JERUSALEM -- An Israeli military court sentenced five young men to a year in prison yesterday for refusing to serve in the army as long as the Jewish state occupies the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The five are part of a growing movement that the military has had to contend with since the Palestinian uprising began more than three years ago. Hundreds of soldiers, alleging human rights abuses against Palestinians, have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza including, just last month, 13 members of the crack Sayeret Matkal, the most storied unit in the Israeli military.
But the five are different from other dissenters in several ways. For one thing, they refuse to be drafted altogether, not just to serve in the occupied territories. In a country in which the military is more venerated than any other public institution, not serving can be one of the most alienating things an Israeli can do.
Five teenaged conscientious objectors (L to R), Matan Kaminer, Adam Maor, Haggai Matar, Noam Bahat, Shomri Zameret, stand in front of a military court in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv January 4, 2004, after being sentenced to one year in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. The five were convicted last month for refusing an order to carry out obligatory service. REUTERS/Yossi Aloni
And the five will pay a much heavier price than other dissenters, who typically have been ordered to spend about a month in detention.
The yearlong sentence the five received is in addition to the 14 months they have been locked up while awaiting trial.
Hagai Matar, one of the five, said he had not even considered doing what some other draft-age men do when they want to avoid serving.
"I didn't want to lie or fake some psychological problem," he said in a phone conversation from prison before sentencing. "I wanted to discuss the things I've seen in the occupied territories that most Israelis don't know about.
"I wanted to speak my truth and make it a part of the political agenda in Israel of questioning these things."
In a way, Matar and other dissenters have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. More soldiers have taken a public stand against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the past three years than at any time in the country's history.
Army officials are especially troubled that some dissenters have come from the most elite units in the military.
Sayeret Matkal, whose soldiers specialize in secret operations behind enemy lines, is the army's top corps, and its graduates constitute something of an old-boys network. Former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu are both veterans of the group.
Air force pilots also are considered Israel's cream of the crop. Three months ago, 27 pilots signed a letter refusing to carry out missions over the occupied territories, describing them as illegal and immoral.
"Israel has experienced dissent before, but this time it's unprecedented both in scope and in terms of the level of the soldiers," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who researches Israeli democracy.
He said the tough measures Israel has resorted to in the face of Palestinian suicide attacks and other violence, including assassinations and collective punishment, have taken a toll on those soldiers who were always troubled by the occupation but had agreed grudgingly in the past to serve in the West Bank and Gaza when summoned.
"And you have to keep in mind that for every soldier who refuses openly to serve, dozens are finding ways to get out of duty in the West Bank by faking illness or quietly coming to an agreement with their commanders to serve elsewhere," Ezrahi said.
The three judges in yesterday's case said they meted out a relatively harsh sentence to deter others from refusing to serve. They said the army would crumble if soldiers were allowed to follow only the orders they liked.
One judge argued in his decision for a 22-month sentence but was overruled by the other two.
One of the dissenters said after the hearing that the sentence was harsher than any the army had imposed on soldiers convicted of brutality against Palestinians.
Matar said judges had asked him several times during the 10 hearings whether he was a pacifist. In recent years the army has occasionally exempted self-declared pacifists from service.
But Matar said the court's definition was too narrow.
"The army claims a pacifist is someone who rejects any violence in any circumstance and has no interest in politics and does not want to affect others," he said. "If that's the definition, I'm not that. I am against war. I do believe that there are times when violence is necessary, but I think we should try to avoid violence."
The five, who have been restricted to an army base until now but allowed to roam freely there, will be transferred to a military prison and confined to cells.
Matar's mother, Anat, said her son had been active in left-wing politics through high school and knew by age 16 that he would refuse to serve in the military.
She said some members of the family were troubled by Hagai's decision, including his grandparents.
"But they visited him in prison, and I think ultimately they're proud of him," she said. "He's taking a stand and making a big sacrifice."
Hanoch Smith, a pollster who has surveyed the public on conscientious objection, said about 20 percent of those recently questioned said they identify with dissenters.
Smith said that figure has remained constant over the past two years. But when asked in a poll three weeks ago about the future, 39 percent of the respondents said the trend would grow while 57 percent said it would remain at the present level.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company