LAUB, FARES AKRAM AND MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The youngest to die was a 4-day-old girl, the oldest a 92-year-old man.
They were among at least 844 Palestinians killed as a result of airstrikes on homes during Israel's summer war with the Islamic militant group, Hamas.
Under the rules of war, homes are considered protected civilian sites unless used for military purposes. Israel says it attacked only legitimate targets, alleging militants used the houses to hide weapons, fighters and command centers. Palestinians say Israel's warplanes often struck without regard for civilians.
The Associated Press examined 247 airstrikes on homes, interviewing witnesses, visiting attack sites and compiling a detailed casualty count. The review found that 508 of the dead - just over 60 percent - were children, women and older men, all presumed to be civilians. Hamas says it did not use women as fighters in the war, and an Israel-based research group tracking militants among the dead said it has no evidence women participated in combat.
The AP count also showed that:
- Children younger than 16 made up one-third of the total: 280 killed, including 19 babies and 108 preschoolers between the ages of 1 and 5.
- In 83 strikes, three or more members of one family died.
- Among those killed were 96 confirmed or suspected militants - or just over 11 percent of the total - though the actual number could be higher since armed groups have not released detailed casualty lists.
- The remainder of the 240 dead were males between the ages of 16 and 59 whose names did not appear in connection with militant groups on searches of websites or on street posters honoring fighters.
The review was the most painstaking attempt to date to determine who was killed in strikes on homes in the Gaza war even as Israel's army and Gaza militants have refused to release information about targets and casualties. The count tracked all known airstrikes, but not all strikes had witnesses and damage at sites inspected by the AP wasn't always conclusive.
The number of civilian deaths has been a key issue in the highly charged battle over the dominant narrative of the 50-day war, the third and most destructive confrontation between Israel and Hamas since 2008.
The war erupted in July, after a month of escalating tensions triggered by the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens by Hamas in the West Bank, and an Israeli arrest sweep of Hamas supporters that led to renewed Gaza rocket fire on Israel.
Israel says it tried to avoid harming civilians, even as Hamas embedded weapons and fighters in residential areas in what Israel calls a cynical attempt to drive up the civilian death toll for propaganda purposes.
"Our position is very clear. Israel did not commit war crimes," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Palestinians say Israel attacked Gaza with disproportionate force and callous disregard for civilians.
"Either they have the worst army in the world that constantly misses targets and hits civilians, or they are deliberately killing civilians," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman. If most of those killed are civilians, "you cannot call them collateral damage," she said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though a political rival of Hamas, has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the war, a move that could pave the way for a possible prosecution of both Israel and Hamas.
International law experts note that on its own, a high civilian death toll does not constitute evidence of war crimes, and that each strike has to be investigated separately.
But a high civilian toll "certainly raises a red flag and suggests that further investigation is warranted," said Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor and former top official at the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands.
Israel would not say how many of the 5,000 air attacks it carried out during the war were directed at homes. However, it said it only aimed at legitimate military targets.
Asked for comment on the AP's findings, an Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Peter Lerner, said that "one cannot draw broad conclusions" by examining only a small percentage of Israel's airstrikes.
"While loss of civilian life is regrettable, combatting a terrorist organization with semi-state military capabilities that intentionally conceals those capabilities within and beneath homes, schools, hospitals and mosques is the reality of urban warfare," Lerner said.
According to preliminary U.N. figures, at least 1,483 Palestinian civilians were killed in the war - 66 percent of the overall death toll of 2,205.
Gaza militants fired about 4,300 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel during the war, driving tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes to seek cover, according to the Israeli military. Five civilians were killed in Israel, among them a 4-year-old boy, along with 67 soldiers.
Gaza militant groups have not released complete lists of fighters killed in the war. Israel says about 890 militants were killed in Gaza, including 590 from Hamas, 200 from Islamic Jihad and 100 from other armed factions. It did not say how many were killed in airstrikes on homes.
A Hamas official said the group lost about 400 fighters, including many killed in battles with Israeli soldiers and a smaller number who died in house strikes, though he gave no precise figure. The smaller Islamic Jihad group said 135 of its armed men were killed overall.
In the initial stages, the AP's reporting was guided by Al Mezan, a Gaza human rights group, and the Israeli rights group, B'Tselem, which published partial findings on house strikes or provided names of families.
The count included 247 airstrikes in which people were killed in homes or adjacent yards, including those hit by flying shrapnel or debris from attacks on neighboring buildings. The AP looked only at cases where homes were hit from the air, excluding artillery strikes, which are inherently inaccurate.
Starting in November, three reporters visited the vast majority of attack sites, interviewed survivors and collected hundreds of death certificates - documents recognized by Israel as proof of mortality. The certificates, which also contain birth dates, allowed a breakdown of the dead by age.
Reuven Erlich, who heads the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israel-based research group that is tracking militants among the Gaza dead, said the group has found no evidence that women participated in combat.
Commenting on the AP count, the retired intelligence officer questioned the reliability of Gaza witnesses and said only military experts on the ground would be able to determine what happened in each strike.
