Refusal

Here is another extract from an autobiographical book I am writing about how my life has crossed paths with Israel-Palestine. In this passage I recount my refusal to serve in the in the Israeli army in the Palestinian Occupied Territories in 1995.

Having remained a temporary resident in Israel for as long as I could, I had delayed my compulsory service. By the time I became a citizen I was only required to serve three months, but I had postponed even that duty by going away for a year for my postdoctorate. In 1994 the army caught up with me again and I was due to serve in early 1995. It was already very clear in my mind that I would refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, which would mean spending some time in military jail. There was no way I was going to become the military occupier of my Palestinian dialogue partners. I knew people who had been through the experience, especially Lev Grinberg, who had refused to serve in Lebanon, and Ofer Cassif, the first reservist to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories during the intifada. Lev also put me in touch with other members of Yesh Gvul so I could hear from others, including one person who had become fairly well-known because the army insisted on calling him up again as soon as he was released, meaning he was given repeated sentences of imprisonment. I also read accounts by a couple of refuseniks who had been jailed. Having put off my service so long, I was already classed as a reservist, so I knew I would be locked up with other reservists, mostly people who had tried to evade service, not facing the scarier prospect of jail for regular recruits. It was, nonetheless, a worrying scenario, so I did not know how I would cope. Even up until the day I reported for duty at the local recruitment office in Jerusalem, I was trying to get through to an intelligence officer whose number I had been given by a university colleague who thought I might find an option there. The evening before I had to report for duty I took quiet time to reflect on what I was about to do, turning to the pages of my book about Foucault for passages to strengthen my resolve:

Foreswear the dream of a perfect world in which all has been done and all is safe, but cherish the agonism of open strategic games in which everything remains to be done. Love your liberty, which you have when you can act and do so. Take care of yourself; know ‘yourself’ by transgressing your limits; practise liberty.[1]

It made sense to me at the time, realising I was the intended audience for my own book. Refusal would be the practice of my liberty, an option for action available to me. By refusing, I was transgressing the limits of the Zionist subject as which I had been constituted by my background and participation in Habonim-Dror, a Zionist youth movement. I would become a different self.

My brother came to the recruitment centre to see me off as I got onto a bus to the main recruitment camp, Bakum, the reception and sorting base in the centre of the country. The first stage was some form-filling, where I hesitated about refusing to sign some sort of declaration about agreeing to follow orders. I spent the rest of the day avoiding being recruited by any of the units looking for reliable by new members – medics, military engineers, home front – by telling them I intended to find work abroad. At the end of the day I found myself with a large crowd of Russian-speakers, fed, given blankets and sent to sleep in tents. I did not sleep well, both because I had underestimated how cold it would be and because I was anxious about what faced me the next day. I was awake very early, found some hot water and took a shower before anyone else was awake.

We were organised into groups to walk down to the car park where buses were waiting, though we did not know where they were headed. I told the corporal in charge of my group that I would not get onto a bus going to the Occupied Territories. He told me not to worry, just to walk down with everyone else. When we got there, I saw a sign on the bus reading Bahad 4, a base which I knew was close to Ramallah and the settlement of Beit El. So, I refused to get on the bus. Over the next hour, I was variously cajoled and yelled at in an effort to get me on the bus. Someone told me that he worked on the base and also hated the settlers, but I did not need to have anything to do with them. Another person tried to make me afraid of what would happen to me in jail, telling me I would be made another prisoner’s bitch. An officer from the base grabbed my backpack and went to put it on the bus, which was distressing as I had borrowed it from my roommate. We tussled over the backpack and at one point I realised that if I let go, the officer would fall backwards, so I held on as I did not want to annoy him any further. Eventually, another officer approached me, spoke to me gently, explained that he was in charge of the whole recruitment process that day, that if I refused to get on the bus I would be sent to jail, but then added that if I had any problems I wanted to discuss with him, he would be available in the next ten minutes. After a poor night’s sleep the penny was slow to drop, but I realised I was being offered a way out, so I repeated the story about looking for work abroad. I barely finished the sentence when he told me to join a small group of other new recruits waiting at the side. It turned out that there were about dozen more of us than places on the training programmes, so we were to serve on the sorting base for the week, which meant that those of us who could get home and back for an early morning start were free to go. I had woken up in the morning expecting to be in jail that evening and instead was back home in Jerusalem.

At the end of the week I spent on the base I met the officer from the parking lot again. He was intelligent and calm, interested in studying Political Science at university and curious about that. We chatted about the prospects for peace and the likelihood that Bahad 4 and other training bases would be withdrawn from the West Bank. Bahad 4 was indeed later moved from near Ramallah to Zikim, near Ashkelon, under the terms of Oslo II, the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza, signed in September 1995. I fed him my narrative about needing time to look for work overseas at that time of the year, which he accepted as grounds not to serve my three months then. He asked me to agree that if he gave me a deferment until a date in July, I would agree to go wherever I was sent, but did not ask me to sign anything. I did have the opportunity both in the parking lot and in his office to be adamant about my refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories and be sent to jail. Yet, it was also true that I was looking for a job overseas and that I was not being ordered to serve in the Territories at that point. I had no desire to be a hero, to go to jail when I did not need to in order to avoid becoming a military occupier. So, I was part of the ‘grey refusal,’ the undocumented cases of recruits and reservists who found a way to be selective conscientious objectors, unwilling to serve in the army of occupation in the Territories.


[1] Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 124-25.

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