JERUSALEM - More than 60 Israeli Army reservists, half officers and all of them combat veterans, have publicly refused to continue serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the ground that Israeli occupation forces there are abusing and humiliating Palestinians.
"We will no longer fight beyond the Green Line for the purpose of occupying, deporting, destroying, blockading, killing, starving and humiliating an entire people," declared the petition signed by the reservists and published in Israel's best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Over the years there have been instances of eligible Israelis declining to serve in the army at all, or refusing to serve in certain places for reasons of conscience or politics. What makes the current case unusual is that so many combat reservists, both soldiers and officers, have come forward publicly at one time.
Moreover, the organizers of the petition, a pair of reserve lieutenants in their 20s who have served previous stints in the Israeli-occupied territories, say their goal is to collect 500 signatures and launch a broad social campaign.
"We all have limits," Reserve Lieutenant David Zonshein, 28, a software engineer and one of the two men who drafted the petition, told Yedioth. He said that although "you can be the best officer," suddenly, "you are asked to do things that should not be asked of you, to shoot people, to stop ambulances, to destroy houses in which you don't know if there are people living."
Lieutenant Zonshein, who wrote the petition with Reserve Lieutenant Yaniv Itzkovich, 26, a university teaching assistant, declined to speak with foreign correspondents. But along with several other signatories of the petition, they told Yedioth about incidents in which Israeli troops had opened fire on Palestinian children and other civilians who posed no apparent danger to their lives.
In a statement, the Israeli Army said: "To serve in the Israeli Defense Forces is obligatory under the law and there is no place for reserve soldiers to choose what jobs they want and what jobs they don't want. The writers of the petition don't represent the soldiers and officers of the reserve who understand their mission and are working days and nights toward the security of the state of Israel and peace for its citizens."
Most Israeli men are required to serve as army reservists until they are 45 years old, typically spending a few weeks to a month or more each year away from their families and civilian jobs.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, acknowledged that allegations of abuse by the army do happen and should be investigated, but he dismissed the petition and refusals to serve in the army as a "marginal phenomenon."
The petition "undermines the basic tenet of Israeli democracy," he said. "You can't have a government in which people can decide" they will bomb "this target but not that target. You abide by the rule of the majority and the majority has decided this is the government and this is its policy."
Since the current Palestinian armed uprising erupted in September 2000, more than 500 Israelis have refused to serve in the Israeli occupied territories, including pacifists and veterans, recruits and reservists, according to such objectors.
Of that number, about 40 have been sentenced to prison terms that are generally brief, including 12 reserve officers. Others have been ignored or given army jobs inside Israel.
Ram Rahat, 45, a former combat soldier who refused to serve during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, said the current refusals mirror patterns that emerged in previous conflicts. He said it showed that people who have gone through army reserve duty "a couple of times, going through the territories and seeing the reality of what's going on there, are starting to get fed up with it." Mr. Rahat, an accountant, added, "It's exactly what happened in the first intifada as well. As more and more people did reserve duty and came back for their second and third tours, there were more and more cases of refusal."
Bush and Mubarak Confer on Phone
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President George W. Bush agreed during a telephone call Monday to continue efforts to end violence between Israelis and Palestinians, state television reported, according to a Reuters dispatch from Cairo.
"Presidents Mubarak and Bush agreed to work to contain the situation and exert all efforts to return stability to the region," the report said.
An Egyptian official said the call was part of efforts by Egypt and other Arab states to express regional concerns about the marginalization of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and any escalation in the conflict.
The television quoted Mr. Mubarak as saying that the "continuation of the cycle of violence will have serious consequences for the Israeli and Palestinian people and for the future of security and stability in the region."
A Saudi newspaper reported on Monday that Arab states planned to send a strongly worded message to the United States, saying that its interests in the Arab world were at risk if it did not stop Israeli attacks on Palestinians.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune