Exactly at noon, the half-dozen young men arrive at a shaded square on Jerusalem’s west side and, with military precision, set up a table under the branches of an olive tree. The radio news drifting out from a café is, as usual, about terror — a failed Palestinian bid to blow up a fuel depot in the midst of a heavily populated Tel Aviv neighborhood (a near miss that could have cost more lives than the September 11 attacks) and the expected indictment of several West Bank Jewish settlers for an attempted bombing in Arab East Jerusalem. A policewoman with a golden ponytail eyeballs everyone who crosses the square, hoping to spot that one person wearing explosives under his, or her, clothes.
The young men wear T-shirts emblazoned with the legend “The Soldiers’ Letter.” One slides the pole of his picket sign between his back and day pack, so that the white rectangle with the words “I am a combat soldier who refuses for the sake of Israel” hangs above his head like a balloon in a political cartoon. Were this scene a cartoon, it would be about the army reservists who published a letter early this year announcing their refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arguing that these “missions of occupation and oppression” have nothing to do with defending the country. The cartoon would portray the “refuseniks” as traitors or patriots, depending on the artist’s position in the furious debate that the Soldiers’ Letter has inspired. The reservist with the sign hands a leaflet to a fiftysomething man crossing the square toward the supermarket, who shoves it back, saying, “Me, I support the occupation.”
The volume of political argument rapidly increases until a half hour later the square is bedlam. A man with a ring of gray hair roars at refusenik Eyal Nir, “I’m against the occupation but I’m against refusing to serve, too! In a democracy if you refuse to go, you destroy the foundation.”
“When Americans refused to go to Vietnam, did democracy improve or collapse?” asks Nir.
As I watch, I feel more tempted to leap into the debate than I have at any demonstration I’ve covered in years in this politically overheated country — at some moments on both sides at once. As an Israeli journalist, I’ve made no secret of my belief that Israel’s 35-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end. Yet for those who oppose the occupation, the reservists’ letter poses deep dilemmas: Is it appropriate for the army, which should remain politically neutral, to become a forum for civil disobedience against the policies of democratically elected politicians? On the other hand, can we ask soldiers to put aside their anguish and wait patiently for politicians to find a solution?
It was David Zonsheine who, in late December, wrote the Soldiers’
Letter. He’s an unlikely candidate for such a radical act—the Israeli equivalent of
a West Point graduate, an ex-Eagle Scout from an old Yankee family, a Norman Rockwell painting.
Yet that is why his protest matters: His personal transformation shows how the occupation has created,
for some Israelis, an unbearable tension between the country’s most basic values.
We meet at a sidewalk café on tree-lined Dizengoff Street in North Tel Aviv, where casually
dressed couples sip espresso at little tables and discuss faculty intrigues. Across the street
is the apartment building where Zonsheine lives with his high-school sweetheart, 14 years after
they first met. The address is a synonym for just-left-of-center, establishment Israel, and it
fits him. He grew up in a Tel Aviv suburb where, as a Scout leader, he learned not to cross the street
against a red light because it sets a bad example. He’s a software engineer, the most fashionable
profession in Israel. His round, clean-shaven face makes him look younger than his 29 years. Until
recently, he was politically “as central as you get.” Leaning over the table to speak
to me, quietly, intensely, he often substitutes “you” for “I,” to avoid
boasting about a bio that is a civics teacher’s dream.
Military service is virtually a universal obligation in Israel—a
necessity that also expresses values of egalitarianism and giving to the greater good. Zonsheine
still believes in those values. “You grow up here, you’re educated to serve in the best
unit, to give the most you can. A big part of my family died in the Holocaust…. If there’d
been a [Jewish] army during the Holocaust, we wouldn’t have died.”
From the age of 10, he wanted to wear the red beret of the paratroops, the
army’s finest. By 1991 he had his beret and, at the age of 18, volunteered for an elite unit whose
nature, he says, is classified. From there, he went on to officers training and finished with honors. Much of his service was in Lebanon. He quietly describes the death of a high-school friend in
a Hezbollah ambush, and the ambush his own unit set in retaliation, wiping out the Hezbollah attackers.
With his discharge in 1996 came assignment to a reserve unit. In principle,
all Israeli men continue to do annual reserve duty into their 40s; in practice, combat soldiers
are most likely to be called up, and officers serve more time. To be an Israeli civilian “is
to be a soldier on leave 10 months a year. It’s part of the ethos…. I feel the whole country
sitting on my shoulders,” he says, smiling self-consciously at his own seriousness. Often
his reserve duty was in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—manning checkpoints, patrolling roads,
arresting suspected terrorists. “That’s how you do an occupation, like France in Algeria.
