"I refuse to fight for Israel"
The Guardian
February 18th 2009

Peace activist Sahar Vardi, 18, has served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into Israel's military service. She is one of the Shministim – Israeli teenagers who oppose serving in the army because it enforces Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Last year 100 young Israelis signed the Shministim letter, which they sent to the government to express their objection


Lead article photo

Israeli conscripts return from a combat mission. Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Activism is in my family – my father refused to do his military service in the first intifada and then in 2002, during the second intifada, he became active with Ta’ayush, a coexistence group of Israelis and Palestinians that mostly works in the occupied territories. Most of their work is agricultural, they help plant trees and that kind of thing. From the age of 12 I joined him, in the safer places, and that’s how I came to know about the occupation.

When I was 14 I started going to demonstrations against the [Israeli separation] wall, mostly in Bil’in, which is a village next to Ramallah. I went there every single Friday and from there started being active in Anarchists Against the Wall [an Israeli group supporting Palestinian resistance to the wall].

I can’t really say when it was that I decided to refuse to go into the army; I had been active since such a young age and it was almost obvious from the beginning that I wasn’t going to enlist. I’ve been in demonstrations where the army shot at me and I’ve stood in line for hours at checkpoints, so it seemed natural to me that I wasn’t going to be a part of it.

Explaining what the Israeli occupation means and why every single Israeli soldier is responsible for it is something that not everyone understands, even inside the left. I believe that it’s one thing to criticise the occupation, but if you become a part of it then it is your responsibility, even if you’re under orders and even if the law makes you do it.

At 18 every Jewish Israeli has to enlist in the army – boys for three years, girls for two. We show up on the arranged date and form a queue – it’s called the line of enlistment. We refusers say "no"; I wore a T-shirt saying "I refuse to occupy". I was the only refuser in a line of about 100 girls.

I was put on trial for refusing the order to become a soldier and sentenced to military prison. The problem is that the moment we’re released we’re supposed to enlist again, so we go back to the same procedure – they send you to trial again and to prison again. Legally it can go on for ever.

I’ve been put on trial five times, but only four of them ended in punishment and only three of them in prison – the first time for a week and the other two for three weeks.

Most of the military prison population is relatively rightwing, so I did a lot of trying to convince the girls there that Arabs are human beings, which wasn't easy.

Prison life itself is boring as hell. You wake up at 5:15 every morning, then at 5:45 you stand in the courtyard, where you are counted for an hour. They count us again and again and again, and when they finally decide they have enough prisoners we have breakfast and then we clean the whole complex. We clean our barracks and the courtyard twice a day.

The rest of the time we sit down for a few minutes and try to read or talk and then the officers call us to stand in line again, and then we sit again and then we stand again, and that’s more or less all we do all day.

The exception is that sometimes we have lessons. A representative of the educational corps of the army comes and tries to teach us. Usually it’s history.

For me the upside of these lessons was that when there was more than one refuser in prison we had more confidence and we were the only people in the classroom who actually knew history – we knew it better than the teacher – so we really controlled those lessons.

In Israel the only history we learn is Jewish history. We start with antisemitism, we go through the Holocaust and from there we get to the 1948 war and how we finally got our state. In prison we had the opportunity to teach that in a different way, and to people who usually don’t see the other side. In the middle of these lessons we started talking about the Nakba – the 1948 war as seen from the Palestinian side.

According to the Israeli narrative, the Palestinian refugees ran away for no apparent reason. We explained that there were massacres and they had been drawn out of their houses. That was really interesting to do, we really enjoyed that.

My family were supportive about my refusal. But my family is also divided – the whole of Israeli society is like that. Although my father supported me, my mother’s boyfriend is an army pilot and my brother is in the army – he’s a career soldier.

Almost all of my classmates are now in the army. My school has a very high rate of enlistment – in my year group there were 250 kids and only two, including myself, didn’t go into the army.

But luckily for me it didn’t interfere with my relationships with people, mostly because when I moved to the school in the 10th grade I knew I was going to refuse and it was obvious to everyone around me. On my first day I handed out leaflets of the shministim letter of that year, 2005. From that day to the end of my senior year, three years later, I had kids in my class who didn’t speak to me only because of that.

I’m trying to keep up a relationship with my friends from school but they’re now all in the army and if we sit together and talk, all they talk about is the army. It’s the only thing in their world and I can’t be a part of that.

In a way, refusers are excluded from the population because of that, because we don’t have those army conversation topics. I can even see it at home, which is sad; my father was a combat soldier and my brother is in the army, and half of their conversation is in army lingo.

The whole culture revolves around the military. It doesn’t seem weird to us that everyone around us is with weapons – here everyone has weapons. The fact that half the kids in kindergarten dress up as soldiers for Purim doesn’t seem weird to us either. It’s everywhere and we don’t even notice it.

• Sahar Vardi was speaking to Andrea D'Cruz.