The new generation of Israeli refusniks

Most Israeli youth who graduate from high school go directly to military service. Some however go straight to prison. They are known as the Shministim (Hebrew for twelfth graders) and they are the new generation of Refusniks—Israelis who refuse to serve in the Israeli army in protest of Israeli policies in the Palestinian Territories.
Meet the Shministim. © Jewish Voice for Peace

BEIRUT, December 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) — "I am not willing to become one of those holding the gun pointed indiscriminately at Palestinian civilians, and I do not believe that such actions could bring any change except ever more antagonism and violence in our region," Tamar Katz said in her declaration of refusal to serve in the Israeli army.

Katz is part of a movement started by high school students called Shministim, which supports Israeli citizens who have been imprisoned for refusing to participate in the state's mandatory military service. 

On December 18, the group launched a global campaign of support for youth who are being sent to Israeli military prison for refusing to serve in the military after graduating from high school.

Katz, 19, is currently serving her third prison sentence—they ranged from 21 to 28 days—and she was to be released on Monday.  She is one of  a hundred Israeli students who have signed a declaration against the continuation of the Israeli occupation.

"We will work against the policy of occupation and oppression of the Israeli government in the occupied territories and in the area of the state of Israel, and will therefore refuse to take part in these actions, which are conducted in our name as part of the Israeli military."

Send your message to Israel

As part of the campaign, the young refusniks have set up an online campaign supported by the Jewish Voice for Peace, where people can show support  by sending a message to the Israeli Minister of Defense. On the day of action last week, a demonstration was held in Tel-Aviv during which 22,000 signed letters were delivered to the Defence Ministry headquarters.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, who wrote an account of the demonstration, found it "remarkable" that some youth were able to break though the myths of the Israeli army.

"It is hard to convey, and impossible to overstate, just how completely saturated Israeli culture is by the heroic image of the Israeli Army. In school, advertisements, marketing campaigns, store discounts, discussions with neighbors, every way you can imagine, the Army is portrayed as the ultimate form of service to the country."

Seven youth are featured on the website—all of them have spent time in Israeli military prison in the last few months, some on multiple occasions.  One of them is Omer Goldman, the daughter of the former deputy head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

Goldman said she had never dared to question the ethics of the military until she visited a Palestinian town in the West Bank.

"I realized I see a completely different reality, a violent, oppressive, extreme reality that must be ended. I believe in service to the society I am part of, and that is precisely why I refuse to take part in the war crimes committed by my country. Violence will not bring any kind of solution, and I shall not commit violence, come what may."

Goldman recently served two sentences for a total of 28 days.

18-year-old Sahar Vardi was the third conscientious objector, and the first woman to be imprisoned from this year's group of high school seniors.

"Since I have visited the occupied territories countless times, and as much as I tried to convince myself that the soldier at the checkpoint is not to be blamed for the suppressing policy of Israel, I could not strip that soldier from his responsibly for his own actions," she wrote. "I don't speak only of the political implications of guarding a settlement, or the legal implications of the murders we perform in the occupied territories. I speak of the human responsibly of every one of us not to harm our fellow man."

Refusnik Zionists

The Refusniks movement is nothing new to Israelis. In the 1970s, a small group of high school students started a petition, and refused to serve in the military in Palestine and eventually in Lebanon. The number quickly grew to 400 people.

In 2002, Courage to Refuse was founded after a group of 50 combat officers and soldiers published a letter known as The Combatants Letter, which outlined their refusal to serve in "the missions of occupation and oppression" that do not serve the state of Israel or Zionism itself.

The initiators of the letter, Captain David Zonshein and Lieutenant Yaniv Itzkovits, officers in an elite unit, served for over 12 years in both Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories.

To date, 629 combatants from all units of the IDF and from all sectors of the Israeli society have signed the letter and have joined Courage to Refuse; some refuse to serve in the Territories and others refuse to put on the Israeli military uniform at all. Over 280 refusniks have been jailed for periods of up to 35 days as a result of their refusal.

US war resisters show support

A statement signed by over two dozen US war resisters was published in solidarity with the Shministim, announcing their deepest respect and support.

Many of the signatories, who have refused or are currently refusing to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also gone to prison or are currently living with the possibility of imprisonment for their decisions.  They called it "brave" and "inspiring" for the Israeli youth to refuse "to take part in these destructive policies…The Global War on Terror, like the Israeli occupation, is propped up by racism and dehumanization and sets the stage for never-ending war and occupation."

Raz Bar-David Varon, 18, who served two jail terms in November, calls what Israel is doing "terror."

"The violence—or, in other words, the terror—which the Israeli army, in the name of the state, inflicts on the Palestinian people, is not only excessive and—as history bears out—has not solved the conflict in our region: it actually escalates the conflict and entrenches oppression (directed against almost anyone) as a norm in Israeli society."