Abi, 24, is a reservist, called up a month ago to help wage war against what his government says is a "terrorist infrastructure" whose suicide bombs have killed dozens of Abi's countrymen. But while Abi fights the Palestinians, he is also waging a war with his conscience.
Jerusalem -- For four days last week, Sgt. Abi ordered his squadron to
fire anti- tank missiles at what his commanders said were terrorist
bases in a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin.
Watching the rickety plaster and mud-brick houses of the Palestinian
colony crumble under the rockets, Abi said he prayed that at least one
of his missiles would miss its target.
"This stupid war that we are waging, it's awful," he said. "Killing
people, as many as possible -- there is no point in this."
Abi, 24, is a reservist, called up a month ago to help wage war against
what his government says is a "terrorist infrastructure" whose suicide
bombs have killed dozens of Abi's countrymen. But while Abi fights the
Palestinians, he is also waging a war with his conscience.
"I can't begin to explain to you what we are going through right now. We
are doing something totally against what we believe in," he said. "For
you, it's a paradox. For us, it is killing us from inside."
Abi is in a minority, which he knows. "You cannot refuse to fight in the
Israeli society. It means jeopardizing everything," he said. Abi did not
want his real name used or other details of his peacetime life
disclosed. He does not want to be recognized, to be pegged as a traitor
in a nation under siege.
But he is not entirely alone. Conversations with other reservists on
active duty suggest that there are others who share the seeds of doubt.
Gai Rottenberg, one of the few who allowed his name to be used, has been
in Ramallah with his infantry unit for the past 21 days, searching
Palestinian homes for weapons and explosives. He said he has arrested
about a dozen suspects and found explosives intended for suicide
bombers. Still, he does not believe he is part of the solution.
"We cannot stop terror this way," Rottenberg said. "This brutal campaign
will get us nowhere."
None of the reservists interviewed was a "refusenik" -- the
approximately 400 Israeli enlisted men and officer reservists who have
refused to fight in the occupied territories since January. But their
ranks could grow, analysts say, if Operation Defensive Shield does not
"If the offensive continues, you will see more people disobeying
military orders," said Gad Barzilai, who teaches political science and
law at Tel Aviv University.
'MOST PEOPLE COME AND SERVE'
Military officials do not seem concerned about such expressions of
"We do not see any problem of motivation in the (15,000-member) reserve
forces," said Yuval Borat, an IDF spokesman. "People may have different
ideas about the operation, but most people come and serve."
Arik, a reserve paratroop captain, is one of those who heeded the call,
despite being a prominent member of Peace Now, Israel's leading peace
The 32-year-old Arik, who also asked that his real name not be used,
said his current tour of duty in the West Bank is "surreal" given that
Peace Now advocates that Israel go back to borders that existed before
the 1967 war. But refusing to fight would make him a social outcast, and
a traitor to himself.
"That would be saying I cannot do anything for Israel," he said. "If I
can't change Israel, if I have given up on this country, then I might as
well go and live elsewhere."
A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
But for some, like Abi, the experience of the past few weeks may have
changed their relationship with their country.
After four straight days of shelling, Abi and his men entered the Jenin
refugee camp, armed with M-16s as they went door to door in search of
terrorists. He was devastated by what he witnessed.
He saw sections of the camp being leveled by bulldozers, leaving houses
without walls or roofs. Layers of rubble covered the ground. "Every
house, if it is still standing, has great holes in it," Abi said. "All
the people who have fled have nowhere to go back to."
Abi said he did not shoot at any Palestinians during the five-day sweep.
He also denied Palestinian and Arab charges that Israeli forces
deliberately killed civilians in Jenin.
But he also disputed his own government's account of the fighting --
that all skirmishes involved battles between Israeli troops and
"The Israeli propaganda says that we only shot at the houses that we
needed to destroy," Abi said. "This is not true. I wish that it were
only property that has been damaged."
When Abi was asked if he saw any dead bodies in the ruins, his voice
turned to a whisper:
"If there were people there, they are no longer among us. If there was
an elderly man who couldn't get away, he is dead by now."
"Even if one person was killed, it's already too much."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle 18 April 2002 Page A - 1