By Oren Yiftah'el, Geography Department, Ben-Gurion University (translated by Mike Raphaeli)

The controversy regarding the refusal to serve in the territories has so far focused primarily on condemning the refuseniks (see e.g. Nadav Ha'etzni, "The most contemptible of our boys", published in Ma'ariv, March 1), under authority of the state and questions of conscience. Another critical dimension--which was hardly debated--is the geographic topic. The refuseniks have raised a significant point: the state has no authority to impose its jurisdiction on people outside its recognized borders.

The global political order is founded on states with internal sovereignty, that is to say, on their ability to enforce their laws. But state sovereignty is limited to its recognized territory. Therefore there is no basis for the arguments of those who equate the refusal to participate in occupation (which is illegal) and the possibility of the future evacuation of settlements.

Occupation and settlements are patently illegal. Therefore, all those who take part in them (the state, the settlers and their supporters) are the genuine legal refuseniks. According to international law, the refuseniks [to serve in the Territories] are the perfect citizens. Even the State of Israel, under all right-wing governments, has never annexed the settlements, which is a clear indication of their illegality.

Beyond the current controversy, the debate on refusal to serve in the territories has revealed the disastrous conditions in which the Israeli society finds itself. It could be called "regional blindness." It is a blindness which removes from the debate the question of "where" which is very significant to understanding the reality of ethnic conflicts. For many years, Israel has eradicated the "Green Line" from all official documents and from textbooks. A new generation is growing up who is not even aware of the international boundaries of our country.

We are inundated daily with expressions such as "terror," "Arabs," "Jews," "settlements," "homeland," and even "Jerusalem" without reference to their location and political status. Occupation and settlements have disappeared from the Israeli dialogue, and settlements are increasingly mentioned as an integral part of the state. Why is "regional blindness" disastrous? Here are three reasons:

First, breaching "our" regional boundaries harms the effective defense of our citizens. "Regional blindness" prevents the various arms of the government to carry out their most basic responsibility--establishing borders and protecting innocent citizens from murderous Palestinian violence.

Second, the "regional blindness" impels many Israelis to accept occupation and settlements as givens, while the refuseniks are condemned as causing national division. But if we look in a regional perspective we will find out that it is precisely the settlers who divide the people. After leaving the state's sovereign territory, the solidarity they are seeking with it requires the continuation of the occupation, and leads to Palestinian uprising, the destruction of democracy and international isolation. The settlers' impossible demand for "unity" leads to inevitable division in the nation. And perhaps even to fraternal war.

Third, and most important, this regional blindness is causing the disintegration of the State of Israel as a political entity. The blurring of borders and the establishment of 140 settlements has created a condition of continued apartheid in the territories and the alienation of the Arab minority in Israel.

Against this background, there are many Palestinian voices, including those of ministers in the Arafat government, who are calling for a "South African" struggle for equal rights in all of Israel, instead of a war for a poor and disjointed state. Every intelligent person realizes that this strategy is more tempting over time since they will become a majority soon between the Jordan and the sea. Under a bi-national state, the problem of refugees could be solved easily, and many Palestinians can find jobs in the developed Jewish economy.

The Islamic organizations in the Territories and a large number of Israeli Arabs are joining these voices. In other words, many among the Palestinian people are reacting to the long occupation by discarding the dream of an independent Palestinian state. But it is important to remember: If there were no Palestinian state there will be no State of Israel!

Thus, the refuseniks are providing a real service to the Israeli society--not only are they generating an important debate on the moral degradation of enslaving another people, but they are also sharpening the unavoidable geographic truth: If the occupation is not terminated and the settlements are not evacuated, there will simply be no Israel.

Oren Yiftah'el