Drama at the Jaffa Military Court


On June 24, 2003, three young refuseniks delivered stirring, detailed anti-occupation testimony of a kind never before heard in an Israeli military court. This followed yesterday’s continuation session of the Ben-Artzi trial. The continuation of the trial is scheduled, according to present information, for July 14, 2003.

Yoni Ben-Artzi: June 23

At the court martial of Yoni Ben-Artzi two key witnesses for the defense didn’t show up. Colonel Shlomi Simchi–head of the army’s Conscience Committee, which repeatedly refused to recognize Ben Artzi as a pacifist–was “too busy” and would come on a different occasion. The same with Brigadier Avi Zamir, Deputy Head of Manpower, who ordered Ben-Artzi court-martialed when he refused an offer to stay in the army with “easy” terms of service.

The first witness was Ruth Ben-Artzi, sister of the accused, who came over from Columbia University in the US where she is completing a Ph.D. in Political Science. “I am twelve years the elder; I have known Yoni since I helped change his diapers and have followed his development closely. Already in high school, he objected to lectures by officers who came to the school to prepare pupils for military service. He also refused to take part in school outings to the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery and the like. I personally saw how deeply he was moved when the family visited Verdun, France, and saw these terrible cemeteries with hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous tombstones. He came back from France a determined pacifist”

At this point, Yoni Yechezkel, a refusenik just released by the Conscience Committee this week, took the stand for the defense. It appears that Yoni Yecheskel never had to prove that he was a long standing, consistent and principled pacifist. It seems that it was enough to go AWOL a lot, to play a kind of cat and mouse game with the military authorities. Yoni Yechezkel just said this to the army: “I told the army I don’t care what way they get me out, Conscience Committee, Incompatibility Committee, psychiatrist–whatever they choose. But they will never make a soldier out of me.”

The prosecutor–who had tried everything to discredit Ben Artzi’s pacifist credentials–was now in the opposite role of bolstering Yechezkel’s. But he was totally unconvincing in trying to show that Yechezkel is more of a pacifist than Ben Artzi.

June 24, 2003

For a whole hour before the scheduled time of today’s trial, dozens of youths lined the sidewalk in front of the building, holding up placards and chanting “Occupation is Terrorism!–The Refusenik is a Hero!” Long before the judges came in, the small courtroom was filled far beyond capacity, with many activists left outside. When the five accused filed in, they were greeted with prolonged applause.

Adv. Dov Henin started by outlining the main defense line. “This trial is not about technicalities and obscure points of the law. This trial is about a major constitutional issue which no Israeli court has dealt with before. The conscience is the most basic part of human dignity, the part of the personality which defines the essential values; the part which if broken, breaks the whole person. It is the contention of the defense in this trial that freedom of conscience is already enshrined in Israeli law and has been so for the last ten years, ever since the Knesset adopted the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. And this is so even though the military authorities have hitherto refused to take proper cognizance of the fact. The defense asks the court’s patience in hearing out the five accused. Each one is ready to bear full responsibility for showing that his decision to refuse military service does indeed proceed from deeply held convictions–the dictates of his conscience.”

Haggai Matar: experience with Palestinians

The first to take the stand was Haggai Matar. Matar spoke about his considerable personal experience with the occupation and long quotes from the reports of human rights organizations as well as stories which he heard from fellow prison cell-mates who served in the territories.

“In 1999, I joined a special project of joint summer studies by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian pupils. Soon afterwards, I started a correspondence with a Palestinian Administrative Detainee, who was held in an Israeli prison for six years without trial. When at last he was released, I visited him in a house riddled by Israeli bullets and with broken furniture. I joined actions of the Gush Shalom and Ta’ayush movements. We went to the territories to rebuild houses demolished by the army, to provide humanitarian help in towns hit by closure or curfew, to support Palestinian villagers who have been violently assaulted by settlers. Always, soldiers tried to block us and in many cases used violence against us. In 2001, I met again with some of the Palestinian pupils of the summer camp who told me harrowing stories of being beaten up and arrested by soldiers. One told of witnessing his friends in Ramallah being shot to death. On August 20, 2002, three days before I was due to present myself for enlistment, I and several other activists got an emergency call to go to Yanoun Village, a tiny place where settlers have so terrorized the inhabitants that the Palestinians all left. We came there and the empty houses were terribly depressing and somber sights. We were very happy that due to our presence, the people started coming back. With all my experiences, I had no doubt: I absolutely don’t want to be and can’t be part of the Israeli army which I believe has no longer the right to call itself an army of defense.”

[The above is excerpted from a two-hour speech; full text in Hebrew and English available from Anat Matar: matar@post.tau.ac.il]
Matan Kaminer: a philosophical analysis.

“In this testimony I would like to describe the guiding lines of my conscience and explain why it is incompatible with service in today’s Israeli army. For some people the basic value from which their conscience is derived is God’s word. For others it is loyalty to their country. For me the basic value is human liberty, human rights. I believe that all human beings have inalienable rights such as the right to life, the right to equality, to welfare, to education, to association, to democracy. All of these rights are violated in countless ways by the occupation–mainly violated as regards the Palestinians, but in many ways also regarding Israelis.

“The right of Palestinians to life is violated by the policy of liquidations (which indirectly causes also the loss of Israeli life, as we saw last week), and by the constant military activity in populated areas which causes the death and wounding of civilians. The right to equality, both of Palestinians and of Israelis living within the Green line, is violated by the policy of settlement which takes land, resources and basic human dignity from Palestinians and which discriminates against most Israelis in the division of national resources. The right of Palestinians to welfare and to education are violated by the ongoing closures and curfews which cause the sky-rocketing unemployment figures and the severe disruption of the educational system.

“The most fundamental, though not necessarily the most directly painful, is the violation of the right to live in democracy. The very rule over another people which is denied the right to control it’s own life and future is a flagrant violation of that right, and after 36 years the pretense that the occupation is temporary wears thin. The contempt for democracy is gradually crossing into Israel proper, with racist extreme right parties becoming an acceptable and common component of government coalitions.

“The deprivation to the right of democracy of the Palestinians is the root cause of all the crimes which accompany the occupation–both the crimes of the occupier of which I described part, and the crimes of the occupied, pushed to immoral and inhuman ways of struggle. Neither set of crimes is in any way justified. Both are direct derivatives of the occupation and can only be abolished by abolishing the occupation itself.

“From all of this, it logically follows that service in the army, which is the main instrument for implementing the occupation is totally against my conscience. My decision to refuse enlistment does not mean that I am against the State of Israel, against the people of Israel, or against the Israeli society of which I am part. On the contrary, I feel impelled to do all I can for Israeli society. I have done so in the past and intend to go on doing so. The occupation is a terrible crime; an immoral and malignant crime against another society which spreads also to our own society, strangling and poisoning it.

“Obviously, in such a situation I can’t go into the army. I can only ask that my conscience be recognized and that I be provided an opportunity to do alternative civilian service for the benefit of the Israeli society.””

Shimri Tzameret, whose testimony was interrupted when the court adjourned at 5 pm.

“For years, I have known that I was not going to join the army. I know it with as much certainty as I know that I will never kick a homeless person lying on the sidewalk, never rape a woman, and when I will have a child–never abandon it. We all of us have our own reasoning and my reasons are a bit different from those who spoke before me. I feel that there is no need to detail what the occupation is doing to the Palestinians. What it is doing to ourselves is reason enough.

“First I want to talk about the suicide bombings. It is a very central part of our life here in this country and many of us are touched personally in one way or another. A bit more than a year ago, exactly on the day when I decided to tell my schoolmates that I am going to refuse to serve in the army, a suicide bombing happened in which the mother of one of the girls in the school was killed. And later on the day it turned out that her sister was killed as well. It brought home to me what does it mean, that the life of this girl whom I knew will never be the same again; how terrible it is when something like this is suddenly breaking in to a life. Some of my schoolmates were angry with me; they said: how can you refuse to go to the army when such things happen. I told them: that is exactly the reason that I am refusing: the army being in the territories is not a way to stop terrorist attacks; it causes them. Exactly because I told this girl, Merav, that I feel committed to do whatever I can to prevent such things from happening again to others, I feel that one of the most important things which I as an individual can do, is refusing to serve in the army. After all, everybody knows how the present situation will end: always for centuries, the rebellion of an occupied people eventually ended in its freedom. The only question how much time it will take, and how many more casualties there will be. I try to make both a bit less.

“Another point: what the occupation is doing to our society. I want to tell about Rami, whom I met in the prison. I sat with him for hours, listening. It is incredible how many terrible things he had witnessed in just three months of service in the territories. He told me about the young boy who threw a stone at the lieutenant-colonel’s jeep which did not hit the jeep. But the colonel still chased the child, caught him and beat him brutally with the butt of a rifle. And another child which a Shabak agent tied up, and then urinated on him. When Rami tried to protest, the man shouted: Go away; I am conducting an interrogation. And he also told me of soldiers looting a shop, and then destroying everything which they could not carry. And he told me about how he could not stand it anymore, and how he sat in the toilet for several hours in the night, the barrel in his mouth, the finger on the trigger. In the end he ran away, and that’s how he got into prison. That’s what happens to the sensitive people. The non-sensitive ones, those who get used to these Wild West norms, afterwards bring these norms into the Israeli society itself. We are corrupting ourselves. I am not willing to be part of the main instrument of corruption.”

Final Note:

There are many signs that the refusal issue is becoming more and more central in the media and Israeli discourse. A number of refuseniks were released over the last two weeks. The best guess on this development is that the army wants the number of refuseniks in jail reduced. That is good news, but it is accompanied by concern that the IDF hopes to use the current court martial proceedings to teach potential refuseniks that the price, the next time around, for future refuseniks might be high.

[This account was edited by Reuven Kaminer, and is based on the invaluable reporting of Adam Keller and Beate Zilversmidt for Gush Shalom. Keller and Zilversmidt are the editors of The Other Israel.]