As I write this, I still have 10 days until the end of my reserve service in the West Bank. It is my first service in the Palestinian territories in nine years. Until then I was a platoon commander in an infantry unit, and served on a regular basis in the West Bank and on Gaza strip, both during mandatory duty and on reserve. Seven years ago I decided I will not take part in the occupation anymore, and refused to enlist to my yearly service. I was sentenced to 28 days in army prison no. 6, and later removed from my commanding post. When the next call came, I was transferred to a civil defense unit (again, as platoon commander), which usually doesn’t carry out such missions. But lately the army changed its policy, and my unit was called for a 26 days service in the Jordan Vally area. Not “hardcore occupation” like the things I used to do in Hebron or Ramallah, but still, inside the West Bank.
What do I do here? That’s what I’ve been asking myself in the last two weeks. I don’t think I have the best answers yet, but I will try to share some of my thoughts on the matter here.
My first conclusion is that I just got weak. Nine years ago, after serving in South Mount Hebron, I understood there are no more excuses for taking part in what’s going on there. I explained this to my commanding officers, and when they insisted on calling me to serve, I was willing to do what I though was right. Military prison itself wasn’t that bad, but the whole process was emotionally demanding in a way that none-Israelis might find hard to understand. Explaining my actions to the people I worked with and to my family – repeating the same arguments over and over again – was extremely exhausting. Then, when an officer in my unit was killed in Jenin, confronting the rest of my friends in the army became almost impossible. The truth is I just didn’t want to go through all of this again.
I can give here some other excuses against refusing: for example, that since my unit would have gone there anyway, it’s best that I will do the Job, since I might be more sensitive to the Palestinians. But I never liked this kind of rationalization. I believe that the way people behave on uniform has more to do with their character than with their political affiliation. I’ve seen right wing guys who were decent and polite with the Palestinians and so called leftists who were cruel and indifferent. The problem is not with the soldiers themselves, but with the whole situation.
I can argue that refusing doesn’t carry the same political impact as it used to have. Nobody cares much what the diminished left does or say, and there are enough people willing to do the job. Dov Weisglass, PM Ariel Sharon’s consultant, once said Sharon initiated the withdrawal from Gaza because of the Geneva Accord and the refuzniks movement. Such momentum doesn’t exist now. On the other hand, do we choose to engage in political action just because we have a chance to succeed, or because it is the moral thing to do?
I don’t oppose the army service as a rule, though I am aware of the problematic role the IDF plays in the Israeli society. I like the people I serve with, and I think the service, like paying taxes, is just something you do as a citizen here. I don’t like the idea that someone else will do this for me. The fact that I feel extremely alienated with the current political leadership in Israel – to degree I don’t consider myself a patriot, and I don’t even like the sound of this word anymore – doesn’t change much.
As I said, what I do now is not “hardcore occupation”. We are on the edge of the Palestinian territory, in a very quiet area. Up until the last minute, I was hoping I would be stationed on the Jordanian border and wouldn’t have to deal with the Palestinians myself, but they ended up sending a different company there. No easy way out this time.
So here I am, in the West Bank. Again. It’s been 16 years since my first visit in uniform to the Palestinian territories. Ironically, on the same week I got there, in the summer of 1993, the Oslo accord was signed. We were 18 years old, and we thought the end of the conflict was coming. Some guys on my unit were actually sorry that they wouldn’t get a piece of the action. Well, we certainly got our share since. I’ve been to Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza and some places in between. I took part in the evacuation of Hebron and a few years later, refused to re-enter the West Bank, I protested and even sat in prison, and now I am back at the starting point, patrolling and doing checkpoints as if nothing ever happened. It’s a strange feeling.
(In the next post, I will share some of the things I’ve seen and learned during this service)