The Israeli army has been hit by an unprecedented wave of disobedience as scores of soldiers refuse to serve in areas which have seen the worst violence during the Palestinian uprising.
Others have cut short their military service in protest at the Israeli control of Arab territories, against the measures used to tackle the four-month-long revolt, and against what they call the 'militarisation' of Israeli society.
Hundreds more serving soldiers have requested transfers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip or have refused reserve duty. Thousands of other young people are dodging military service - traditionally seen as one of the cornerstones of life in Israel.
At least nine soldiers, including some from combat units and at least one reservist, have been jailed for taking a stand against military authorities since the start of the intifada in September. Campaigners say only one in 40 refusers is being prosecuted. The army says exact figures are unavailable.
Eyal Rozenberg, 20, refused to complete the last of his three years of mandatory service with a prestigious intelligence unit when the most recent violence broke out.
'The army is being used to defend and further a policy I do not agree with but was assisting,' he told The Observer . 'Every morning when I woke up I was torn between what I was doing and what I believed in.'
Many of the refusers are reservists. After their three years of compulsory service, Israeli men can be called up for more than a month each year.
Thousands of reservists have been deployed on the West Bank and in Gaza in recent months. Several have been killed. More than 300 Palestinians have died.
'I don't want to be in a position where I might have to shoot and wound and kill people who are throwing stones and I don't want to die myself. If it was a war for Israel's survival, that would be totally different,' said one 33-year-old reservist, a former fighter in the elite paratroop brigade. Sympathetic commanding officers, aware that Israel's forces are a 'people's army', are often happy to quietly transfer soldiers away from sensitive positions. Others recommend that they seek a medical discharge, he said.
However, the new wave of 'refuseniks' has revealed deep divisions in Israeli society. Young Israelis are increasingly secular and materialistic. Many conservatives see the new trends as undermining the nation's security, damaging its moral fabric, or even as contrary to divine injunctions.
In nine days, Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Prime Minister. Ariel Sharon, the bullish hardliner, has a huge lead over Ehud Barak, whose electoral pledge to bring peace has not been fulfilled.
In the heated pre-election atmosphere, the criticism of conscientious objectors and 'refuseniks' has been severe. Lothan Raz, 20, who spent two months in jail for refusing to serve in the West Bank, said he has received abuse and threats after talking publicly about his decision.
'People said that I wasn't a Jew if I didn't serve in the army. They called me a traitor and a coward,' he said. Raz maintains that he speaks for a huge number of young Israelis whose vision of Israel is very different from that of 'the religious or military establishment'.
But although the violence in the territories has caused a crisis of conscience for some, it has also led to a backlash against the peace process. The army points out that unprecedented numbers of reservists are reporting for duty and says some are requesting a posting on the West Bank or in Gaza.
During the last intifada, from 1987 to 1993, about 200 soldiers were jailed for refusing to serve. Campaigners say current figures do not reflect the extent of the discontent. 'The army don't want to stir things up at a difficult time, so they have a policy of not jailing people. It's the tip of the iceberg,' said Ishai Menuchin, a veteran of Israel's traumatic war in Lebanon who now runs a group supporting conscientious objectors. He says that out of 40 refusers who have contacted him since September only one has been jailed.
Instead of formally objecting, some young Israelis simply opt to avoid military service. Some campaigners claim that a quarter of those called up are dodging the draft. The army says only 1 per cent fails to serve.
Outside a bar in central Jerusalem last week several young Israelis were happy to tell The Observer how they avoided military service.
'It was easy,' said Yoel, a 19-year-old IT student. 'I just told them that I had bad nightmares and sometimes had suicidal thoughts. They don't want to take any risks, so they let me off.' He said he was not ashamed. 'I don't like fighting and I don't want to shoot anyone. I don't see why that should stop me being a good Israeli citizen.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001