrongs of the occupation and the anxieties from the Holocaust that he absorbed when he was growing up, and the subject came up in the interview as well. "The words that the Shin Bet agent used in the house were, `Separate the man from his wife and children.' So the associations with the Holocaust were triggered in me already then, though at the time I had no heretical thoughts. The only associations with the Holocaust at that stage were, that because of everything that happened then, everything that is now happening is fine. They killed us once, and since then we can effectively do whatever we want."


During the interview, an older man, the father of the Norwegian director, sat in a corner of the room, listening intensely, and with obvious emotion, to Zonsheine's testimony. After the interview he asked Zonsheine if he could stay a little longer to talk about his feelings. He bid farewell to his son and the crew and remained for a conversation that lasted into the night.


Zonsheine learned that the man's name was Hans Schilde and that he was the son of a former SS officer. "He told me that the things I talked about were exactly what had preoccupied him his whole life. `My father was an animal,' he told me, `and for my whole life I have asked myself how I could be the son of an animal. Since I reached maturity, all I have done is to try to prevent such things.' He told me that he himself had refused to serve in the German army and that the authorities let it go, he wasn't tried. We spoke for a few hours and then he left and disappeared - I didn't hear a word from him and had almost forgotten that night."


But Hans Schilde didn't forget. He went back to Oslo and got his friends interested in the testimonies his son had photographed in Israel. And Schilde, it turns out, has influential friends. Three of them - Bishop Belo, the Guatemalan freedom fighter Rigoberta Menchu (Nobel Peace Prize, 1992) and Dr. Matthias Roessler, the science and education minister of Saxony - were so impressed by Zonsheine's testimony that they decided to recommend him for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Zonsheine and the group of officers he heads are setting a moral standard for the entire world, Belo wrote.


Anything can happen


How likely is it that the Nobel Prize committee will announce, on October 8 at 11 A.M., that the Peace Prize for 2004 is going to David Zonsheine from Israel? Not very likely. Why should they choose a largely unknown person who heads a group of reserve officers to receive one of the world's most prestigious prizes? Still, you never know. The last time a prize was awarded to heroes of peace from the Middle East isn't remembered as one of the glorious moments in the history of the prize, so maybe this is an opportunity to make amends. And besides, the recommenders enjoy international renown, the eyes of the whole world are on the Middle East, and any way you look at it, Zonsheine and his buddies offer a challenging alternative.


Just to think about the ruckus that will be kicked up here if Courage to Refuse gets the prize, and in Oslo, of all places. "I'm embarrassed even to talk about it," Zonsheine says. He himself was astounded when Hans Schilde visited Israel in February to tell him about the initiative. "He showed my testimony to a great many people and told them about Courage to Refuse and about combat officers who continue to serve in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and think that army service is critical for Israel's existence, but nevertheless refuse to serve in the territories and go to prison. He said he believes that not only does what we are doing engender hope - and all the words people like to use - but that he believes that a refusal movement will soon spring up in America, and then they will look at Israel and try to understand the story of the officers who think it's important for them to serve in the army but nevertheless refuse."


What goes through the mind of a 31-year-old person when he discovers that two Nobel Peace laureates are recommending him for the prize? "I went into shock," Zonsheine says. "What a thing ... Fantasies? I can't deny it. But I am not Mohamed ElBaradei [the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency and reportedly a leading candidate for the Peace Prize this year], whom you see on CNN four times a day. Forget it, I'm not going to win ... even though there are sometimes underdogs [who do win].


"The only thing I fantasize about is not my delivering a speech there. I fantasize that a Jewish soldier ... no, that hundreds of Jewish soldiers, a thousand Jewish soldiers, will get the Nobel for learning something from the history of their own people. The real fantasy is to say that with all the power of our army - and we have awesome power - we knew when to say no. That that is the real power of our country. That we said no in places where others didn't know how to say no. That we got to a place where we saw close up the demolished homes, the crying children, and we were able to stand up and say that this has nothing to do with Israel's security. It would also be nice, because Nobel himself was the inventor of dynamite and then created the prize. There's something splendid about soldiers, of all people, getting the prize."


Hey, hold on, you haven't received it yet.


"Right. Okay, it's not that I'm contemplating the idea of going to Oslo. It would be the surprise of my life and would change my life, but I'm not there."


Aren't you someone who is prone to fantasies?


