by Ran HaCohen
I 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.
One 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 dignity.
A 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 fire."
Later 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.
While 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?
Another 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.
One 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.
A 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 reason."
Another 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.
Someone 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.
Then 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 to refuse.
Someone 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".
Two 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.
The 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"...
Ran HaCohen teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at AntiWar.com, where this article first appeared.