Israeli Group Offers Support to Conscientious Objectors
by Alexandra J. Wall

Published originally Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, 26 January 2001, by staff member Alexandra J. Wall.

In 1979, the translator of Yitzhak Rabin's memoirs leaked a passage to the New York Times.  Peretz Kidron knew just how explosive those few paragraphs would be.  "Dynamite," he called them.  The lines were not in Rabin's book because they had been excised by Israeli censors.

The passage told how Rabin, then a 26-year-old brigade commander, was ordered by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to expel 50,000 Arabs from the villages of Ramle and Lod during the War of Independence.

"There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action," Rabin wrote.  "Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these [soldiers] and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action."

If the soldiers that Rabin referred to were serving in the Israel Defense Force now and refused to take part in an action they believed to be unethical, they'd have a support group to help them.  And some 20 years after Rabin's translator made that passage public, he is the spokesperson for that group.

Kidron, a translator and journalist who has a long relationship with KPFA Radio in Berkeley, was in the Bay Area recently to promote the activities of Yesh Gvul, a support group for soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Yesh Gvul means "there is a limit," or "there is a border."

With his unruly white hair and bright blue shirt, Kidron looked much like the kibbutznik he used to be.

Originally from Vienna, Kidron's family fled to Great Britain in 1938 when he was 5.  "I was a refugee at an early age," he said.  "If you're looking for a pat explanation for my politics, that's it."

Kidron, 68, has been involved with Yesh Gvul since its inception during the Lebanon War.  At that time, about 170 reservists refused to serve in the invasion.

Yesh Gvul believes in selective refusal, meaning soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories will still protect Israel in a war situation within its borders.

The group faded and resurrected itself in the 1980s, during the intifada, when some 200 soldiers—also reservists—refused to serve in the territories.  Yesh Gvul has been lying low since the Oslo peace process began.  But with the current violence in the territories showing no signs of abating and an election that—if the polls are correct—will usher in a more hardline prime minister, those involved with Yesh Gvul felt the time had come to resurface.

Only a handful of soldiers have refused to serve in the territories, but for the first time, they are not all reservists.

In a highly publicized case, soldier Noam Kuzar received a 28-day sentence in military jail for refusing to serve in Jericho.  When he was released, he was made to do such jobs as clean toilets.  He was not allowed to speak to the press.

Yesh Gvul representatives have been standing at bus stations, handing out fliers to soldiers that quote laws from the Geneva Convention.

With the headline "Hey soldier, where are you headed?" the flier suggests that refusing to obey orders may be the right thing to do.

"It's a moral question, not a geographical one," said Kidron.  The most obvious reason for refusing to serve is that "the overwhelming majority of casualties fell in the conquest of or retention of places now under Arab rule."

Additionally, he said, it is difficult for a soldier—even one who is sympathetic to the Palestinians—to refrain from inflicting harm when he feels as if his life is threatened.

"The soldier is placed in an intolerable situation, where he has to commit some kind of atrocity or disobey orders," Kidron said.  "The best way to avoid it is to not get into the situation in the first place.  Even if you're a nice occupier, you're still an occupier."

For those refusing to serve, Yesh Gvul tries to boost their morale by initiating letter-writing campaigns to incarcerated soldiers or, in the case of reservists, offering support to their families.

During the Lebanon War, Kidron said, a U.S. Reconstructionist congregation called two conscientious objectors up to the Torah, a move that received a huge amount of press coverage in Israel.

Such actions of U.S. Jews are much appreciated by the peace movement in Israel, he said, since often, American support of Israel can be misguided.

By giving billions of dollars a year to Israel without placing any conditions on how the money is used, Kidron said, "the U.S. is providing us junkies with a regular allowance to get our next fix.  But then, when they say, 'Maybe we should cut off the money and make us go to detox,' we say, 'That's interfering with our private life.'"

Oftentimes, he said, American Jews come off like cheerleaders, even when supporting specific Israeli policies that "are leading to suicidal behavior."

Like the rest of the country, Yesh Gvul is preparing for Ariel Sharon to be the next Israeli prime minister.  If that happens, the group will step up its efforts.

"He can do whatever he's going to do," Kidron said.  "The Palestinians aren't going to lie down or go away."  Saying he hoped Sharon didn't turn Israel into another Chechnya, he added, "The question is whether Israelis are ready for it.  I hope there will be many soldiers who say, 'Count me out.'"