Two Israeli Soldiers Explain Why They Said No!
Translated from Hebrew by Amichai Kronfeld.
A Palestinian woman sits holding her son. She is being interrogated while her home in the Tulkarem refugee camp is searched March 7, 2002.
Introduction to the Statement of Tal Belo
Tal Belo (I hope I transcribe his last name right) is signer number 149 in the Fighters Letter. As you know, some of the signers added a statement to their signature, which are accessible in the petitions website. Most of them discuss why they think their act is justified. Tal Belo, however, chose to include a (very) short story, which I translated. See below. I find the story very powerful and moving. But independently of that, Id like to make it available to New Profile members because there is tremendous interest in the U.S. and elsewhere in what the soldiers have to say and all of us, I am sure, have contacts abroad. Perhaps others can translate the rest of the soldiers statements.
A personal note, if I may: the narrator in this story serves in the Nahal, as I did from 1967 to 1970. Some things never change, apparently. For example, it turns out that the soldiers of today still listen to the Doors. Other things have changed quite a bit. Although hashish was certainly around in my time (after the 67 war) and was smoked among students at Tel-Aviv University (and also in my kibbutz), I was not aware of anyone who smoked it in the Nahal. The idea of a soldier drinking whisky in the Nahal Corps was simply too exotic to contemplate. It was literally unheard of.
But those who have read about the Vietnam War (and surely those who have been there) would recognize the symptoms of an army slowly disintegrating under the pressure of its own immoral objectives and methods. There is no doubt that eventually, the settlements will be dismantled, the army will withdraw from the occupied territories and an independent Palestinian state will struggle with its own problems. The question is how many more lives, on both sides, will be ruined before this happens.
Go Figure Why You Are Alive
By Tal Belo
That night, I was a bit drunk. We sat around drinking in honor of Daniel who came all the way from France and made aliyah so he could faithfully serve the country, the army and Tali the female military social worker. We uncorked a Johnny Walker that Talis brother gave her, and we were listening to the Doors (an American rock band) while smoking some hashish. You cant be a real Nahal Corps soldier without drinking Johnny Walker, listening to the Doors, or smoking hashish. And the select few partake in all three. Wed just gotten back from Lebanon, and after a week of R&R we were sent right to the territories, to Gaza.
Theres no place like Gaza. With its blue sea and excellent hummus which even if you include a ton of pita bread, cracked olives and French fries wont cost you more than 10 shekels, youd even get back some change. Let me tell you about these Gazan olives. First of all, they are the most bitter ones in the entire world. Gaza people say that the olives get their bitterness from life in the Gaza stripfrom the pressure of our [Israeli] occupation and the previous one and the one before that. And not only are these olives bitter, they can also drive you crazy with their saltiness. And that is because of the tears of the Gaza women. Tears they shed in the olive groves seep through into the olives.
The Gaza women were the true heroes. While the men were busy tending to the miseries of life and looking for ways to liberate themselves from this or that occupation, the women were busy taking care of the kids, preparing the food and working in the groves. In the groves they had quality time. All alone there, they cried for their youth and for their dreams; for the sons who were killed or sent to prison, or for the sons who will be killed or will be sent to prison.
And the olivesthey took it all in, whichcontrary to general opinionmade them taste great and go very well with whisky. Suddenly I thought about my mother who doesnt sleep at night.
I tried to explain to her that all we did was drink whisky and eat cracked olives. But she didnt believe memy motherand began to cry. She said she was scared. That she had bad dreams. Mom and her dreams. I told her not to worry and not to cry because if she did, the water in the Israeli aquifer would get salty and it would be her fault. This is what happened in Gaza and thats why they are oppressed and occupied. It did not help, though. Theres no one like Mom.
Tali said that Jim Morrison was King and started dancing. She was so beautiful, Tali! With her direct manners and her flat stomach and her breasts with the nipples that stood up like two small hills in the prairie.
Daniel joined her and they kissed. I sat by myself and thought how Daniel was a victim of life. A human being whose life got screwed up and no one was paying attention.
