Behind the Thin Green Line

Gershom Gorenberg says his story about Israel’s refuseniks ‘isn’t about a debate between patriots and peaceniks.’

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Last winter, Lt. David Zonsheine, an Israeli reserve officer who had just returned from a tour of duty in the Gaza Strip, published an open letter stating why he and fifty other soldiers felt they could no longer serve in the occupied territories. At this date, more than 500 Israeli soldiers have joined the resulting movement: Courage to Refuse.

As writer Gershom Gorenberg discusses, the refuseniks have ignited a furious debate, drawing criticism not only from the country’s hawks, but from many of its doves. Their actions pose deep dilemnas: Is it appropriate for the army to become a forum for civil disobedience against the policies of democratically elected officials? Is withdrawing from the territories the quickest route to peace? And do such protests, which run counter to the national tradition of public service, unnecessarily alienate the public from the left?

This fall, Lt. Zonsheine is due to go before the Israeli Supreme Court to make his case that the occupation is morally untenable and tactically wrong. (In your article) you point out that the refusenik movement has plateaued. Do you think it will fade away, or continue to grow?


Gershom Gorenberg: Well, there’s been a slow, not dramatic increase in the number of soldiers … who signed the list, and said they intend to refuse service, and there is always continued sentencing of specific refuseniks to disciplinary terms as their reserve duty comes up. I certainly don’t expect the number to go down. The large initial response was probably due to the fact that there were many people who were already considering this when the letter appeared, so it crystallized their decisions, and gave them a group backing to something that they were already considering … I would guess that the extent to which it increases depends on a variety of factors, including what is actually taking place on the ground in the territories, what sort of measures the army is using. The Zonsheine hearings themselves at the Supreme Court will almost certainly inspire new debate and coverage and activity around the entire issue, which may or may not bring new supporters.


I think, in a wider sense, you have to remember two factors. One is that protest movements don’t happen overnight. In America it took years for the Vietnam protest movement to develop and gain the strength it eventually did, and to have the effect it eventually did. In terms of the Lebanon war, here, also, the movement grew over time. … In this particular case, you have to remember that there are strong counter-factors that I’ve discussed in the article. There’s the democracy issue, and the desire to keep the army out of politics, and, of course, there’s the issue of a sense in a wide part of the public that the Palestinian tactics indicate a threat toward Israel as such, rather than just being aimed at ending the occupation. And as long as that’s the case, it also creates a counter-force to the growth of the movement. Aside from generating a lot of public debate, have the refuseniks had any real impact on official Israeli policy?


GG: Well … Ariel Sharon is certainly not changing his ideas on how to conduct the conflict on the basis of the refusenik movement. However, the real question is, what effect has it had on the political environment? … The movement, at least when it began, helped to reinvigorate the left … but it’s possible that it may have turned off a lot of people who are closer to the center, who dislike the idea of refusal, and might have identified the entire left with the idea of refusal.


I think if you look at the overall situation in terms of Israeli opinion, the interesting thing is that, in a sense, public opinion is moving in two directions — two opposite directions — at once. There’s a greater number of people who, according to the polls, identify themselves as being on the right, as being more hawkish. And, yet, there’s also a rising number that favor having a Palestinian state, favor evacuation of settlements. And the numbers in both groups are so large that what you’ve actually got is a large overlapping group of people, who both say that they’re more right-wing, and yet favor things like evacuating settlements. Those are, I think, long-term changes in Israeli opinion, and, in that respect, I think that the refusenik movement is an expression of wider changes in the political environment.


.. What you have is a situation in which the level of distrust and of anger has risen, but at the same time, a growing number of people have realized that to reach a peace agreement will require greater concessions and compromises than they had been willing to accept a couple years ago. One of the men you quote in your article says that “Leftists are the absolute worst.” Could you explain what he meant by that?


GG: I think what it shows here is an example of the tension on the left over this issue, that there is a very deep argument within the Israeli left over the issue of refusal. … Within the Israeli left what you’re talking about is a conflict between people who share a sense that they’re peaceniks, and who share a sense that they’re patriotic, but who disagree on the best way to pursue those commitments. Right-wingers are keen on arguing that the refusenik movement emboldens Palestinian militants, and gives them the impression that Israelis are losing heart and can be forced to evacuate the occupied territories unconditionally. Is there anything to that?


GG: That is one argument that is raised even on the left by people who oppose unilateral withdrawl from the occupied territories … I think it’s legitimate to say that a negotiated settlement in which both sides give up further claims is more likely to end the conflict than a unilateral Israeli move. Part of the argument is, if such an agreement is unachievable, if the Palestinian side is unwilling or unable to enter into such an agreement, what should Israel’s next step be? Is there a Palestinian counterpart to the refusenik movement?


GG: Well, there wouldn’t be an exact counterpart, because there’s no universal draft on the Palestinian side, and one of the very difficult aspects of the situation is that there is no unified military force. In a large sense, authority has broken down on the Palestinian side. … But, the major problem, on a deeper level, is in terms of moral objections to tactics being used. And here, the problem is Palestinian organizations are using terror against civilians — against non-combatants — which is very clearly immoral, and very clearly a war crime, and very clearly a violation of the law of war. In recent weeks, there have been efforts by some Palestinian public figures to publicly reject those methods. I have no doubt that their failure so far to gain wider support also weakens the Israeli peace movement. In other words, if the Israeli public saw that there was widespread public rejection on the Palestinian side to attacks on civilians, I think that that would certainly strengthen support on the Israeli side for peace and for making compromises.