You show the population that you’re king.” With those words he shifts from identification
to bitterness—reenacting, as I listen, his painful metamorphosis from all-Israeli boy
He began to ask questions two years ago. “You stand at a checkpoint
and you know that [Israeli settlers] go right through and Arabs don’t, and you remember South
Africa…. You go into a house at night [to arrest a man], and you separate the men from the women.
I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. It’s not at all the same thing, but the picture is the same.”
As if compelled, he has returned to the motif that haunts Israeli discussions
of power. “The Holocaust” is shorthand for “Jewish victimhood.” It teaches
the need for strength, for empowering a people who were a long-oppressed minority. Pacifism isn’t
even a topic for discussion. Yet the Holocaust also serves as the ultimate met-aphor for how strength
can be misused—the most powerful example of why the army must maintain what it calls “the
purity of arms,” or moral use of power.
In point of fact, the Holocaust image is always used as hyperbole, whether
describing enemies or Israel’s own actions. But it expresses the crisis that Zonsheine,
and others who would join him, felt while serving in the territories: He believed his country had
the right to use force—but that it was asking him to use force illegitimately.
Quoting Camus—“I believe in justice, but I’ll defend
my mother before justice”—Zonsheine says, “If they tell me I have to do something
because otherwise my mother will be killed tomorrow in Tel Aviv, obviously I’ll do it.”
His problem wasn’t defending his country. His problem was that he no longer believed his orders
served that purpose.
Characteristically, he focused his rethinking by reading Altneuland,
the utopian novel by Zionist founder Theodor Herzl. The book, Zonsheine says, revealed a humanistic
vision of a Jewish state that Israel hasn’t fulfilled. It’s the equivalent of an American
saying he learned radicalism from the Declaration of Inde-pendence. After that came Descartes,
Machiavelli, and government statistics. He notes that since the Oslo Accord was signed in 1993,
the number of Jewish settlers in the territories has nearly doubled—a clear violation of
the agreement. “Few Israelis know that,” he says. “Most think only the Palestinians
broke the agreement.”
After the new Palestinian Intifada began in September, 2000, his questions
only deepened. While Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Ehud Barak’s peace offers and the
subsequent terror attacks convinced many supporters of the peace process that Palestinians aren’t
interested in a two-state solution, Zonsheine’s doubts ran in a different direction. “What
interested me was why they started the uprising…. If they hate us, why had it been quiet until
then? If Barak offered everything, why didn’t they take it?” he asks.
By the time he received his call-up order last fall for 25 days in the Gaza
Strip, “It was clear to me that I was going to do things that actually harm national security,
that damage the moral foundation of the state.” Yet he went, to be certain.
He describes that round of duty carefully, standing guard over his own
passion. As they drove into the Strip, he saw swaths of land on each side of the road that had been “cleaned”
of orchards, hothouses, and buildings to remove cover for Palestinian gunmen—a solution
to a military problem that exacts a heavy price from civilians. His unit manned a checkpoint at a
junction where Palestinian traffic between two large towns intersects with Israeli traffic from
the Katif group of settlements. A soldier controlled the traffic light; when an approaching Israeli
car was spotted, the light went red for Palestinians. The point was to prevent shooting
attacks on the Israeli cars. The result was that Palestinians waited for hours to cross, while settlers—“the
lords of the land,” Zonsheine says—never saw a red light. “I’m not saying
that the Israel Defense Forces is an immoral army,” he says. “It receives immoral orders.”
Under Israeli law, a soldier is obligated to refuse an order that “bears
a black flag of illegality.” That principle was established after a 1956 massacre in which
troops followed orders to shoot anyone returning to an Arab village after curfew. In a Jewish state,
barely a decade after the Holocaust, the defense of “following orders” was found unacceptable.
The problem in Gaza, Zonsheine says, is that each individual order was justifiable in context—but
the context was unjustifiable.
When he returned home in early December, he couldn’t sleep. “My
friends freaked out. I looked different, angry. Everything I stood for turned out to be a lie.”
For a week he talked with another lieutenant from his unit, Yaniv Iczkovits, who was equally upset.
Then he met with his commanding officer. “I said, ‘I’m not crossing the Green Line,’”
the border between sovereign Israel and the occupied territories. Instead, he’d disobey
his next call-up order, at the price of going to prison.
But individual protest wasn’t enough. At the entrance to the base
where officers are trained, Zonsheine says, a sign proclaims their creed: “Watch me, and
do as I do.” He decided his action had to be public; he had to “fight to make sure
not one soldier would serve” in the occupied territories. To defend his country, he’d
do battle with it.
