Some in Israeli Army defy the call to arms

The Mideast conflict is now in its 12th week, but a few Israeli citizen soldiers have opted not to take part.

Robert Terris is a member of Israel's most revered institution: the country's citizen Army.

But when the call to arms came last month, the manager of a Jerusalem translation service drew the line: He refused to perform duty in the West Bank. For some, Mr. Terris is antipatriotic. To others, he is a conscientious objector who empathizes with Palestinian suffering.

He's not alone. A few more than 20 other reserve soldiers and seven enlisted men have defied orders to report to military duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the start of the current Palestinian uprising that began on Sept. 28, according to Ishai Menuchin, spokesman of Yesh Gvul (There is a Border), a support organization for objectors to military service. Four of the enlisted men have been jailed for periods ranging between 14 to 28 days, but none of the reservists have gone to prison, with the military preferring to reach quiet solutions with each, he said.

By and large, Israel's mass media and political elite have voiced few qualms about the Army's handling of the uprising or continued presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

And some of the objectors appear to be exceptional cases. The American-born Terris, for example, is earning a master's degree in peace development and lives in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Analysts say that if the conflict continues for a few more months, the Army could face a real problem from the conscientious objectors, and even more so from "gray objectors" among reservists, who might opt to evade service with medical and other excuses rather than put their lives on the line to defend remote Jewish settlements. The reservists, many of whom are well into their 40s, are civilians who are called up for about a month of military service. Their deaths in combat are felt acutely in Israel's tightly knit society because they leave behind families.

Until now, the Army has relied almost entirely on enlisted men in the West Bank and Gaza, but it is expected to tap into the reservist pool early next year to allow the enlisted men to resume training.

"Especially if there are a lot of casualties, the assumption is people will start voting with their feet," says Amos Harel, the military correspondent of Ha'aretz newspaper. During 1983, he recalls that amid mounting casualties and public questioning of the need for involvement in Lebanon, a large number of reservists found ways of evading service, and the phenomenon contributed to Israel's withdrawing its troops to the south. About 170 soldiers were jailed for refusing to serve in Lebanon.

The moral justification

A Yesh Gvul leaflet directed at soldiers says: "Increasing numbers of soldiers are beginning to wonder about the cause for which they are willing to kill or risk death. We have all sworn to defend the security and independence of the state of Israel. But who is ready to die for Joseph's Tomb, the lands of Bet El [settlement] and the houses of Efrat [settlement]? Who is willing to offer up his life to deny (or postpone by a few months) the independence of another people?"

According to Mr. Menuchin, who was jailed in 1983 for refusing to serve in Lebanon, decisions by conscientious objectors not to serve affect other soldiers in their units, causing more of them to question their type of service.

For Terris, the Jenin, West Bank, assignment would not have been his first stint across the Green Line that separated Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip before Israel occupied it during the 1967 war. In fact, as a first-sergeant during the first intifada, which raged from 1987 to '93, he supervised patrols among the Palestinian population.

"I always identified this kind of service as problematic, but the way I looked at it was that it would be best if someone with my moral perspective would be there and make sure my unit didn't act improperly," he says.

A sensitivity to sensibilities

During the first intifada, Terris commanded 18-year-old soldiers who just finished their basic training. In his view, they lacked the life-experience needed to deal with Palestinian civilians. After he saw them yelling at old women and aggressively forcing people to clean graffiti off walls, he ordered the soldiers not to speak at all to the Palestinians and conducted all the contacts himself.

"We have no idea what the Palestinians go through; Israelis cannot appreciate the humiliation they experience," says Terris.

This time, Terris says, partly through his studies, partly by living in an Arab neighborhood, and partly "through a process of maturing politically and morally," he's convinced that by showing up for service he would inevitably become part of the process of perpetuating the conflict with the Palestinians.

"Mark Twain once said that when you are walking around the house with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I'm saying no, you [in government] don't have that tool, because we the people are the Army, and you will have to wrack your brains for another solution," he says.

The Army has not yet decided how to respond to Terris, with its choices including jailing him or sending him to a different posting. Meanwhile, Army officials say there is "no phenomenon" of soldiers refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "The soldiers serving in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza understand the mission and goals for which they are working," an official says.

Yesh Gvul's position that Jewish settlements should be evacuated immediately rather than protected goes beyond that of doves within Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party. And to some in the right-wing Likud party, Yesh Gvul's actions border on sedition.

"They engage in demoralization," says Gideon Ezra, a Likud member of Knesset. "At a time when the entire country is in distress, we should be united, but we see this phenomenon of sabotaging military service. Fortunately, this group has no influence."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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