Last week, during the demonstration near the green Mosque, Daniel accidentally fired some shots into the crowd and some pregnant Gaza woman was killed. I ran to her trying to provide some help, but she was already dying. She gave me a sad look and had tears in her eyes. She had a fifth month belly, and I knew shed lost the baby. She was bleeding heavily from the abdomen and it took me a while to insert the IV and start the transfusion. Then she died at 6:00 PM.
Roni, the MD, and I began to cry. Manny, the driver, mumbled that she was just an Arab. Dead, so what? But he too was sad and I could see he was having a hard time with it. I kissed him on his forehead and told him to drive to headquarters. No one said a word to Daniel.
There was an investigation and it was decided that this had been a mistake. An accidental bullet. But no one talked to Daniel. I told Roni that Daniel needs some time off, that we need to talk to him, that he seemed strange. But Roni was busy and we were all busy: there were more demonstrations and more people got killed and I felt as if I was slowly going crazy. They taught us to fire our rifles, to set up ambushes, jump from an airplane, carry our gear, run, fall, run again. They forgot to teach us to talk, cry, forgive ourselves. Daniel looked at Tali, gave her another kiss, and said that he was stepping out for a second to take a leak. I asked him if he wanted some company. Nah, he said, stay here and keep and eye on Tali for me. I stayed with Tali.
After a minute, we heard a shot.
Introduction to the Statement of Asaf Oron
Asaf Oron, a Sergeant Major in the Givati Brigade, is one of the original 53 Israeli soldiers who signed the Fighters Letter declaring that from now on they will refuse to serve in the Occupied territories. He is signer #8 and one of the first in the list to include a statement explaining his action. My sense is that his statement comes as close as possible to being the refuseniks manifesto, given the loose structure of the group and their insistence on independent, individual responsibility.
Below is my translation of Orons statement. Read it, and you will no longer be surprised by the amazing response to the soldiers initiative (251 signers as of February 17, 2002).
By Asaf Oron
On February 5, 1985, I got up, left my home, went to the Compulsory Service Center on Rashi Street in Jerusalem, said goodbye to my parents, boarded the rickety old bus going to the Military Absorption Station and turned into a soldier.
Exactly seventeen years later, I find myself in a head to head confrontation with the army, while the public at large is jeering and mocking me from the sidelines. Right-wingers see me as a traitor who is dodging the holy war thats just around the corner. The political center shakes a finger at me self-righteously and lectures me about undermining democracy and politicizing the army.
And the left? The square, establishment, moderate left that only yesterday was courting my vote now turns its back on me as well. Everyone blabbers about what is and what is not legitimate, exposing in the process the depth of their ignorance of political theory and their inability to distinguish a real democracy from a third world regime in the style of Juan Peron.
Almost no one asks the main question: why would a regular guy get up one morning in the middle of life, work, the kids and decide hes not playing the game anymore? And how come he is not alone but there are fiftyI beg your pardonnow almost two hundred regular, run of the mill guys like him whove done the same thing?
Our parents generation lets out a sigh: weve embarrassed them yet again. But isnt it all your fault? What did you raise us on? Universal ethics and universal justice, on the one hand: peace, liberty and equality to all. And on the other hand: the Arabs want to throw us into the sea, They are all crafty and primitive. You cant trust them.
On the one hand, the songs of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd. Songs of peace and love and against militarism and war. On the other hand, songs about a sweetheart riding the tank after sunset in the field: The tank is yours and you are ours. [Allusions to popular Israeli songsAK.] I was raised on two value systems: one was the ethical code and the other the tribal code, and I naïvely believed that the two could coexist.
This is the way I was when I was drafted. Not enthusiastic, but as if embarking on a sacred mission of courage and sacrifice for the benefit of society. But when, instead of a sacred mission, a 19 year old finds himself performing the sacrilege of violating human beings dignity and freedom, he doesnt dare askeven himselfif its OK or not. He simply acts like everyone else and tries to blend in. As it is, hes got enough problems, and boy, is the weekend far off.
You get used to it in a hurry, and many even learn to like it. Where else can you go out on patrolthat is, walk the streets like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your hearts content, and get into mischief with your buddiesand at the same time feel like a big hero defending your country? The Gaza Exploits became heroic tales, a source of pride for Givati, (then a relatively new brigade suffering from low self-esteem).