"I am, as a matter of fact. If I weren't a fantasist, I wouldn't be here. The last time I left Kissufim checkpoint I made a childish vow - naive, unrealistic - to take the IDF out of the territories. I made a vow. I got out of there and I told myself I would take the IDF out of there. What's that if not a fantasy?"


True Zionism


The speculations about the Nobel Peace Prize are bandied about in total darkness. The prize committee maintains secrecy and doesn't report on its considerations. Even after the year's prize winner is announced, the committee never reveals the shortlist. As in Zonsheine's case, the only information that leaks out comes from the recommenders. Zonsheine called the prize committee's office twice to try to find out his chances, but was politely denied any information. The committee would not even confirm whether he is a candidate or not. Questions to the committee from Haaretz last week on the same subject went unanswered. In addition to ElBaradei, who is an Egyptian, there are said to be two other candidates with good prospects, Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, directors of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to dismantle nuclear missiles and submarines in the former Soviet Union.


Three other names mentioned as having reasonable, albeit fewer, prospects, are Hans Blix, the former head of the United Nations' group of inspectors to find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction; Jiang Yanyong, the Chinese physician who exposed his country's cover-up of the SARS epidemic; and Mordechai Vanunu, Israel's nuclear whistleblower, who was recently released from prison after serving an 18-year term. So maybe if Zonsheine doesn't win, another Israeli will.


But even without the Nobel Peace Prize, Captain (res.) David Zonsheine has no intentions of vanishing from the scene. Since his reserve duty in December 2001, after which he decided that he was going to take the IDF out of the territories, his commitment to the struggle has not diminished and his fervor has not cooled. He was jailed twice by the IDF, in June 2002 and December 2003, serving a total of 35 days for refusing to serve in the territories, and he petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking it to rule that the very call-up to serve in the territories is an illegal order. The June 2002 petition drew extensive publicity but was rejected by the court.


After the refuseniks' struggle had already been eulogized - in this magazine, too, two years ago - Zonsheine worked behind the scenes to organize the "Air Force pilots' letter" and the "Sayeret Matkal commandos' letter" (in both cases the signatories informed the defense minister and the chief of staff that they would refuse to serve in the territories in occupation missions, including aerial bombings and targeted assassinations). Now he is busy organizing what is emerging as the next stage in the struggle - he is organizing a group of parents of soldiers in the regular army who will declare openly that they support their sons' refusal to serve in the territories.


"I tell parents who have a son doing compulsory service, `Look what's happening to your kid in the territories,'" Zonsheine explains. "`You have to make him understand that because of the way you raised him, he has to stop serving there.' A soldier like that can't refuse alone. At the age of 19 or 20 he can't decide on his own, because of all the mechanisms of manhood and the desire to be one of the group. He just can't. Even when you see true atrocities you bottle them up inside, or at most tell your buddies and repress it. My hope is that this approach will prompt parents to tell their children, `Guys, serve the state, for your whole life we educated you to serve, but this isn't the place. And if one day you make the decision, you won't get the cold shoulder at home.' "In some ways, that's the mechanism that keeps things running. People are more afraid of being cold-shouldered at home than they are of an enemy bullet. It's amazing. To get the cold shoulder from your dad? It's better to be shot by the enemy. It's incredible, but that's how it works. I say to parents: Explain to your children that they won't be cold-shouldered. We will understand what you did. That is the true volunteering."


To be a Zionist today means to refuse, Zonsheine says. "If a soldier or an officer in the regular army refuses and calls me, he will know that he will get a loving embrace from a person who could be his company commander. He will have someone to talk to. To be a Zionist today means to refuse to serve in the territories. That is a new idea in the Israeli society. Zionism is refusal to serve in the territories. That is the arena of the true war. After all, why did I refuse? Do I have a problem with doing reserve duty? Do I have a problem about going to Nablus? I walked around the Casbah in Nablus like it was my house. Is that courage? Courage is to say `I am not running away.' I stand in front of all my detractors on the right and on the left, and I say, I am a company commander in an elite unit. You are all insane. You have gone nuts. You have taken Zionism to a place where God knows what you did to it, and you even wrapped it in poison candies and stuffed it into my mouth. But today I say to you: I will do everything that has to be done for this country, but I will refuse to do duty in the territories, because this is the true Zionism. Even if a million people tell me I am wrong, I am not wrong."


