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Courage to Refuse > Signers > Article
An article by Matan Cohen
 
 
Matan Cohen

"Why I refuse"

 

My decision to refuse to serve in the occupied territories was formed 11 years ago when I finished my compulsory service in the Israeli army as a combatant soldier in the paratroops in 1991 – days of the first Intifada.

 

My antagonism against the service in the occupied territories was built over a period of time during my service in the compulsory army, and before I finished my army service I made a decision to never serve in the occupied territories as a reserve soldier.

 

During my service I witnessed a reality where a small group of extremist messianic settlers along with big army forces are dealing with the aggressive oppression of a civilian population of a few million Palestinians and turn their life into hell, and realized that by serving in these territories I’m not protecting Israel’s security but enforce an act of dehumanization of the Palestinian people and in fact create injustice and more hate.

 

The first uprising was not as violent as the second one, and although being a sniper I was never involved in any shooting incident, and beside getting stoned at I never took part or witnessed an act of beating, or harsh physical violence and always acted according to the moral code I was raised on.

 

I was stationed in the Gaza strip once for a few weeks between “Nusayrat” and “Al Burayj” refugee camps.

The density of the population there was really big, the people were very poor, large families lived in small houses and the sewer ran in the street where huge rats where running.

Most of the local population didn’t up rise against the occupation and most of them were merely trying to get along with their lives. We used to walk through the streets in full combat gear, throw bolts and “shock grenades” (plastic grenades that make a very strong explosion sound) occasionally into people’s back yards, porch’s and even open windows following no provocation, inflict terror as we pass and break into houses for random searches in the middle of the night during the curfew in search for weapon, leaving it in total mess.

 

In one of these searches we entered a house in the middle of the night, the family who all just got out of bed gathered in the hallway, the younger children where terrified, one of them wet his pants as we came in, one of the older daughters, probably 16-18 year old who was standing next to her mother, looked at me with such hate and contempt that it made me embarrassed to be there. I felt very bad for being a part of this, but my commanders were still much of an authority for me, and I didn’t have the guts to refuse at the time. We spread in the house, and although we were instructed never to break up from the others - I found myself alone in a room with a closet and a bunch of mattresses, followed by the father of the family who entered the room shortly after and was looking frightened at me and looking at him I felt really ashamed to be there. One of my commanders entered the room a short while after, shouted at him to get out and told me I should never stay alone, especially not with an Arab in the room. I told him I already searched that room, and we went out.

 

The shooting procedures allowed us to open fire in order to kill - Palestinians who wear “ninja masks” which are cloth masks with holes for the eyes the shabab use to put on for their patriotic force demonstration. Being a sniper I took part in snipers ambushes at nights in these refugee camps, waiting for them to show up on order to shoot them like ducks. I am glad they never showed up because at the time I found that to be a good enough reason to shoot somebody, and I wasn’t likely to miss from that range.

 

At this period I was at a guard duty at the gate of an IDF base in Dir-Al-Balach refugee camp, which is a few kilometers away, while a big operation of seizing wanted men was held.

Every now and then an army jeep would stop in front of the gate and unload a bunch of Palestinians with their hands tied and eyes covered, and set them in lines in the sun while I was suppose to keep an eye that they won’t move or try to escape.

One of the Palestinians had a very nasty wound in his head (the soldiers said that a stone the Palestinians throw hit him). He was losing consciousness, looked really seek and seemed to have a brain shock.

I freed his hands and took the cover from his eyes, gave him water, cleaned his wound and used my personal bandage to bandage it (I asked our medic, but he refused to take a look at him).

Afterwards I started to give the rest of the prisoners water (it was a very hot day), and took them to the toilet one by one. These actions turned me into the laughing matter of the company, but made me feel a bit proud of myself.

I was amazed to see how 18 year old kids who could be nice people in different situation could dehumanize other people and treat them as animals.

 

Few months before I finished my service I patrolled the streets of Hebron with a few other soldiers. We were all a long time in the army, and where all sergeants or 1st sergeants. At this stage I was more self-confident, had no commanders I feared and wasn’t worried about my comrades image of me.

One of my comrades called some older Palestinian (I guess around 60 years old or so) to come over, stood very close to him, talked to him in a very aggressive manner, and at a certain stage suddenly slapped him on the face. That triggered me. I moved over immediately, pushed my comrade strongly away and told the Palestinian to go. My comrade was amazed. We almost had a fight but he decided not to because the Arabs are watching and he didn’t want to give them this pleasure.

 

That is one of my last memories from my service in the territories. I was about to finish my compulsory service and become a civilian, started to think of my future service in the reserve army, and made an oath to myself never to serve in the occupied territories again. Serving in the Occupied Territories was not my idea of protecting Israel and I felt as a part of a group of brutal aggressors being used for political reasons which contradicted my ideas of freedom, justice & humanity, let alone common sense, and frustrated me for not being able to make a difference.

 

I never had to pay the bill for my refusal since my discharge from the army in 1991. My reserve unit was mostly sent to guard the Lebanese border, and only twice I was called to serve in the Occupied Territories. At the first I didn’t show up on a legal base because I didn’t get a long enough notification in advance, and in the second time I went abroad for a few weeks vacation to Greece, and at the third time I left to the Netherlands in a decision not to go back. The situation in Israel makes me sick: an extreme right government ruled by Sharon (a war criminal who was discharged from his role as minister of defense following the Lebanon war) was chosen, people I thought hold a moral stand swept to the right, and Israel is turning into a banana republic with corruption which is rooted at the top.

 

Even the so called left parties condemn the only moral move a soldier has - refusing to take part, and the Refusniks are considered traitors by many people, while for every Refusnik there are more soldiers who volunteered to serve (also from abroad).

 

The only solution I see is a forced peace agreement dictated by American pressure but is not too likely under Bush’s administration.

 

Peace,

Matan.


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