It's because they fear us, say teenage refuseniks jailed by Israeli army
Chris McGreal in Tel Aviv, The Guardian, Wednesday January 7, 2004

Haggai Matar never expected that his sentence would be so harsh. But as the teenage refusenik reports to a military prison today, he says he will draw comfort from the judges' description of him as a threat to the survival of Israel.

Mr Matar is one of five young men starting one-year sentences at No 6 military prison near Haifa.

They all refused to serve because they object to the occupation.

"I take it as a compliment that they are so afraid of our ability to persuade others that they called us dangerous and have to lock us up," said Mr Matar, 19.

Until now, objectors have generally been allowed to walk free, or have received administrative sentences of a few weeks in jail, to save the military public embarrassment.

But Mr Matar and his col leagues went public with their protest, and encouraged others to join them, at a time when the Israeli army is confronting a wave of objections.

Nearly 1,000 school leavers and reservists have signed refusal letters, and members of elite forces such as fighter pilots and commandos say they will no longer attack Palestinian targets because the large numbers of civilian casualties amounted to war crimes.

To deter the movement, the army made it known that Mr Matar and his colleagues had been hauled before the first such court martial since 1981.

"To date the army's policy against the refuseniks was to put them in prison for three or four months," Mr Matar said.

"During the verdict and sentencing they said they were punishing us much more severely because we went public, because we affect other people."

The three judges said they were guilty of a "very severe crime which constitutes a manifest and concrete danger to our existence and our survival".

One judge, Colonel Avi Levi, stopped just short of accusing them of treason.

"The accused made their refusal public so as to put in question the justification for the army's operations and the morality of taking part in the army," he said.

"Further, by so doing they undermine the international legitimacy of the state's actions and help hostile nations by providing them with new arguments."

The five are not typical of Israeli youth, nor of the broader refusenik movement. They mostly come from radical families with long attachments to the peace camp. Noam Bahat, 20, touches on issues rarely discussed among Israelis.

"Every day people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip suffer abuse, humiliation, poverty and hunger - things that happen because of the occupation," he said.

"You begin to understand that there is a reason for the bombings, the terror attacks. You ask how people can get to the situation where people kill themselves and kill others, and you realise they are desperate."

He acknowledges that his is not a popular view.

"Sometimes people react badly to what I say. They say that we're destroying the country, we're anti-democratic, we're the worst criminals."

The group's willingness to ask penetrating questions about the cause of the violence has made them a less embarrassing target for court martial than pilots and commandos with distinguished records.

But the five are confident that their trial will backfire by encouraging, not deterring, the growing ranks of refuseniks.

So far, more than 400 have signed the "high school letter" refusing to serve. A further 550 who served and are now reservists have signed a similar document objecting to policing the occupation.

In recent weeks, 28 pilots and 13 members of an elite commando unit have joined the refuseniks.

The five each spent 14 months or more in detention before their court martial, so know what to expect behind bars. After that, they are not so sure.

"It's very unclear where the army is going with this," Mr Matar said. "It is possible that, when the year ends, they will send us back to be inducted into the army - and we will refuse, and it will all start again.
Letters to the Editor

10 January 2004

Your article on the Israeli refuseniks (Guardian 7 January) claims that these five young men were not "typical of the broader refusenik movement" because they come from radical political backgrounds. But what distinguished them is that they invited others to join them in their public protest - at a time when the global refusenik movement is growing. We have gathered similar cases in other countries on The best known is perhaps Stephen Funk, the US marine of Filipino/Native American origin who is currently in jail for having called on other soldiers to refuse to serve in Iraq. Stephen said that as a gay man he knew about oppression and stands with oppressed people. The anti-war movement -- which seems to be most of the world --welcomes the actions of women and men in the military who are refusing to obey orders, the Nazi excuse for state atrocities and genocide. 

Ben Martin