By Rela Mazali, The Guardian – 5 May 2009
About six months after Israel’s attorney general publicly announced an effort to criminalise dissent, state authorities have upped the ante in their “war” – as the daily Ha’aretz called it last September – against Israel’s youth and against the broad, grassroots protest movement of young Israelis who avoid serving their compulsory time in the military – slandered by officials as “draft shirkers”.
On 26 April, a day before Israel’s Memorial Day, Israeli police produced an absurd piece of political theatre – as Dimi Reider first reported here last Thursday. As if facing down dangerous organised criminals, they raided the homes of six activists in different parts of Israel, who were then detained for interrogation. Exploiting the emotions roused on a day of mourning for military dead, the police action singled out and branded anti-military activists as outside the legitimate Israeli community.
At the time of writing, police have summoned 10 additional activists for interrogation. The activists targeted are members of New Profile, a feminist movement working for over a decade to reverse the militarisation of state and society in Israel. I have been a member since its inception. New Profile intends to uphold the right to open discourse on the crucial issues young people face and we work to change the militarised thinking holding us, all the residents of Israel and Palestine, hostage. Our activism may enrage some, but our activities are totally legal.
The reality is that rising numbers of young Jewish Israelis – as well as the Druze minority who are also subject to conscription – find themselves unwilling to accept the Israeli dictate “There’s no other choice”. Four generations and over six decades of failed “military solutions” have engendered a broad social movement of young people who have severe internal struggles when asked to serve in the military.
Israeli law offers virtually no legal provision for conscientious objectors and Israel’s courts – both military and civil – class the reason for refusing service as “political”, “psychological” and only very rarely “conscientious”. The soul-searching brought on by deciding to serve has caused many young people real distress. In recent years, Israeli soldiers’ suicides have accounted for more deaths than all the other types of military casualties combined.
According to Ha’aretz, the criminal investigation of New Profile is motivated by “growing concern at the defence establishment of a growing trend of draft evasion”. It is not New Profile that is worrying them, we are just an easy scapegoat through which they hope to sow fear and intimidate future draft dodgers. The state has thus declared a war against the many thousands who resist the draft and refuse to place their bodies, their minds, and their morality at the disposal of visionless politicians.
For years now, the army has regularly been exempting tens of thousands from service without difficulty. In fact, several years ago the military and the (very same) defence minister declared a downsizing programme, towards creating “a small, smart army”. Their worry today is rather the popular vote of no-confidence in their easy use of the lives of soldiers – an anger no longer limited to alienated, impoverished parts of society but spreading deep into the middle class as well.
The growing legitimisation of the draft resisters in the Israeli mainstream is also evidence of the weakening of the hold fear has on our society. Those in power, both the right and the so-called “left”, are struggling to keep in place this longstanding means of obscuring political corruption and of feeding the notion of “national unity” in the form of “the people’s army”.
Tragically, this war on New Profile is part of a broader programme of state repression of political dissent. Palestinian citizens of Israel were detained by the hundreds for protesting at Israel’s attack against Gaza last January. Many remain in detention still, without charges, trial or due process. Activists taking part in non-violent protests against the land-gobbling dragon of Israel’s separation wall are regularly attacked with lethal fire. Just weeks ago Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahma was killed by soldiers in Bil’in. Dozens of activists, both Palestinians and Jews, are detained at demonstrations and incarcerated for varying periods. In most cases, the repressive measures applied to Jewish activists still bear no comparison, in terms of their arbitrariness and brutality, to the means employed against Palestinians.
However, the political theatre of repression being played out against New Profile is of great importance. Every act of repression is important and should be resisted, and when it is applied to a group of relatively privileged, middle-class, and largely middle-aged feminists, such repression may be more visible to mainstream Israeli society. This will more easily expose the state’s fabric of lies and ludicrous, trumped-up charges, and allow decent but uninformed people a concrete grasp of the reality of the situation. In the balance yet again lies the future of freedom and rights for everyone in Israel and the Palestinian territories, because what is at stake are the lives of Israeli youth against whom the state is waging this war. What we are struggling for is the future of a democratic, civil society.