One December night at 3 a.m., Zonsheine wrote his letter. In three weeks,
50 combat reservists signed on to the text. In late January, the declaration ran as an ad in Ha’aretz,
the national paper of record: “We…who were the first to carry out any mission…to
protect the State of Israel…hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight beyond the
1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.”
Against the backdrop of the uprising and the peace movement’s
paralysis, the Soldiers’ Letter was a sensation. Top talk-show hosts interviewed the refuseniks
and the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot devoted a cover story to them in its weekend
magazine. Left-wing activists describe the letter as one key reason for a resurgence in protest
activity against the occupation. And the ad prompted a second wave of signatures: 50 in the first
week after going public, 100 the next.
The first person to add his name was Itai Haviv. The 30-year-old geology
grad student speaks of his decision with the smile of a person who has achieved peace with himself
after a long battle. For over a decade, in his regular army service and in reserves, he served in the
occupied territories. The moral dilemma was always with him. But there were no orders that, taken
alone, bore that “black flag of illegality.”
“You’re told to demolish a house, because it commands a road
and they’ve been shooting from it. Militarily, it’s the absolutely right thing to do…but
when it goes on for 35 years, it turns into a black flag.” It’s a perspective, Haviv says,
that a kid just out of high school, who knows nothing but the army, rarely has. As a reservist, “you
realize that they’re cheating you,” that the job is not to defend the country but “to
defend settlements.” Even before the ad appeared, he’d made up his mind to defy a call-up
order for duty near Jericho in March.
As Haviv’s decision hints, selective conscientious objection
didn’t begin with the Soldiers’ Letter. Its history extends back to 1982, when an organization
called Yesh Gvul—“There Is a Border”—began calling on soldiers to refuse
to take part in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The movement’s “spiritual father,”
as one veteran refusenik puts it, was Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz—a highly respected
religious philosopher known as one of the first critics of the occupation, and probably the most
strident. (Leibowitz died in 1994; his grandson, Shamai Leibowitz, a lawyer and reservist, is
today a passionate proponent of refusal to serve in the territories on both legal and religious
In two years, says longtime Yesh Gvul activist Peretz Kidron, 168 reservists
went to prison rather than to Lebanon. During the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1993), he estimates,
200 more were locked up for refusing to serve in the territories. But, he notes, many commanders
have quietly refrained from putting refuseniks in jail, instead assigning them to tasks inside
the Green Line—and masking the full proportions of refusal to serve.
Yesh Gvul, Kidron stresses, rejects pacifism—“A pacifist
leaves the army to the fascist”—but it insists that “every soldier is responsible for his actions.”
The organization therefore supports every variation on selective objection, from refusal to
guard a prison where Palestinians are held to refusing to serve at all for as long as the occupation
lasts. The Soldiers’ Letter is different in that it created one clear criterion—not
crossing the Green Line. Kidron happily admits that the new effort put refusal back on the national
agenda. It may also have pushed the army to get tough.
On his March 3 call-up day, Itai Haviv offered to serve inside Israel.
“If it were up to [his commander], he’d have gone for it,” he says. “But there
was an atmosphere in the army that we had to be punished.” In a brief disciplinary hearing before
a higher officer, he was sentenced to three weeks in prison. He requested a full court-martial,
which risked a three-year sentence but would have provided “a public platform to explain
what is happening in the territories.” The army rejected his request.
By summer, nearly 500 reservists had signed the Soldiers’ Letter,
more than a fourth of them officers. More than 90 had done jail time. The list of signatories had morphed
into a protest movement, Ometz Lesarev, or Courage to Refuse. “We have a strong organization,”
says Zonsheine, “of people who are young and ready to pay for their beliefs.” His uncle,
a West Bank settler who naturally disagrees with everything he’s doing, recently told him,
“Israeli society sees you as the settlers of the left.” It’s a reference to an imbalance
as old as the political battle between the right and the left over whether Israel should settle or
relinquish the occupied territories: Peace protesters organize demonstrations and go home;
settlers risk their lives and sometimes defy the law to hold the land. The refuseniks, Zonsheine
is asserting, are showing the public that the left is equally dedicated to its cause.
The Israeli right, nonetheless, rejects any version of the refuseniks’
argument. “A democracy gives you freedom of expression and obligates you to obey the laws,”
says Yuval Steinitz, a Knesset member for the Likud Party. He adds, “Unlike other countries,
Israel is fighting those who would destroy it…. Ask me my opinion of those who refused to fight
But on the left as well, the Soldiers’ Letter has caused controversy.
