went to an evening organised by the Israeli
soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories.
It was called "Fighters’ Talk", referring to the title
of a well-known book from just after the 1967 war, which exposed
the first ideological cracks – hesitations, questions, criticism
– of soldiers who had occupied the territories in the six days
of that war. The speakers as well as the audience were varied:
refusers, serving soldiers, supporters and opponents, hesitators.
of the participants in the old Fighters’ Talk was on the stage
too. Comparing the two occasions, he said things were much simpler
in the old days. "We were fighting against regular armies
– of Jordan, Egypt, Syria – and not against civilians. The Palestinians
were there, the war was in their territories, but they were not
fighters, not terrorists, not the enemy. Whether we believed holding
the territories was desirable or not, none of us thought we should
settle them." Compare this to the present reality, where
a quarter of a million Israeli settlers live on Palestinian soil,
taking Palestinian land, water, freedom. Where an army is fighting
a civilian population with no state, no defence, no rights, no
refuser described the mission that made him refuse. Last year,
he said, we were ordered to destroy a Palestinian house in the
territories because of a balcony added to it without a permit.
It was a clear Israeli provocation: it had been expected to develop
into a battle, and it did. He described dragging crying children
out of bed, wondering how long it would take before they become
suicide-bombers. He described how, after a cease-fire order was
given, fire went on. Another army unit that happened to be in
the area kept shooting, ignoring the order. No one ever bothered
to check who they were, nor did he believe it was an exception.
The battle ended with six Palestinians wounded and one soldier
shot in his leg. The next day he heard it all on the radio: "During
a military operation, our soldiers were attacked and returned
on, an officer sitting in the audience, an opponent of refusal
who had participated in the same operation, completed the picture.
He confirmed the scenes of crying little children in the middle
of the night. He got an order to dismantle the house because of
illegal building. There was no military reason whatsoever for
it: no one ever used the building for shooting, it never caused
any trouble. Its only sin was having no permit. That’s why the
three-story house had to be dismantled, short after midnight,
by a bulldozer accompanied by his entire unit. So why didn’t you
refuse, someone in the audience asked. Well, he said, I was naive,
I wasn’t thinking. He said he too was deeply affected by that
incident, and that if he ever got such an order again – to dismantle
an innocent house – he would definitely think twice before complying.
he was talking, someone from the audience asked: "Dismantling
a house – does this mean destroying it?" Yes, he said, this
is what it means. "So why do you say ‘dismantle’?" He
could not answer. But as he went on talking, he kept saying "dismantle".
Will he think twice before using that word next time?
soldier opposing refusal explained that even in Gaza, he felt
very clearly that he was defending his parents and girl-friend
back home. Saving one’s own family, one’s own people, was a moral
duty, though some of our actions were admittedly morally problematic.
In fact, the term "moral dilemmas" was used by every
speaker; for some, it’s the old Israeli tradition of "shooting
and weeping", where a heart tortured by "moral dilemmas"
clears one’s conscience of immoral actions.
refuser suggested he might be defending his family much better
by not being in Gaza. Another one said that some actions, like
bombing a disco or a bus, or like holding 3.5 million people under
occupation for 35 years, were morally unacceptable under any circumstances,
even if one believed he was bringing peace and happiness to the
world by doing them.
woman in the audience had a different answer: "I live inside
the Green Line, just one mile away from Gaza’s fence. When the
army comes to warn us of a Palestinian attack, it uses the ‘good
neighbour’s procedure’: we have to send our own tractor to warn
our people in the fields next to the fence, because the army is
afraid to send soldiers. When we are shot at, it takes ages before
the army takes action. So don’t tell me you are defending me.
You are there just to harass the Palestinians, and for no other
non-refuser in the audience tried to give a broader context. You,
he said, described the violent side of entering Palestinian houses
and getting people out, but the story did not end there. He himself
was doing his service in a military prison, where Palestinians,
"guilty or not", were brought to. He described with
how much care and compassion the army was treating the arrestees.
Every one of them was taken to a doctor. A bus with medical staff
came all the way from Jerusalem to the prison camp on the Egyptian
border just to change prisoners’ bandages. Soldiers were showing
their human face, aware of the human inside the enemy. Being there
and keeping your human face was more difficult, and more worthy,
than simplistic refusal.
in the audience reminded him of the story reported in the Israeli
press about prisoners who couldn’t change their underwear for
a whole month. Another noted that granting medical help and changing
bandages to the wounded was a basic human duty, not an act of
grace to be proud of; whereas locking up masses of people in pens
(a term regularly used in the army) without trial was immoral,
no matter how well-mannered the wardens were.
a woman in the audience described her experience as a soldier
during the first Intifada. She was stationed in a base of a Shimshon
unit (death squads named after biblical Samson),
going to bed every night to the sounds of crying Palestinian arrestees,
who, entering their new domicile, were kicked and beaten by the
Israeli soldiers. (The ritual has been reported in the press:
arrested Palestinians, handcuffed and blindfolded, walk between
two rows of soldiers cursing at, spitting at, beating and kicking
them.) Anyway: to her great outrage, she found out that the arrestees
were washing the dishes she was eating from, and even planting
trees all around the base. She thought it was terrible and complained
to her officer. He told her to drop the issue. She didn’t, and
turned to a higher officer, and then even to a higher one. Finally,
she said, it stopped. One more good reason to be there and not
in the audience asked: "What stopped? The beating?"
The woman looked very embarrassed. "You know," she said,
"maybe eighteen year old guys wishing to give a kick every
now and then cannot be stopped".
elderly men were interrupting the discussion time and again. One
had a philosophical problem. He demanded an answer to an urgent
question: "What’s moral? Is one person more moral than another?
Who can tell, and how?" Luckily, no one tried to answer him
directly. Not even the old lady who said she was born in Vienna,
fled from the Nazis, learned here in Israel what Judaism meant,
and reminded of Hillel,
who said the very essence of the Torah was "What is hateful
to yourself, do not do to your neighbour". The neighbour,
by the way, was absent: among the 300 people in the hall I didn’t
see any Palestinians. Closure and curfew make sure the fighters’
talk is confined to Israelis alone.
other man was troubled by a more practical consideration: "So
why don’t we all refuse? What if everyone refuses? Where would
we all be then?" The idea seemed to him like doomsday, like
the end of human civilisation. I couldn’t help thinking of Bertolt
Brecht’s famous (though misinterpreted) line: "Stell Dir
vor, es kommt Krieg und keiner geht hin" – "Imagine
there is war, and nobody goes"...
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