But I would add one other thing — that the refuseniks also stress that, from their point of view, the Palestinian tactics aren’t the central issue. The key question is the moral dilemma for Israeli society and for the Israeli army, and the best way to defend Israel. Their argument is that first of all, the Palestinian terrorists shouldn’t lead Israel to give up its own principles, and the only way to avoid that is to ultimately end the occupation. In the ‘Soldier’s Letter,’ there were no demands that were made, such as a call for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Will the refusenik movement make any demands?


GG: Well, their clear aim is an end to the occupation. … The movement has avoided making more specific policy arguments, and — here I combine what I’ve heard from various people — there are several different reasons (for that). One is they want to focus on the moral argument that service in the territories has become untenable. I think implicit in that is that they’re trying to minimize the degree to which they’re bringing politics into the army. I’d also guess that one of the reasons that they’d avoid making more specific demands is to avoid leading to the usual splintering within a protest group. The more specific you make your demands, the more likely you are to breakup — a well-known disease on the left. Unlike Vietnam and Lebanon, a simple withdrawl doesn’t seem to be the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another man you quote in your article points out that Vietnam was no threat to the US, and that seems to be different from the threat Palestine poses to Israel. How do the refuseniks respond to this?


GG: This is one of the differences that has to be understood here. I mean, with the Vietnam protest movement, one of the basic claims was, ‘what are we doing on the other side of the globe?’ Here, I don’t think anybody involved denies the fact that you’re facing a conflict in which the Israeli public is directly threatened.


The refuseniks respond to this by saying that Israel would be in a better position to defend itself behind a clearly-marked border, and against a sovereign state, than it is today. In the current situation, between Israel and the West bank, there is no clearly-marked border, there’s no border fence. In the social sense there’s no border between the combatants and non-combatants in the West Bank. In other words the Israeli army is facing the classic dilemma of an army engaged in a battle against guerilla forces and underground forces and terrorists, in which you’re fighting against people who aren’t wearing uniforms, who fade into the civilian population, and therefore it becomes very difficult to make the distinction between who is a combatant and who is a non-combatant. I think the refuseniks would also argue that by ending the occupation that you would, for most of the Palestinian population, remove the motivation to attack Israel.


Indeed, I would say that the entire Israeli left makes that argument, that Israel would be safer and more secure without controlling a hostile population of another nationality. The security argument is always (central) to the argument of the Israeli peace camp, and that is in fact why you will find so many prominent ex-military and security figures in the peace camp, and, in fact, why the original agreement with the Palestinians — the Oslo agreement — was signed by a Prime Minister who was a former military chief-of-staff. The crux of the refusenik movement is the philosophical argument of ‘selective objection.’ So if right-wing soldiers were ordered to evacuate Israeli settlements as part of a peace deal, could they selectively object to that?


GG: Well, this is actually an issue that comes up in many of the street debates that you hear on the subject … And, in fact, during the Oslo process, when Israel carried out its withdrawl from most of the West Bank, there were public figures on the religious right who said that it’s in principle forbidden to give up any part of the land of Israel, and therefore soldiers should not carry out orders to participate in the withdraw. By the way, there was absolutely no response to that call…


But the philosophical issue is a real one … Israeli law itself recognizes that there are orders that should not be obeyed. And, I think, certainly on a philosophical level, it’s clear that morally the law of the state cannot be the highest moral principle. Soldiers are not guns, they are not mechanical items. There is a point at which a soldier should refuse an order. But the crucial question here is what’s the principle that overrides the law of the state, overrides a democratic decision. And the secondary question, connected to that, is how extreme does the situation have to be to refuse orders?


The debate, in a sense, on the left today is how extreme has the situation become and does it justify disobeying orders. Where I think that the right-wingers have been wrong here, on a philosophical level, is (the argument some have made that disobeying orders can be justified) because the principle of the Jewish rule of the land of Israel overrides the orders of a democratic government. In that sense, the ultimate principle that they are placing above the law of the state is the mythic right of the nation to a particular definition of territory, and I think that that’s where they’re mistaken. What kind of an effect do you think the philosophical doctrine of selective refusal will have, logistically, on the chain of command?


GG: I don’t think that, democratically, it would be a good situation if people were disobeying orders right and left based on their political views. On the other hand, I think that it is good for commanders (to) know that they can’t simply order anything they want. The question, therefore, is what is the political impact of this particular kind of refusal in this particular context?


It certainly could have an impact if there was large-scale refusal. … I think that the fact that the people who are currently refusing service in the territories are people who are, by and large, members of combat units — often officers — carries a message to the military that they have to take into account what the tolerance of the soldiers is for the orders they’ve received. At the moment, the number of people who have refused is not large enough to have created a sudden change in how the army is conducting matters. But I am certain that the brass is aware of the phenomenon and takes it as a warning that there are limits.


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