JERUSALEM — In this past week of madness and carnage, hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians appears impossible. After 35 years of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the two sides seem only to have grown accustomed to assassinations, bombings, terrorist attacks and house demolitions. Each side characterizes its own soldiers as either "defense forces" or "freedom fighters" when in truth these soldiers take part in war crimes on a daily basis. Daily funerals and thoughts of revenge among Israelis tend to blur the fact that we, the Israelis, are the occupiers. And as much as we live in fear of terrorism and war, it is the Palestinians who suffer more deaths hourly and live with greater fear because they are the occupied.
Twenty years ago, when I was first inducted into the Israeli Army, to serve as a paratrooper and officer for four and a half years, I took an oath to defend Israel and obey my commanders. I was young, a patriot, probably naïve, and sure that as a soldier my job was to defend my home and country. It did not occur to me that I might be used to carry out an occupation or asked to fight in military engagements that are not essential for the defense of Israel.
It took me one war — the Lebanon war — many dead friends, and some periods of service in the occupied territories to find that my assumptions were wrong. In 1983, I refused to serve in acts of occupation, and I spent 35 days in military prison for my refusal. Today, as a major in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces, I still defend my country but I will not participate in a military occupation that has over the decades made Israel less secure and less humane. The escalating violence is evidence of this truth.
Being a citizen in a democracy carries with it a commitment to democratic values and a responsibility for your actions. It is morally impossible to be both a devoted democratic citizen and a regular offender against democratic values. Depriving people of the right to equality and freedom, and keeping them under occupation, is by definition an antidemocratic act. The occupation that has now lasted a generation and rules the lives of more than 3.5 million Palestinians is what drives me, hundreds of other objectors in the armed forces, and tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to oppose our government's policies and actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
My commitment to democratic values caused me to act against the occupation — to sign petitions, write ads, and take part in demonstrations and vigils. But those acts of opposition were not enough to absolve me of having to make a moral choice about participating in the occupation as an officer and ordering others to do so. So while I continue to serve in the defense force, I selectively refuse military orders if they require my presence in the territories outside the pre-1967 Israeli borders. I will not obey illegal orders to execute potential terrorists or fire into civilian demonstrations. (Since October 2000 more than 850 Palestinians have been killed by my army: 178 were minors, and 55 were executed.) And I will not take part in "less violent" actions like keeping Palestinians under curfew for months, manning roadblocks that prevent civilians moving from town to town, or carrying out house demolitions and other acts of repression aimed at the entire Palestinian population.
As our government prepares to increase military action in the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis need a true debate about the nature of Israel's presence in these territories. Israeli and international human rights groups have raised their voices about the persistent violation of Palestinian human rights. I believe it is my duty as a citizen of a democratic nation to protest this conduct, which cannot be justified.
I and others who serve in the defense forces cannot by our actions alone change government policies or make peace negotiations more likely. But we can show our fellow citizens that occupation of the territories is not just a political or strategic matter. It is also a moral matter. We can show them an alternative — they can say no to occupation. When we begin to see Israel's situation in that light, perhaps we will be able to let go of our fear enough to find a way forward.
Ishai Menuchin is a major in the Israel Defense Forces reserves and chairman of Yesh Gvul, the soldiers' movement for selective refusal.
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