From the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, service in the military has been a politicised issue. Given the country's small size and population, the state has relied on conscription to maintain its military capacity.
When the policy was first implemented, exceptions were made for Arabs. Then an arrangement was arrived at by which ultra-Orthodox Jews were exempt from service if they were enrolled in religious study. There were also occasional examples of people refusing to serve on pacifist grounds, such as the lawyer Amnon Zichroni in the 1950s.
As Israel became an increasingly expansionist state, refusal to serve took on greater political significance. In 1982, 168 military personnel were imprisoned for refusing to take part in Israel’s war with Lebanon. Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit”) was founded in the same year. It described the war as “an act of naked and futile aggression”. A Yesh Gvul petition bearing the names of 3,000 reservists was presented to Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defence Minister Ariel Sharon.
In 1988, during the First Intifada, IDF soldier Adam Keller, a long-term Yesh Gvul supporter, was caught scrawling slogans on the sides of on walls, toilet doors and even on the sides of tanks. The slogans denounced the occupation and called on fellow soldiers to refuse to serve in Occupied Territories. Keller was court martialled and sentenced to three months imprisonment for “spreading propaganda harmful to military discipline”. A year later, Workers’ Liberty’s predecessor, Socialist Organiser, organised a lecture tour of Britain for Keller, who has remained a prominent figure on the Israeli left ever since.
The movement re-emerged at at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. In 2002, a public letter was sent to the Israeli government by soldiers declaring their refusal to serve “beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people”. The letter was eventually signed by over 600 military personnel. In 2003, 27 IDF pilots published a letter declaring their objection to the dropping of a bomb on a Hamas leader, which had killed many civilians in the process. The letter argued that the continuation of the occupation was immoral and untenable. The pilots came under intense public and institutional pressure, with many being sacked not only from military, but also from civilian aviation jobs.
In 2001, a movement of high school students refusing to serve was reformed on the basis of an earlier organisation from the 1970s (“Shministim”). Many of these young people went to jail for their decision. Embarrassingly for the Israeli establishment, some of those jailed were children or relatives of senior military figures, like Omer Goldman, daughter of high-ranking Mossad officer Naftali Granot.
The spread of military refusal to lead to an administrative crackdown and a campaign of moral hysteria from the Israeli ruling class. The right-wing press inveighed against traitors supposedly giving encouragement to Hamas and Hezbollah. In 2002, the High Court of Justice ruled that “unqualified pacifism” was a legal basis for refusing service, but that refusing to serve in particular territories or campaigns, “selective refusal”, was illegal and punishable through imprisonment. This created the perverse situation where one can avoid punishment for an abstract or religious opposition to war, but be punished for simply being morally discriminating.
The refuser movement remains a minority political tendency in a society poisoned by militarism. Nevertheless, the courage of the refusers is deserving our support, and reminds us that Israeli society is not a homogenous block of oppressors, but a class society riven with contending political tendencies.