In part, that’s because universal service remains a bedrock civic value. Moreover, as most
Israelis left of center see it, Israel under Ariel Sharon is fighting two battles: one against
terrorism, the other to maintain the occupation and settlements. The first is self-defense; the
second is pointless. The problem is whether the two can be separated. To assert that the entire fabric
of military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is solely what the Soldiers’ Letter calls
the “War of the Settlements” is to claim either that terror would end if Israel pulled
back to the Green Line and relinquished the territories, or that Israel would be better able to defend
itself from its own borders than from within the territories.
Those claims may well be true. But they are also political judgments—and
for soldiers to prefer their own political views to an elect-ed government’s orders sets
a risky precedent. That’s particularly true in a young country, where the rules of democracy
are still being worked out. Yet refuseniks argue that a soldier must reject immoral or illegal actions—and
that in the current circumstances, the at-tempt to untangle political judgments from moral and
legal ones is doomed.
Ron Shatzberg remains unconvinced. Shatzberg could be a poster boy
for the left. He lives in the working-class town of Beit Shemesh, in the urban kibbutz of Tamuz—an
effort to renew the ideal of communal life that is most unfashionable in today’s Israel. He
works for the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a low-profile organization that led the back-channel
negotiations that re-sulted in the Oslo Accord. Today, he describes his work as “crisis management,”
in a voice so soft it seems designed to erase the possibility of shouting in his vicinity. “I’m
advancing the end of the occupation,” he says.
Yet 36-year-old Shatzberg devotes 80 days a year to reserve duty, as
a lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry battalion. (This is not uncommon. In Israel, “military”
isn’t a synonym for “hawkish.” Many dovish Israeli politicians and activists
have served as combat officers, and some ex-generals advocate withdrawal as the best route to security.)
Shatzberg spent May patrolling the hills outside of Hebron. It was the time of the wheat harvest,
and of potential clashes between settlers and Palestinians whose fields lie close to Israeli settlements.
He contacted local Palestinians through an Israeli peace group, Rabbis for Human Rights, to find
out when and where they’d be harvesting. “I sent my troops there to create a buffer—to
protect the settlers, and to make sure they didn’t hassle the Palestinians,” he says.
The story illustrates one reason Shatzberg believes it’s essential for pro-peace Israelis
to continue serving in the territories: “Otherwise we abandon the decisions to people who…I’ve
got no idea what their values are.”
“There has to be a democratic decision to return to the ’67
bound-aries, plus or minus, in return for a peace agreement. It’s a matter of time.”
Meanwhile, Shatzberg says, “I accept that in a democracy, part of my mission is to protect
the settlers, despite my understanding that the settlements are the source of all impurity.” The
refuseniks are wrong, he argues, to try to change the facts on the ground in defiance of Israel’s
elected officials. Such faits accomplis are part of the settlers’ repertoire, Shatzberg
says, and he’d like to leave them there. “In a country so divided, so splintered,”
he says, “the rules of the democratic game have to be kept.”
Nor does Shatzberg accept that protecting settlers is the Israeli army’s
sole mission in the territories: “Since the terrorists treat the whole country as the front
and attack within Israel, that argument doesn’t hold water.” Strategic defense requires
forward deployment, “close to the source of attacks…where you can create uncertainty
for the enemy.” Israel can give up that kind of defense, he argues, only under a peace agreement—which
can happen only when both sides are ready.
Shatzberg concedes that the Soldiers’ Letter “did raise
the issue of moral behavior in the occupation for public debate. I don’t deny that.”
But, he argues, “it’s died out. It ceased making waves.” Even as a fait accompli,
he says, refusal by 500 soldiers isn’t enough to end the occupation.
The types of arguments that Shatzberg raises are debated by others in
countless left-wing forums, but particularly in Meretz, the left-wing party that holds 10 seats
in the 120-member Knesset and is the main voice of opposition to Ariel Sharon’s government.
Meretz Knesset Member Ran Cohen, an ex-colonel and veteran opponent of the occupation, says, “If
the peace camp wants to lead the country, it has to win the battle for public opinion. You don’t
do that by refusing to serve, which creates a stigma of being outsiders. As it is, the left isn’t
The problem is graphically illustrated at a June 10 event marking 35
years of occupation, sponsored by Meretz in suburban Tel Aviv. A hundred people show up, most old
enough to remember well when the occupation began. The two speakers from Courage to Refuse, both
majors, are in their early 30s. Seated behind a table, each speaks hesitatingly, as if embarrassed
to discuss something as personal as refusing a call-up order—and draws strong applause.
