Yaniv Itzkovich, 28 and David Zonshein, 26, lieutenants in reserve, have a long record of active reserve duty in different parts of the country. "What I witnessed during my last reserve duty changed me" says Itzkovich. Exactly what he saw, he prefers not to talk about. But he has resolved never to do reserve duty again in the occupied territories. Ori Golan.Four months ago Yaniv Itzkovich, 28, was called up for reserve duty in the Gaza strip. With him was David Zonshein, 26. Both young men, lieutenants in reserve, have a long record of active reserve duty in different parts of the country. "What I witnessed during my last reserve duty changed me" says Itzkovich. "Both David and I decided, after what we saw, that ‘that’s it’, we are not returning to the territories again. Come what may." Exactly what they saw there, he prefers not to talk about. "You’ve heard the stories, read the details, there’s no need to dwell on it", he summarises.
Shortly afterwards, Zonshein and Itzkovich published a privately-funded letter in Haaretz stating that they will no longer agree to serve beyond the 1967 borders "in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people". It was signed by another 52 officers from different units and varying ranks. The impact was immense. Within a week another 100 officers joined the core group, followed shortly after by another 200 officers. The ‘seruv group' currently numbers around 500 members.
Reserve Major Rami Kaplan is the highest-ranking signatory to the letter. "As an officer stationed in the territories I witnessed arrests in the middle of the night, demolitions of homes, bulldozing of olive groves and other things which need no elaboration. When I returned home from my last reserve stint, the sights haunted me and I kept waking up at night. For 10 days, I contemplated on the best course of action, and then I resolved to join the group."
"You have to see how the Palestinians live to believe it: the squalor, the restriction on their movements, the interminable waits at checkpoints, the little humiliations..." he sighs. "We are sent to protect the safety of 5000 settlers in Palestinian areas. Not only are we not protecting our own country but we are creating immense hostility on the Palestinian side which, in turn, seriously undermines the security of the country. You return home from miluim and suddenly it dawns on you that although the territories are geographically nearby, most people have no idea what goes on there".
Possessing no celebrity, the group draws its strength from the profile and calibre of its members, often described as ‘the salt of the earth’: educated, articulate and motivated young men, raised – as they put it, "upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel".
"We are not some radical left-wing pacifists" explains Itzkovitch. " All members of our group have done active reserve duty in combat units for over a decade. Some voted for Sharon in the last elections. What unites us is a feeling that there has been an escalation in the territories and we are no longer willing to be part of it. Until the government does not pull out of the territories, we will refuse to serve beyond the green line. We are ready to do active military service on the northern border or wherever it serves a defensive purpose."
Supporters of the ‘refuseniks’ include Michael Ben-Yair, former attorney general and Ofra Meirson, wife of former Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, both of whom have tied their names and reputation to this cause. Among the signatures on the ‘refuseniks’ petition is that of Capt (res) Yuval Tamari, 28, son of the late Maj Gen Nehamia Tamari who was killed in a helicopter accident in 1994. Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, was under Tamari’s command at the time he was killed.
On the other side of the ideological divide, the officers have drawn condemnation from equally familiar names. Yossi Sarid, leader of Meretz party, cast aspersions on the group’s morals, and Raanan Gissin, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, believes that their letter undermines the basic tenet of Israeli democracy.
Amit Mashiach, the group’s spokesman, vehemently disagrees. "Our refusal is the most democratic act. Israel’s military presence in the territories constitutes and perpetuates an illegal occupation. We want to live in the spirit of democracy where human rights are protected and the dignity of each individual is upheld. The country is held captive by those who are leading it to disaster."
Unlike conscripts and reserve soldiers who are obtaining exemption from military service by lowering their medical profile or on psychological inaptitude, these officers have chosen to state their ideological objection and pursue their conviction to their conclusion.
In the past the army authorities avoided challenging those who expressly refuse to serve in the territories (both Kaplan and Zonshain were ‘relieved of their duties’), but they now appear to be more rigid. There are at present some 40 members of the group in military prisons. One ‘refusenik’ who had served a prison sentence in a military jail was released on a Friday. The following Sunday he was served with another ‘call up’ paper for reserve duty in the territories. He is once more serving a prison sentence.
The initial public support and media attention which the officers garnered now appears to have turned against them. From the ‘salt of the earth’ the signatories to the officers’ letter are now branded by some as ‘the knife in the nation’s back’. Mashiach is convinced that the media is colluding with the government to give the impression that they have been pushed to the fringe. In truth, he insists, their numbers are growing steadily and they are enjoying support from many in the country and abroad.
Cabinet secretary, Gidon Saar, slams the officers' petition and their strategy. "The phenomenon itself is very serious and should be stamped out. I condemn it unequivocally This is a group with a political agenda, not a moral one. They are trying to undermine this government's policies and abet a public to mutiny.""The same so-called 'occupation'", insists Saar, "was operating under previous governments – including Barak's - but back then they did not orchestrate a campaign to incite the public to disobedience. Their aim, by their own admission, is to create a critical mass and recruit as many people to foment discontent in the country. In my opinion, criminal procedures should be set in motion against members of this group.
"The government is enjoying overwhelming support from the public", continues Saar, "and this group is insignificant in numbers and influence. Still, not everything should be measured solely in numbers. This sets a dangerous trend in the country. Today it is a group of officers who object to serving in the territories, and tomorrow it may be a group of reserve officers who will refuse to dismantle settlements. It is for governments to decide on policies, not individuals. If they don't like the government's policies then there are democratic means open to them to try and change them."
Mashiach, rejects these accusations off-hand. "Sharon’s government has succeeded in recruiting the media to their cause. There are now few dissenting voices. Of course there is wholesale consensus around Sharon’s incursion into the territories: nothing beats a war to unite a nation and muffle opposition. This whole military campaign has been spun, packaged and sold to the Israeli public as the only available option, and the public has swallowed it hook, line and sinker."
As for the claim by Saar that the group has a political agenda, Mashiach says: "During Barak’s government there appeared to be an attempt to resolve the conflict. With the present government there is no such hope. The occupation is now more entrenched and more brutal. True, this group was forged during Sharon’s government, but I can tell you categorically that even if, after elections, Fuad or Beilin are elected, there is no way we would agree to serve again in the territories. We are not actively recruiting members; all our new members joined us of their own initiative. Therefore, to suggest we are inciting against the government is absurd."
"Everything around us is crumbling" says Kaplan. "The country is becoming more fragmented, more sectarian. The economy, the education system, our stand in the international arena, everything is going to pots and no one is doing anything about it. We are trying to present a new face to Zionism. We are a group which has grown out of a genuine concern for the future of Israeli society. It is clear to us that we cannot continue with the occupation and maintain a humane aspect at the same time. There is no such thing as benign occupation. No such thing as a ‘nice occupier’."