Gaza no, Golan yes


That's Zonsheine. Vigorous. Without doubts. Totally convinced he is right. And, from the point of view of the military, also very dangerous. Because today there are already hundreds of people who are committed to the struggle, including nearly 400 combat soldiers who have already proved their commitment by going to prison. There is an Internet site and mailing lists and active forums and discussion groups and steering committees - and also funding, whose scale he won't divulge. "There are a few donors in Israel," he says, but declines to give names, "and we have a few donors abroad who get along in the deepest way with the movement's Zionist goals. Donors whose grandfathers founded the state. Jews who established the Jewish community here at the beginning of the last century. I am very glad to be financed by them."


The Rothschild family?


"Mmm ... It's very unheard of to say ... A few families along those lines. Names that are very familiar to the public. Not some foundation from Brazil."


Zonsheine has deep reservations about the group of youngsters who refused to do military service on grounds of conscientious objection and were released from prison on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. "There is a type of respect, but my gut is not there," he says. "That's something I don't understand - non-service in the IDF. I want combat soldiers who are inducted, go through training - and on the day they are told to go to the territories they'll stop. Not to be inducted? Israel needs an army. Sometimes you have to go there and see with your own eyes what's going on."


It's precisely because of this approach, which leaves Zonsheine on the margins of the consensus and doesn't place him beyond the pale altogether, that if Courage to Refuse were to direct its energy to encouraging refusal by regular soldiers to serve in the territories, a new front would be opened that would confront the IDF with a genuine challenge. "They took the reservists out [of the territories] in the wake of our struggle, and now they have only obedient conscripts, and I hope we will reach them very soon. I know that there are hundreds who are talking about it. I know that there isn't a regular unit where refusal isn't talked about. No one is doing it yet, but our message to them is very clear. The minute someone is ready to pay the price, he will have backing. The strongest backing there can be. Backing with capability. With means. A few hundred people who are very committed."


If you are called up for reserve duty to evacuate settlements, will you go?


"No. I won't go. Possibly some people in the movement will go. It's an individual thing. I will not take part in that act, because this is the Israel Defense Forces. Its goal is to defend the state's security. I know how it works. They'll call me to evacuate settlements, but what will happen if the evacuation goes on an extra month and in the meantime we have to defend the region there? From my point of view that is a very difficult dilemma. There's something that Chen Alon [a major in the Armored Corps who is a member of Courage to Refuse] said that I like to quote: `When Levinger [Rabbi Moshe Levinger, founder of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, in 1968] is the last one left in Hebron, I am ready to take him to Tel Aviv one by one.' I am ready to remove the last settler. Everything they sold us since 1992, that we'll be out of there in a jiffy ... I want to see disengagement. I don't buy those promises anymore."


Now you have boxed yourself in. Everything you did was in order to get Israel out of the territories, but when it becomes relevant you don't want to be part of the evacuation. Who will do it?


"The same body that does it everywhere - the police. Is it the army's task to move people from one place to another? Is that a military mission? Do you know how long it takes to evacuate a community of a thousand Palestinians? Give me a company and 20 minutes. Not one person will be left in his house. Didn't de Gaulle remove a million Frenchmen from Algeria? What happened here? Why are we so afraid of the settlers?"


If you are called up for reserve duty for the separation fence inside the Green Line, will you go?


"Absolutely not. I have a friend who is a deputy battalion commander in the Armored Corps. The last time he was called up for reserve duty he refused - that was in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, inside the Green Line. To guard the fence around the Gaza Strip. Is there anything more legitimate than that? But Gaza is sealed off today and people there don't have food to eat, and sometimes they cut the fence without weapons, without anything, just to look for work and find something to eat. This whole situation is so absurd, because the settlements are inside and we are guarding the fence. I don't want to go back to the associations the fence generates in me. The only solution is for this country to have international borders, which I as a soldier want to see. Borders that can be defended. What is the fence? So for 12 kilometers I'm in favor of it, and what happens if I go another 14 kilometers, to a place I'm not in favor of? Do I stop after 12 kilometers? After all, everyone knows what's going on there. They are destroying people's lives, so am I going to be the policeman who stands there? If we arrive at recognized borders, I will be the first one to stand on the border and guard it. As long as the fence is 12 kilometers along the Green Line and then does a loop inside [the territories], it is not a border."


If you're called up for duty on the Golan Heights, will you go?






"Because there is no occupied population there."