Afterward, Meretz Knesset Member Avshalom Vilan, an ex-commando and
a founder of the Peace Now movement, rises with a mike in his hand. “My question,” he thunders,
“is political effectiveness.” The peace movement’s goal must be to reach the
wider public, and in Israeli society, he argues, refusal to serve isn’t the way to do it. To
underline his point, he recalls that during the Lebanon War, Israeli peace activists met
with American political philos-opher Michael Walzer. Walzer praised the fact that, unlike American
protesters during the Vietnam War, the Israelis hadn’t cut themselves off from the mainstream,
hadn’t given up on becoming a political majority. At that, gray-haired men and women begin
shouting at Vilan, “But they got the U.S. out of Vietnam!” And the heckling continues
until by evening’s end Vilan seems a stranger in his own party.
Yet Vilan’s question remains in the air. It’s an old conundrum:
What stirs the faithful may be precisely what turns off the center. Ironically, even the image of
the refusenik as all-Israeli boy could backfire. Leaders of the political left have often portrayed
themselves as more Israeli than anyone else, and for decades that patronizing, aristocratic tone
has driven people away from their cause. Just holding the public’s attention may be difficult:
Once the initial shock of combat of-ficers saying, “I won’t go,” wore off, the
jailing of refuseniks faded to inside pages of Israeli papers.
That could change when Lt. Zonsheine gets his day in court.
In early June, the paratroops officer was called up for duty in the northern
West Bank. As expected, he told his commanding officer that he was ready to serve anywhere but the
occupied territories. Brought before a higher officer, he demanded a full court-martial. Pro
forma, his request was turned over to the military prosecutor’s office for a ruling. It was
rejected the same day, without explanation. A commanding officer sentenced him to 35 days in jail.
The day before, Zonsheine warned me that this would happen. He wanted,
he’d said, to be tried in open court, to bring witnesses, to present a legal case before qualified
judges against serving in the territories. And he wanted to do so with the media watching. He knew
his chances of acquittal were “close to zero” and that he risked a much longer jail term,
but, he said, “I want the public to know that the one leading this struggle is willing to risk
In the Israeli legal system, a citizen can appeal directly to the Supreme
Court against actions of the executive branch, including the military. The morning after Zonsheine
was sentenced, his lawyer—a sergeant in the reserves and a refusenik—petitioned the
court to order the army to grant him a full military trial.
On June 17, Zonsheine was brought from military prison to the Supreme
Court for his first hearing. He sat on a bench to one side of the courtroom while his lawyer and the government’s argued before three Supreme Court justices. The courtroom was filled with young, serious men with straight shoulders — Zonsheine’s fellow refuseniks. When the hearing ended, Zonsheine stroed out to where the TV cameras and mikes waited in the hallway. He wore a green uniform with two brass bars on each shoulder and a red beret tucked under one epaulet. He had folded up his bashfulness and put it away with his civvies. He’d decided, I realized, to fight the occupation through single combat with the state.
A week later, the court ordered him freed while it weighed his right to a trial. “The problem is not at all simple,” said Chief Justice Abaron Barak, “and the court needs time and thought in order to rule.” Zonsheine had won the first round. In mid-July, he won another. The Supreme Court told Zonsheine to go through the motion of asking the army’s legal department to review his disciplinary conviction. If the army upholds it (and to do otherwise would open a floodgate), Zonsheine can rpesent his case against serving in the territories directly to the Supreme Court. The decision, in effect, created a judicial fast track, skipping the stage of a military trial. By this fall, Zonsheine’s lawyer says, “the highest court in the land will contend with the legal and moral issues” raised by the refuseniks.
The shaded square in Jerusalem: A red-haired man in his 40s has been quietly arguing with several refuseniks. His wife, silent, stands a few feet back, holding their dog’s leash. “It’s true the occupation is destroying us,” he says, “but I’ve got a problem with the refusal bit. I’ve served my whole life. My son serves in the paratroops. If he has to go into someone’s house, he has tears in his eyes, but he goes.”
His wife steps forward and looks at him. “And what does it do to Ro’i when he goes in with tears in his eyes?” she asks him, quiet as the breeze. Everyone else suddenly becomes extras. If stagelights instead of the sun illuminated the scene, they would drop and leave everyone in shadow but the two of them, looking at each other.”
“You’d want him to refuse?”
“And if he doesn’t, will it tear him apart when he’s 45?”
A passer-by shouts. The argument begins again, all an epilogue to his questions and hers.