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Israeli conscientious objectors visit south Africa

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By Sayed Dhansay

(source:The Palestine Telegraph)

South Africa, October 10, 2009, (Pal Telegraph)- The term Shministim translates to twelfth-graders in Hebrew, and refers to a small but growing movement of conscientious objectors – young Israeli school leavers who refuse to join their country’s armed forces. I met with three such Shministim during their visit to South Africa, and was pleasantly surprised by their strong conviction and political maturity.


It is easy to mistake Omer Goldman (20), Yuval Ophir-Auron (20) and Sahar Vardi (19) for ordinary teenagers. But their youth belies the long and hard personal journeys these young objectors have travelled. For they have done the unspeakable in Israel – refused to serve in the army. In a country where military conscription exists, time served in the IDF is a rite of passage for all young Israelis, and is accepted as a normal part of growing up and being inducted into society.

For these three youngsters however, that was simply not an option. Sahar Vardi recalls a visit to a Palestinian village near Jerusalem at the tender age of twelve as being a critical moment in her path of realisation. She remembers being able to relate to the Palestinian inhabitants well and communicate with them easily. What shocked her however was, "how they lived". They were encircled by checkpoints and being humiliated by Israeli soldiers. She remembers watching as somebody's entire sack of wheat was thrown out onto the ground as part of a security check. They were "normal people in an abnormal situation" she says. It was at this point that she decided that she "could not be that soldier, could not be part of that system". Initially she just opposed the idea of being a soldier. But as she got older and came closer to her time for military service and realised that she would be expected to do these things, her opposition turned into outright refusal. For all three Shministim, their visits to the Occupied Palestinian Territories played a crucial role in their decisions later in life not to serve in Israel's army. This is an important observation, possibly explaining why Israel prohibits its citizens from entering the Palestinian territories. 20 year old Yuval Ophir-Auron who has served two prison sentences for a total of 42 days, says his family's open-mindedness exposed him to the realities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This, along with his belief that the army has "strayed from its mission to defend the citizens within our borders", led him to object. Though his family didn't want to see him imprisoned, they supported his decision he says. For Omer Goldman however, things didn't go down as smoothly with her family. Her father, a former deputy head of Mossad, stopped speaking to her for a few months. "I refused to serve because the IDF executes the government's policy of occupying my neighbours, the Palestinians, and controlling them with military law – something I don't want to happen to me, and I don't accept that", she says firmly. Displaying a mature kind of wisdom, she adds, "I know when something unjust happens around you and you don't act against it, eventually it will come to you and then nobody will help you". While Omer and Yuval have served two prison sentences each, Sahar has served three, including a stint in solitary confinement for her refusal to wear a military uniform while in prison. According to Israeli law, objectors like the Shministim can be sentenced to prison several times, but for a maximum of 28 days at a time. Because the Israeli army doesn't want them to gain media attention and become symbols of resistance, their sentences are normally shortened, while Arab Israeli or Druze objectors normally serve longer sentences. Controversial figures like the Shministim who do not tow the official Israeli line are usually met with fierce resistance from South Africa's staunchly pro-Israel Jewish community. The trio was banned from speaking at a Cape Town Jewish school and were verbally abused at a Jewish community gathering. Says Sahar, "This is part of our mission. To say that you can be a Jew and still be against the occupation. This is one way of combating anti-Semitism, and we can still be Jewish in saying that the occupation is wrong". Considering that their real-life experiences of the Palestinian territories are what motivated all three to object to military service, I ask them how Palestinians are portrayed in the Israeli media. All three are in agreement that Palestinians are given very little coverage, and when they are, it is usually in the context of violence – helping to maintain an unbalanced and inaccurate picture of Palestinians in Israeli society, constantly associated with fear and violence. According to Sahar, "Israeli society does not see the human side of Palestinians. Israelis meet them for the first time during military service, and this perspective is from that of an occupier and an enemy, leaving you with an untrue impression of them." Yuval says that when he visits the West Bank as an ordinary person, he sees "normal people that just want a normal life – it's very simple". In addition to their refusal to take up military duty, the three also participate in popular non-violent actions in the occupied West Bank such as the weekly demonstrations in the farming villages of Bil'in and Nil'in, as well as removing illegal roadblocks and accompanying Palestinian farmers during their olive harvests. In Israel, they try to paint a more accurate picture of the realities in the occupied territories for their peers and encourage their fellow Israelis to visit these areas. Regarding their decision to visit South Africa, they cite the need for international solidarity. They oppose the fact that there are two sets of laws in their country – one for Jewish settlers, and one for Palestinians – and hope to garner international support for this policy to change. While they are unsure whether Israel's policies towards the Palestinians can be accurately likened to Apartheid South Africa, they say that this is irrelevant. According to the Shministim, "both systems are immoral, and that's the bottom line." The three are not glad that Hamas was voted into power by the Palestinians, but Yuval argues that this is as a result of the conditions that the occupation has created. While Sahar is critical of some of the tactics which Hamas has resorted to, she feels that in order for a real solution to be achieved, her country needs to "engage with the elected Palestinian leadership, whether we like who they are or not". On Israel's winter invasion of the Gaza Strip, Yuval is quick to declare that he was one of the thousands in Tel Aviv who demonstrated against it. He views the actions of those who participated in it as criminal, and supports the notion that senior IDF officials should be held accountable for their crimes. Yuval also supports an academic and economic boycott of Israel, saying that "the only way to save Israeli society is to make it realise that there is a price to pay for the ongoing occupation". Sahar laments Operation Cast Lead as a typical example of the prevailing Israeli mindset – using overwhelming force to achieve political objectives. She bemoans the fact that the incursion had the exact same effect for Hamas as it did for Hezbollah in 2006 – it only increased their popularity as well as fanning the flames of extremism on both sides of the political divide. "Any war in which nearly 1000 Palestinian civilians were killed versus 3 Israeli civilians, obviously something was very wrong. Sorry to say this, but we as Israelis need to stop and think about this instead of just criticising every report", they conclude. Despite their young age, these three conscientious objectors display a surprising level of political maturity and deep sense of awareness of the suffering of ‘the other'. Regardless of their rejection by many in their society and the very real probability of serving several more prison sentences, they are unwilling to backtrack on their strong convictions. In a region where tempers often flare, with disastrous consequences, one only hopes that the cool, level-headed rationality and sense of compassion shown by these three brave teens finds a way of permeating itself into their society at large. The chance to join an army as powerful as Israel's must surely be an exciting thought for many Israeli youth. But to go up against this army as the Shministim have done, that requires true bravery. Sayed Dhansay is a South African writer and political activist who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006-2007.