For a long time, I could not relate to the whole heroism thing. But when, as a sergeant, I found myself in charge, something cracked inside me. Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer. I settled accounts with upstarts who didnt show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my fathers age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad exampleall in the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpas home-sweet-home. No, I was no aberration. I was exactly the norm.
Having completed my compulsory service, I was discharged, and then the first Intifada began (how many more await us?) Ofer, a comrade-in-arms who remained in the service has become a hero, the hero of the second Givati trial. He commanded a company that dragged a detained Palestinian demonstrator into a dark orange grove and beat him to death. As the verdict stated, Ofer was found to have been the leader in charge of the whole business. He spent two months in jail and was demotedI think that was the most severe sentence given an Israeli soldier through the entire first Intifada, in which about a thousand Palestinians were killed.
Ofers battalion commander testified that there was an order from the higher echelons to use beatings as a legitimate method of punishment, thereby implicating himself. On the other hand, Efi Itam, the brigade commander, who had been seen beating Arabs on numerous occasions, denied that he ever gave such an order and consequently was never indicted. Today he lectures us on moral conduct on his way to a new life in politics. (In the current Intifada, incidentally, the vast majority of incidents involving Palestinian deaths are not even investigated. No one even bothers.)
And in the meantime, I was becoming more of a civilian. A copy of The Yellow Wind [a book on life in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli writer David Grossman, available in EnglishAK], which had just come out, crossed my path. I read it, and suddenly it hit me. I finally understood what I had done over there. What I had been over there.
I began to see that they had cheated me. They raised me to believe there was someone up there taking care of things, someone who knows stuff that is beyond me, the little guy. And that even if sometimes politicians let us down, the military echelon is always on guard, day and night, keeping us safe, each and every one of their decisions the result of sacred necessity. Yes, they cheated us, the soldiers of the Intifadas, exactly as they had cheated the generation that was beaten to a pulp in the War of Attrition and in the Yom Kippur War; exactly as they had cheated the generation that sank deep into the Lebanese mud during the Lebanon invasions. And our parents generation continues to be silent.
Worse still, I understood that I was raised on two contradictory value systems. I think most people discover even at an earlier age they must choose between two value systems: an abstract, demanding one that is no fun at all and that is very difficult to verify, and another which calls to you from every cornerdetermining who is up and who is down, who is king and who pariah, who is one of us and who is our enemy. Contrary to basic common sense, I picked the first. Because in this country the cost-effective analysis comparing one system to another is so lopsided, I cant blame those who choose the second.
I picked the first road, and found myself volunteering in a small, smoke-filled office in East Jerusalem, digging up files about deaths, brutality, bureaucratic viciousness or simply daily harassments. I felt I was atoning, to some extent, for my actions during my days with the Givati brigade. But it also felt as if I was trying to empty the ocean out with a teaspoon.
Out of the blue, I was called up for the very first time for reserve duty in the Occupied Territories. Hysterically, I contacted my company commander. He calmed me down: We will be staying at an outpost overlooking the Jordan river. No contacts with the local population are expected. And that indeed was what I did, but some of my friends provided security for the Damia Bridge terminal [where Palestinians cross from Jordan to Israel and vice versaAK].
This was in the days preceding the Gulf War and a large number of Palestinian refugees were flowing from Kuwait to the Occupied Territories (from the frying pan into the fire). The reserve soldiersmostly right wingerscringed when they saw the female conscripts stationed in the terminal happily ripping open down-comforters and babies coats to make sure they didnt contain explosives. I too cringed when I heard their stories, but I was also hopeful: reserve soldiers are human after all, whatever their political views.
Such hopes were dashed three years later, when I spent three weeks with a celebrated reconnaissance company in the confiscated ruins of a villa at the outskirts of the Abasans (if you dont know where this is, its your problem). This is where it became clear to me that the same humane reserve soldier could also be an ugly, wretched macho undergoing a total regression back to his days as a young conscript. Already on the bus ride to the Gaza strip, the soldiers were competing with each other: Whose heroic tales of murderous beatings during the Intifada were better (in case you missed this point, the beatings were literally murderous: beating to death). Going on patrol duty with these guys once was all that I could take. I went up to the placement officer and requested to be given guard duty only. Placement officers like people like me: most soldiers cant tolerate staying inside the base longer than a couple of hours.
Thus began the nausea and shame routine, a routine that lasted three tours of reserve duty in the Occupied Territories: 1993, 1995, and 1997the pale-gray refusal routine. For several weeks at a time I would turn into a hidden prisoner of conscience, guarding an outpost or a godforsaken transmitter on top of some mountain, a recluse. I was ashamed to tell most of my friends why I chose to serve this way. I didnt have the energy to hear them get on my case for being such a wishy-washy softy. I was also ashamed of myself: This was the easy way out.
In short, I was ashamed all over. I did save my own soul. I was not directly engaged in wrongdoingonly made it possible for others to do so while I kept guard. Why didnt I refuse outright? I dont know. It was partly the pressure to conform, partly the political process that gave us a glimmer of hope that the whole occupation business would be over soon. More than anything, it was my curiosity to see actually what was going on over there.
And precisely because I knew so well, first hand, from years of experience what was going on over there, what reality was like over there, I had no trouble seeing, through the fog of war and the curtain of lies, what has been taking place over there since the very first days of the second Intifada.
For years, the army had been feeding on lines like We were too nice in the first Intifada, and If we had only killed a hundred in the very first days, everything would have been different. Now the army was given license to do things its way. I knew full well that [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak was giving the army free hand, and that [current Chief of Staff] Shaul Mofaz was taking full advantage of this to maximize the bloodshed.
By then, I had two little kids, boys, and I knew from experience that no onenot a single person in the entire worldwill ever make sure that my sons wont have to serve in the Occupied Territories when they reach 18. No one, that is, except me. And no one but me will have to look them in the eye when theyre all grown up and tell them where dad was when all that happened. It was clear to me: this time I was not going.
Initially, this was a quiet decision, still a little shy, something like I am just a bit weird, cant go and cant talk about it too much either. But as time went by, as the level of insanity, hatred, and incitement kept rising, as the generals were turning the Israeli Defense Forces into a terror organization, the decision was turning into an outcry: If you cant see that this is one big crime leading us to the brink of annihilation, then something is terribly wrong with you!
And then I discovered that I was not alone. Like discovering life on another planet.
The truth is that I understand why everyone is mad at us. We spoiled the neat little order of things. The holy Status Quo states that the Right holds the exclusive rights to celebrate the blood and ask for more. The role of the Left, on the other hand, is to wail while sitting in their armchairs sipping wine and waiting for the Messiah to come and with a single wave of his magic wand make the Right disappear along with the settlers, the Arabs, the weather, and the entire Middle East. Thats how the world is supposed to work. So why are you causing such a disturbance? Whats your problem? Bad boys!
Woe to you, dear establishment left! You havent been paying attention! That Messiah has been here already. He waved his magic wand, saw things arent that simple, was abandoned in the midst of battle, lost altitude, and finally was assassinated, with the rest of us (yes, me too) watching from the comfort of our armchairs. Forget it. A messiah doesnt come around twice! There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Dont you really see what we are doing; why it is that we stepped out of line? Dont you get the difference between a low-key, personal refusal and an organized, public one? (And make no mistake about it, the private refusal is the easier choice.) You really dont get it? So let me spell it out for you.
First, we declare our commitment to the first value system. The one that is elusive, abstract, and not profitable. We believe in the moral code generally known as God (and my atheist friends who also signed this letter would have to forgive mewe all believe in God, the true one, not that of the Rabbis and the Ayatollahs). We believe that there is no room for the tribal code, that the tribal code simply camouflages idolatry, an idolatry of a type we should not cooperate with. Those who let such a form of idol worship take over will end up as burnt offerings themselves.
Second, we (as well as some other groups who are even more despised and harassed) are putting our bodies on the line, in the attempt to prevent the next war. The most unnecessary, most idiotic, cruel and immoral war in the history of Israel.
We are the Chinese young man standing in front of the tank. And you? If you are nowhere to be seen, you are probably inside the tank, advising the driver.