So all you need is for the Druze on the Golan to start an uprising and then you'll announce that you won't go there, either?


"Okay, I don't want to get into hypothetical situations. People always say, `And if the residents of Sakhnin [an Arab town in Israel] ... or if the Arabs in Jaffa ...' But that is not the case, and it's not by chance that it's not the case. It doesn't work like that. Ultimately, Israel has to arrive at a settlement with Syria and to finish the story there. Everyone knows that. It's true that until there is no uprising there we won't act. One of the most implicative statements in the world is, `The Arabs only understand force.' The State of Israel doesn't understand anything except force."


How it all began


It's midnight. Zonsheine leans back on his chair in the apartment he has shared with his girlfriend for the past 15 years. He recalls the circumstances that led him, a nice Jewish boy from Ramat Hasharon - who was a unit leader in the Boy Scouts, who grew up in a Zionist family, with many relatives scattered in settlements, who since the age of 10 has obsessively read everything he could get his hands on about the Holocaust and the Zionist movement, who volunteered for an elite unit in the IDF and served with distinction in both the regular army and the reserves, who attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has degrees in physics, mathematics and computer sciences, who is the director of a department in a software firm in Herzliya - to get up one morning and decide that he is going to take the IDF out of the territories.


He recalls his last reserve duty, when a soldier, Barak Madmon, was killed at Kfar Darom, in the Gaza Strip, by a Palestinian mortar shell, when he tried to get children of settlers to leave a playground. "I got back from Gaza, got off at the central bus station, and took the No. 5 bus to Dizengoff. This was two hours after the memorial ceremony for Barak Madmon, when everyone speaker said that he fell for Zionism, for the residents of Tel Aviv, and I am sitting in the second row and saying to myself, `Will I erupt or not in the middle of the memorial ceremony?' My nerves were coming out of my ears. Barak died for Zionism? What Zionism? He died for the Greenberg family in Kfar Darom. Don't they see that? His family sat in the first row, crying. If they hadn't been there I would have gone to the stage and told Tal Russo, my division commander, `Tell me who you're fooling here. What Zionism? Barak died for Zionism? Have you gone nuts? How can I rely on you if we have to fight together?'


"So I walked for a bit on Dizengoff and stopped in front of a cafe on the corner, and I looked at the people who were sitting there, drinking coffee, and I said to myself, `What's going on here?' For a few days I was no more than a zombie. I hardly spoke. Not even in the house. Originally I wasn't very talkative and I was never a political person. It was a very powerful process. I was wiped out for three or four days. I was working for a software company in Herzliya. People asked me, `What's happening?" and I said, `Things are happening in Gaza.' They said, `But you've done it so many times, what's changed now?' And one night I was sitting in the room here and that letter spilled out of me in one blow [the refuseniks' letter]. I showed it to Yaniv Itzkovitz, my platoon commander. He made a few changes, and then I started showing it to friends. It was incredible to hear the reactions. The told me, `Brother, this is the way we have felt for 10 years.'


"When there were five of us, one of the guys said that we had reached the limit and should publish the letter as an ad. A week later I told him, `There will be 500, you'll see.' Little by little a lot of people began to gather here in the apartment. There was energy at high levels. There were times when there were 50 people here. Every time someone else would come and be introduced: `This is Rami, he's a deputy battalion commander in the Armored Corps ... This is Chen, from the Golani Brigade ...' And everyone told his story. When there were 50 of us, we said, Okay, let's go public. Then we started to roll. In the first week we were a hundred, in the second week we were two hundred. During Operation Defensive Shield [April 2002, in the West Bank], 120 people joined. That was a very, very strong warning light for the IDF."


There are now 628 officers and soldiers who have signed the letter. Do you feel they had a part in the decision in favor of disengagement by Prime Minister Sharon?


"Definitely. The journalists Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer [from the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth] interviewed Sharon, and their second question was, `Did the refuseniks influence you in connection with the disengagement plan?' His answer was amazing. He said, `I'm not sure it was the refuseniks.'"


To the end


Do you intend to make Courage to Refuse a political movement?


"I see myself continuing the struggle to the end."


What scares you more - entering politics or going back to being anonymous?


