From the Chicago Tribune

Dissent brews in Israeli army

100 refuse Gaza, West Bank duty

By Mary Curtius, Special to the Tribune.
Mary Curtius is a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune newspaper

February 3, 2002

JERUSALEM -- What began with a terse note tacked to a Tel Aviv University bulletin board has mushroomed into the most serious protest movement against the Israeli army's conduct in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 16 months of fighting with the Palestinians--and it is coming from soldiers themselves.

In newspaper ads, more than 100 reserve combat officers and soldiers denounced the army for what they call immoral behavior toward Palestinian civilians and vowed they no longer will serve in the West Bank or Gaza. Alarmed by the declaration, the army has begun relieving some of the dissenters of their commands and is threatening to court-martial them.

Speaking Friday to Israel Radio, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army's chief of staff, said that if the protesters were "ideologically motivated" by a political view that Jewish settlements should be abandoned and the occupied territories handed to the Palestinians, then "this is not only refusal but grave sedition."

The dissent has touched off a firestorm of debate in a nation where army service is a pillar of citizenship and where the conflict with the Palestinians that erupted in September 2000 is seen by most as a threat that mandates national unity.

The men represent a minuscule fraction of the tens of thousands of Israelis who perform reserve duty annually, but their status as long-serving reservists in combat units gives their criticism weight both inside the army and in Israeli society.

The movement started when two student reservists posted a note at Tel Aviv University that said: "If you are thinking about refusal and you're having a hard time with it, call us."

Within 10 days, more than 30 reserve personnel--many of them officers in combat units--had called the attached phone number. More than 50 officers and soldiers signed an ad published Jan. 25 in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot, saying they will not serve in the West Bank or Gaza. On Friday, more than 100 reservists signed a reprint of the letter that ran again in Yediot.

"We hereby declare that we will no longer fight the war for the settlements' safety," the reservists wrote. "We will no longer fight beyond the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 border] with the purpose of controlling, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people."

The soldiers said they will do reserve duty "in any assignment that serves the defense of the state of Israel" but that "the assignment of occupation and oppression does not serve this cause, and we will have no part in it."

"We relate to this phenomenon seriously and severely," Mofaz told Israel Radio. "Why seriously? Because some of those officers who wrote the dissenting letter also volunteered in the past to take on responsibility. They contributed to state security on many occasions. They led soldiers to battle. They endangered their lives."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shared Mofaz's ambivalence about the dissenters.

"I see this as a very serious matter," Sharon told Yediot in an interview Friday. But because the men are combat veterans, Sharon said, he is considering meeting with them to discuss their grievances.

Although they may not change the government's policy, the protesters have sparked the first real public debate in Israel about the army's conduct toward Palestinian civilians--and about whether the military is routinely asking troops to carry out illegal orders--since the Palestinian revolt began.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune