Yesh Gvul: A Uniquely Israeli Innovation in the Culture of Protest

Early in December 1996, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserve lieutenant Ro'i Kozlovsky incurred 18 days' detention for refusing a posting to the Hebron area. Referring to his prospective duties - guarding the fanatical Jewish settlers who keep that city in incessant turmoil - the young officer told the court that "accountability for performing immoral deeds does not fall exclusively to those who give the orders, but also to those willing to take part in the occupation." Kozlovsky registered his outrage as Israel's leaders continued to drag out the withdrawal from Hebron and duck other solemn obligations spelled out in the Oslo accords.
As the fragile peace crumbled under the shifts and evasions that had become the hallmark of the Netanyahu government, others resorted to a similar form of protest: in reporting Kozlovsky's act, Israel state radio mentioned some 20 more instances of refusal in the previous weeks. (Since the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo accords, there had been virtually no recorded cases of refusal.) The radio went on to note that in most of the recent cases ¬Kozlovsky was evidently an exception - the army had waived disciplinary action, preferring to offer the "refuseniks" alternative postings.
In backing down from a head-on confrontation with refuseniks, the army clearly hoped to evade the rerun of a painful dilemma. The IDF jailed over 170 soldiers - some repeatedly - for refusing to take part in the mid-eighties' Lebanon war; in the Palestinian Intifada some years later, jailings reached 200. In fact, the figures are misleadingly low: the number of soldiers openly rejecting postings on grounds of conscience or political conviction far exceeded the number of jailings. As refusals multiplied, officers - initially resolute in disciplining such insubordination - lost stomach for prosecuting the recalcitrant soldiers; accordingly, the figures cited represent a mere fraction of actual refusals, which probably ran into many hundreds. (Relative to Israel's population, the figures are significant: imagine the effect on US policies had 10,000 Marines opted for jail rather than take part in the Panama invasion!)
Moreover, quality matched quantity: of the refuseniks listed in Yesh Gvul files, the great majority are in the sergeant-to-captain range of direct field command - ranks representing a respectable record of military service, making them impossible to dismiss as shirkers dodging irksome duties. The subject soon became too important to ignore as the Israeli media gave extensive coverage to instances of refusal, whose democratic legitimacy posed an issue of heated debate. With numerous reservists and regulars posted to duties that went against the moral and political grain, their dilemma was heightened when refuseniks offered a feasible alternative open to one and all. As a direct challenge to official policy, and as an act of conscience undertaken in a manner deliberately courting personal sacrifice - IDF jails are no hell-holes, but neither are they vacation spas - refusal inevitably became the moral spearhead of the Israeli peace movement.
Moreover, the refusal campaign exerted direct pressure on the military and political establishment to an extent unimagined at the time. Addressing a closed forum, an ex-officer, formerly at the pinnacle of the General Staff, conceded that the IDF recommendation to call off the Lebanon campaign stemmed in part from apprehension among top brass that further floundering in the "Lebanese quagmire" would prompt refusals running into the thousands. Then and now, the IDF acknowledged the refusal movement as a formidable adversary, as reflected in the cautious strategy the army command adopted. However, defying the temptation of a once-and-for-all showdown with the refuseniks, the IDF consistently funked such a course; almost certainly, the generals were fearful of a political trial where defense attorneys would justify their clients' insubordination on the ground that their orders - whether to invade Lebanon or suppress the Palestinian uprising - were flagrantly illegal under Israeli and international law. It was a disputation that Israeli leaders, civilian and military alike, were desperate to avoid.

Civil Disobedience - in the Army?

"Selective refusal" is arguably the Israeli peace movement's most original contribution to the arsenal of protest, with the general principles of civil disobedience, as forged by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, applied to that least likely of all possible settings: the army.
Unlike revolution, with its all-out defiance of the political status quo in all aspects, civil disobedience focuses on a specific injustice, homing in on a regulation that embodies its essence (in the US South, racial discrimination was exemplified by segregation in public transport), and picking it out for deliberate and overt defiance. Accordingly, the refusal movement - a prominent element of Israel's domestic opposition - focused on the IDF's role in enforcing the occupation or invading Lebanon and chose to flout the law requiring soldiers to serve where and as ordered. It was not all-out mutiny: rather, with a chutzpa unheard of in other armies, IDF refuseniks abrogated unto themselves the prerogative of choosing which orders to obey or disobey.
Thousands of young Americans protested the Vietnam war with the chant: "Hell no, we won't go!" and burned their draft cards. In other lands where an unpopular war evoked widespread protest, opposition generally took the form of outright refusal to don uniform. Apartheid-era South Africa witnessed a similar protest, albeit on a smaller scale, at the war of repression its armed forces were waging against the black majority. Circumstances left dissidents no choice but to resist enlistment. Stopping short of an overall renunciation of violence in the pacifist tradition, it was a political protest against the particular conflict in which their country was engaged; with that, their response emulated the conscientious objectors and pacifists whose moral principles reject any form of violence, entailing a refusal to bear arms whatever the circumstances.
There have been instances of Israelis refusing any form of military service, but conscientious objection never took off as a broad movement; the political and regional circumstances facing Israel's peaceniks evidently preclude outright refusal. The occupied territories are not Algeria, and Lebanon is no Vietnam. A different strategy was called for.
Not that anyone ever sat down ahead of time to design a form of protest meeting specific Israeli conditions. Selective refusal grew from, and was shaped by, the complex military-political parameters laid down by the 1967 war. A generation of soldiers brought up on the myth of the Israel Defense Forces discovered overnight that the generally legitimate defensive duties they had discharged hitherto were now replaced by the task of policing a subject civilian population. Thus, after spending eleven months in the year campaigning against the occupation, many a left-winger found himself required perforce to dedicate the twelfth to enforcing that selfsame occupation as a reserve soldier.
The dilemma was intolerable. But regional realities still posed threats: at least in theory, external aggression might yet oblige the IDF to discharge its professed defensive role. Accordingly, very few could bring themselves to outright rejection of all forms of service with the IDE Almost inevitably, a line was drawn between "unacceptable" service in the occupied territories, and "legitimate" duties arising from the IDF's potential or actual defensive role. In the early seventies, when Yossi Kotten and Yitzhak Laor stunned the Israeli public by overt defiance of orders to serve in the occupied territories, they hastened to declare their willingness to undertake other, more legitimate duties. "Selective" refusal was born.

'Just Obeying Orders'

The roots of the refusal movement can be traced to an episode long pre¬dating the 1967 occupation and ostensibly unrelated thereto. In the 1956 Kufr Qassem massacre, on the eve of the Sinai campaign, IDF soldiers systematically gunned down 49 Israeli Arab villagers for breaking a curfew of which they were unaware. At the ensuing trial, the lower-ranking culprits argued their innocence, claiming they had "merely obeyed orders." Ten years after the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis who had butchered a third of the Jewish people, that line of defense was repugnant to Jewish ears, not least to those of the judges sitting in judgment. The trial verdict - surely one of the most eloquent and moving texts in legal history - demolished the claim that a soldier was required under all circumstances to obey orders, even those overshadowed with "the black flag of illegality." "Illegality that pierces the eye and affronts the heart, if the eye is not blind and the heart is not callous or depraved ... suspends the soldier's duty to obey and charges him with criminal accountability for his actions." Subsequent nit-picking, notably on definition of such flagrant illegality, failed to erase the long-term impact of a verdict barring even the lowliest of soldier from acting as mere robot or "cog in the machine," even though the actual sentences were later commuted. To any army, based on a vertical hierarchy and the formal requirement of strict obedience, the notion that the orders of a superior must be scrutinized to ascertain their legitimacy was a potential time bomb.
The bomb was primed and set off by the actions of the Israeli establishment. As the seventies dragged by, formal refusal to serve in the territories seemed a quixotic act, undertaken more for the refusenik's personal integrity and self-¬respect than as a calculated political protest. "It won't end the occupation," ran the existentialist rationale, ''but at least I'll be able to look at myself in the mirror without blushing."

Lebanon: A Border Too Far

The June 1982 invasion of Lebanon abruptly changed everything. Hitherto, many peace-minded reservists, aware of the painful social and ideological consequences of refusal, had somehow come to uneasy terms with their annual tour of duty in the occupied territories. Many an agonizing peacenik dredged up a moral rationale as he reported for duty in Gaza or the West Bank, assuaging his tormented conscience with the reassurance that, being a humane and conscientious individual, his mere presence helped protect the Palestinian population from the worst abuses.
In so doing, he could draw comfort from the doctrine of Peace Now: the mainline peace movement specifically condemned refusal as a lapse into lawlessness that could eventually serve as precedent for the right-wing. Although turning a blind eye to abundant instances of right-wing lawlessness that required no "precedent," this viewpoint came as no surprise: Peace Now had been launched with the famous officers' letter of 1978, pressing Begin to make peace with Sadat, the signatories deliberately playing upon their distinguished military record. As Peace Now challenged patriotic convention by urging territorial concessions for peace, the movement's leaders sought to protect its flanks by stressing strict adherence to the law, and unconditional discharge of all civic duties, most notably military service. Such a philosophy obviously left no room for refusal, which was unreservedly condemned by mainstream doves, like Yossi Sarid. This deference to the letter of the law was long instrumental in inducing most peaceniks to report for duty wherever they were posted.
But then the Begin-Sharon government upset the delicate balance: Early in June 1982, the IDF invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to clear the border area of PLO "terrorists." It was a whole new ball-game. The IDF drove on into the very outskirts of Beirut, making it plain that this was no mere 40-km "policing action." Matters took a far graver turn with the September massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. This went much further than the sporadic instances of mistreatment and humiliation prevalent in the occupied territories. In the face of growing Lebanese resistance, reservists who had barely conquered their nausea at being required to police the as-yet largely docile Palestinian population, found themselves in a "dirty war," bloody and merciless, against the people of Lebanon, including the renowned "children of the RPG."
The new circumstances demolished the Peace Now doctrine of "serve¬-now-protest-later." Israeli military operations in Lebanon often had consequences - in devastation and loss of human life - that no belated protest could reverse. There was no way liberals in uniform could endow this war with a humane aspect. If opposition had any meaning, it must pursue prevention; protest required an adamant refusal to take part. To many reservists, crossing the border into Lebanon was the last straw; or, as they put it in vernacular Hebrew: Yesh gvul! There's a limit!
Refusals, sporadic initially, soon ran into the dozens. But unlike the muted protests of the seventies', refuseniks - "voices crying in the wilderness" ¬those who refused postings to Lebanon now found a political sounding board. Yesh Gvul, a radical anti-war group launched in the early days of the invasion, initially solicited reservists' signatures to a petition requesting not to be sent to Lebanon. Some signatories followed through with outright refusal, and Yesh Gvul was there to back them up. The movement published the statements whereby refuseniks defended their insubordination. A string of press releases was backed up by ideological publications making the case for refusal and counseling reservists facing the decision. The movement never directly advocated refusal - a prudent course dictated equally by anxiety to avoid criminal charges of incitement, and a high-minded reluctance to coax anyone into taking such a far-reaching step. In those early days, when refusal was as-yet rare and Israelis still regarded military service as sacrosanct, some refuseniks incurred a doubled retribution: their term in military jail being followed by condemnation, or even downright ostracism, from outraged relatives and friends.
On the whole, however, refuseniks got surprisingly gentle treatment: in the charged atmosphere marked inter alia by right-wing violence against Peace Now demonstrations, refuseniks and Yesh Gvul enjoyed a special status, arguably by reason of the willingness to meet the establishment head-on and face the music. As the tide gradually turned, and the futile bloodshed in Lebanon made public opinion increasingly disenchanted with what prime minister Begin conceded was "a war of choice," i.e., a war he could have chosen not to pursue, there was growing respect for Yesh Gvul and the refuseniks. At the Achziv rock concert - a Yesh Gvul-sponsored Woodstock held near the Lebanese border - leading singers added their voices to the growing volume of anti-war protest.