"Going back to being anonymous. Unequivocally. Even if I don't see myself as a politician, as joining an existing party or establishing a party, I don't see any variation in which I stop this battle. When soldiers die in the territories, my nerves come out of my ears. My friends know what it takes out of me. I am simply incapable of breathing, and that propels me into action. Soldiers died in Gaza today [the day on which the interview was conducted] and no one cares, apart from the families, for whom no day in the future will be the same as in the past. And no one bothers to leave his house and his tranquil life to go out and scream.


"I know that feeling from Lebanon and from the territories - when you go in, knowing there's a pretty good chance you'll die, and it's clear to you beyond any doubt that if you die, it won't be of interest to anyone apart from your family. Publicly, as a society, it doesn't bother anyone. It bothers us very much precisely because we come from there. One of the things that infuriates me about the left is that on days when soldiers are killed, the left is occupied with a demonstration that may or may not take place in another month, when what they should do is take a hundred people and go to Morag [the Gaza Strip settlement at which three soldiers were killed last week]."


The left has been doing just that for years. Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom are there almost every week. You didn't invent the wheel, you know.


"We invented the wheel of the soldiers. We invented the wheel of a Zionist movement of soldiers. A movement which I hope will expend into a public movement that will have broader support - and we are working on that - a public movement of soldiers who talk with soldiers. It's not Uri Avnery and it's not Peace Now. Unfortunately, it's only us at the moment."


Who did you vote for in 1999?


"Ehud Barak."


And who would you vote for today?


"I don't know. In the vicinity of the Labor Party, Meretz. It has to be a Zionist party that is against our presence in the territories. I feel that if people were to come with me to Qalandiya for a month - it doesn't matter if they're from the Likud - they would reach the same conclusion. In the deepest sense, my opposition to being in the territories doesn't come from a political place."


It's hard to understand your fear of declaring that what you're doing is a political act. Everything you are doing is political, isn't it? You can't get away from it.


"Every social act that seeks to change reality is political. That's for sure. In that sense, you're right. Refusal is a political act that seeks to change a concrete reality. I didn't set up a support group for guys to tell stories from their reserve service. The goal is for soldiers not to die in the territories. That's all. To be a force whose supreme goal is to put an end to what's going on there and bring the soldiers home, and at the same time to fight against the settlers who are causing us, like some insane militia, to stay there.


"The Israeli public is in such a passive state that it doesn't understand that on the day people stand up and go out to fight them, they'll win. It's not so complicated. It's only the fear that has been instilled in people's hearts that makes them afraid to rise up against the settlers. There's no reason to be so afraid of them. They have to be butted a little, and then people will see they're not all that frightening. If they threaten to shoot at soldiers, they have to know that they will be fired at, too. The IDF is a strong army. It is defeating Hamas and it will defeat the settlers, too. It's terribly simple."


Don't you feel any sympathy for the pain of the settlers, for the fact that these people are going to be uprooted from their homes?


"Of course I do. My family is going to be uprooted. I have cousins who have lived there for 30 years. Of course it pains me, but it doesn't confuse me. You have to be careful not to become confused. The state has made a democratic decision, which the settlers call `transfer,' and that is ludicrous. After all, a transfer means moving people across borders and depriving them of citizenship. These are people who are being returned to the territory of their country in the best conditions imaginable, with all the sorrow and pain."


Is there really sorrow and pain, or is that just a meaningless phrase you're using because it's the conventional thing to do?


"There is, but I don't confuse it with that which serves the State of Israel and all the values I believe in."


Because one could get the impression that you are angrier with the settlers than you are with the Palestinians.


"That's not true. I have family in Kokhav Hashahar. Until three years ago I was there a hundred times - how could it not pain me? When I was a company commander I stayed there a lot. I know everyone there. People know me. It has to hurt me that they will have to pack up and go elsewhere. Obviously that is painful. But there is no possibility of trying to change the reality, when the only thing that drives me is their pain. It will be painful, what can we do. Sometimes you have to do painful things. It's impossible to have a whole country function on the basis of the pain of 50,000 people.


"And Barak Madmon, who died at Kfar Darom - isn't that painful? The hundreds of soldiers who have died - isn't that painful? Were they [the settlers] awash with grief? So it pains them that the soldiers died, but they continue to live there, despite it all. Now it pains me, and I'm not just saying that for its own sake, but they can't go on living there. What are we supposed to do, dismantle the state because they're not willing? To go on living the way we live now? To be controlled by them? What, are we in some kind of psychological treatment here? Treatment by pain? It's very painful and I say enough!" 


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