"If necessary, I will go to jail."
Those are the words of 17-year-old Dafna Rothstein Landman, one of 60 and counting Israeli youth who signed an open letter sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend declaring their refusal of compulsory service in the Israeli military — the biggest wave of conscientious objection the country has seen since 2008.
Under the banner of Shministim — Hebrew for 12th graders — the group of conscientious objectors condemns the dehumanization of Palestinians living under occupation. In the Palestinian territories, "human rights are violated, and acts defined under international law as war-crimes are perpetuated on a daily basis," their letter states. "These include assassinations (extrajudicial killings), the construction of settlements on occupied lands, administrative detentions, torture, collective punishment and the unequal allocation of resources such as electricity and water."
Entitled We Refuse to Serve in the Occupation Army, the letter charges that this dehumanization hurts Israelis as well. "The problem with the army does not begin or end with the damage it inflicts on Palestinian society. It infiltrates everyday life in Israeli society too: it shapes the educational system, our workforce opportunities, while fostering racism, violence and ethnic, national and gender-based discrimination."
"We refuse to forsake our principles as a condition to being accepted in our society," reads the joint letter, penned by people aged 16 to 20 who are eligible for compulsory service in the Army. "We have thought about our refusal deeply and we stand by our decisions."
Dafna, who helped write the letter, told Common Dreams she was only 15 years old when she began questioning her military service — a process she says was catalyzed when she reflected on the imprint of Israeli militarism on her own schooling experience. "I realized to what extent the education system is geared towards the Army and not towards further education, the job market, personal interests, etcetera," she said.
Soon after, she began traveling from her home in Tel Aviv to the West Bank, where she participated in Palestinian demonstrations against Israeli occupation. Here, she witnessed the "violence of the Army" first-hand. "I met people from those Palestinian villages," she said. "That meant that instead of names in a newspaper they became people, with faces and personalities."
She added that she became aware of the way "the Army perpetuates an ideal of male violence," within Israeli society.
When she and her friends began receiving letters about their Army draft around last summer, they became "worried" and began taking steps towards their joint refusal.
This year's crop of public resisters follows a history of joint draft refusal in Israel, which has been waged since 1970, when a group of students declared their refusal of the draft in an open letter to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. The term Shministim caught on in 2008 when 100 young people signed an open letter refusing the draft, and the years since have seen waves of conscientious objection.
This includes resisters from the Druze religious community — a conscientious objection movement that is reportedly growing, as well as ultra-orthodox draft refusers. According to the Committee for the Druze Initiative, a Druze organization that supports conscientious objectors, since compulsory service was imposed on Druze men in 1956, approximately 5,000 have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Army.
“We stand in solidarity with the ultra-orthodox youth and the Arab youth – Christian and Druze, some of whom are currently in an army prison,” said Roni Lax, a 20 year old signatory from Bnei Brak, in a statement about the letter emailed to Common Dreams.
The Israeli military makes it near-impossible to declare conscientious objector status, and refusers are often jailed for multiple consecutive terms for refusing an order. Meanwhile, many Druze resisters face horrific conditions in prison, including religious and ethnic discrimination. Several Palestinian citizens of Israel from the Druze community are currently incarcerated for refusing the draft.
"The Army serves the people in power and not the civilians, who are only a tool," said Shaked Harari, a 17-year-old signatory from Bat Yam. "My friends and I refuse to be cannon fodder."
"My refusal is a way of expressing my opposition to the wrongs done daily in our name and through us," said Mandy Cartner, a 16-year-old signatory from Tel Aviv.
Says Dafna, "In a society where Army service is taken for granted, we wanted to shake this concept and make people think about the implications of serving in the Army."