Ultimately, the campaign was aborted and most IDF units were pulled out of Lebanon, leaving only the festering sore of the "security zone" where Israeli troops continue to battle Hizbullah guerrillas, allegedly with the aim of securing Israel's northern border. (As these lines are being written, it is reported that 26 IDF soldiers have been killed there this year ¬1996.) With the removal of its immediate rationale, the refusal movement faded, and Yesh Gvul fell semi-dormant. But the movement could not long overlook the underlying motive for the Lebanon invasion: the occupied territories, and right-wing designs to perpetuate Israel's hold there, despite growing Palestinian restiveness. Yesh Gvul's hard-core activists, maintaining low-level activity in Jerusalem, worded a new petition, this time specifying refusal to serve in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The final wording was completed in September 1987; Yesh Gvul volunteers began collecting signatures. Two months later, the Palestinian Intifada erupted.
In contrast with the Lebanon war period, the Intifada found Yesh Gvul well organized. It now had a fund to tide refuseniks' families over the period of imprisonment, routine press releases drawing broad media attention to the refuseniks' statements, leaflets distributed in tens of thousands of copies at soldiers' transport centers, with political and financial backing from support groups abroad and a recognized position as one of the most important ¬albeit among the smallest - of Israel's peace groups.
As in the Lebanon war, the refusal campaign again had enormous public impact. The Intifada and the subjection of Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories came as a major shock to a segment of IDF reservists. The small but vocal anti-occupation movement counted among its members numerous men of military age, routinely called to annual reserve service in the territories. When soldiers and officers with impeccable military records preferred jail rather than take part in the brutal "break-their-arms-and-legs" repression of the Palestinian population, their refusal brought home to Israeli public opinion the enormity of the crimes being committed in their name. There can be no doubt that the persistence and dedication of the refuseniks played a significant role in preparing the Israeli public for a peaceful political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Universal Application

The Israeli experience proves that "selective refusal" is a powerful weapon of protest. Its significance need not be confined to Israel alone. Whenever there is an army, there is a hierarchy. As evidenced from Algeria to Bosnia, a chain of command is perfectly capable of transmitting the most horrific orders and securing their implementation. When the hour of reckoning comes, the lower ranks claim they were "just cogs in the machine." By that time, the atrocities will have been perpetrated, and no retribution can bring the victims back to life. Such deeds have been committed by every form of regime - totalitarian and democratic, left and right, conservative and progressive - all have used their national army for external aggression or internal repression. Soldiers are drilled into obedience; the result all too often is an Auschwitz or a My Lai. The victims are not always aliens: the Rodney King riots saw US troops dispatched into the US city of Los Angeles where they inflicted some 50 US fatalities. There were no known cases of soldiers refusing to shoot at fellow citizens.
Because of the enormous destructive power wielded by a modem army, and the potential for its misuse by those politicians and generals who give the orders, the latter must be kept aware that the chain of command is not unconditionally at their disposal. Obedience must never be automatic. Knee-jerk robots bearing guns are among the greatest threats to humanity. That threat can be foiled only by instilling into every army - its lower echelons especially - that illegal and immoral orders can and must be ignored. No soldier must be allowed to shelter behind the claim of "just obeying orders." Obedience must be limited, and when those limits are reached, someone must step out of the ranks and proclaim: "Yesh gvul," "There is a limit."