The deadliest attack occurred at 7:30 a.m. on July 29, a Muslim holiday, flattening an apartment building in the town of Khan Younis. It killed 33 people from four families and a young girl in a neighboring home.
A possible target was Ahmed Moammar, 32, who died in the attack. A poster next to the debris praised him as a "prominent leader" of the local military wing of Islamic Jihad.
His widow, Tahrir, said her husband had been on the move since the start of the war, but had slept at home the night before the strike, which also killed her 2-year-old daughter, Hala, and 3-year-old son, Yazan.
The youngest victim, Shayma Sheik Ali, died four days after her mother was killed in an airstrike on July 25.
The infant was delivered by emergency cesarean section after the body of her mother, who was nine months pregnant, was pulled from the rubble of their home in the Deir el-Balah refugee camp. The newborn was placed in an incubator and died July 29, according to her death certificate.
The oldest victim, 92-year-old Abdel Karim Abu Nijem, was killed along with a son, three grandsons and three other relatives, in an airstrike on his home in the Jebaliya refugee camp. Islamic Jihad later confirmed that two fighters, including a senior commander, were also killed in that strike.
A nephew, Mohammed Abu Nijem, said he heard later that "two Islamic Jihad fighters were passing by the house and that both were killed." He said the family received no warning of an impending strike.
"Otherwise we would have fled," said Abu Nijem, whose 29-year-old wife, Soha, and 3-year-old daughter, Ragheb, were among the dead.
The military said it warned civilians when possible, including through phone calls or "knocks on the roof" with non-explosive missiles, and it aborted some strikes due to civilians in the vicinity. However, citing the Geneva Conventions, it said "advance warning is not always feasible," including when the element of surprise is needed to attack an enemy fighter.
Among the militants targeted by the strikes was Mohammed Deif, a shadowy leader of the Hamas military wing. Under Deif's guidance, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades built rockets and dug dozens of attack tunnels into Israel.
On Aug. 19, Israeli aircraft dropped several bombs on an apartment building owned by Rabah al-Dalo in Gaza City. "It was like judgment day," al-Dalo, 49, said of the strike that killed his wife and two sons, 19 and 13, along with one of Deif's wives and two of the couple's young children. Deif's fate remains unclear.
Two days later, warplanes leveled a four-story home before dawn in the southern town of Rafah, killing three senior commanders of the al-Qassam brigades, along with eight civilians.
Rami Younis, who lives next to the targeted building, said the blast destroyed the outer wall of a bedroom, killing his father, stepmother and 4-year-old daughter, Seba. Younis said he didn't know the militant commanders were present. Asked if he felt the men endangered the neighborhood, he said: "There is no point in talking now."
Until recently, the debate about a possible war crimes inquiry into the Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza appeared largely theoretical.
However, in January, the Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court, opening the way for possible investigations of both Israel and Hamas. In response, the ICC prosecutor launched a preliminary review of whether a full probe is warranted.
Advocacy groups and U.N. investigators have said that Hamas' battle tactics over the years, including indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel, amount to war crimes.
Israel alleges that militants used Gaza civilians as human shields more than in previous wars, turning homes into command centers and weapons storehouses or firing rockets from nearby. At the same time, Israel's military says it is conducting a transparent investigation of any wrongdoing by its forces.
Rights groups in Israel and abroad demand an independent investigation, including of the strikes on houses, arguing these were a policy approved at the highest levels and the Israeli military cannot investigate itself in this case.
B'Tselem, the Israeli rights group, rejected Israel's claim that the policy of house bombings is lawful.
"This argument ignores the spirit and purpose of international humanitarian law, which primarily aims at reducing as much as possible the harm caused to the civilian population," the group wrote in a report on house strikes last month.
This policy is "unlawful through and through," it said.
Whiting, the former ICC official, noted that the court would only open a formal war crimes probe if it determines that the relevant authorities - in this case Israel and Hamas - did not conduct proper investigations.
The rules of war are often vague and open to interpretation.
They allow for attacking a home if it is used for military purposes, such as storing weapons. If a home is deemed a legitimate target, harm to civilians must be proportionate to the military advantage created by an attack. Proportionality is judged by anticipated, not actual civilian deaths, and there is no formula for what is deemed excessive harm to civilians, international law experts said.
In the Gaza strikes, a key piece of information has been missing: What exactly was targeted? Both Israel and Gaza militant groups have withheld such information.
Israel says revealing targets could harm intelligence-gathering, and legal experts say armies are not required to give such information.
Human rights groups said Israel must be more transparent.
"In these specific attacks, the onus is on the Israeli authorities to come clean and say what it was they were targeting, and how it was they could justify targeting a house full of children and other civilians," said Philip Luther of Amnesty International, which has looked into eight house attacks and alleged some amounted to war crimes.
The legal aftermath of the war is bound to be complicated.
In addition to the preliminary examination by the ICC prosecutor, the U.N. Human Rights Council formed a commission of inquiry, but Israel has said it won't cooperate with the team, alleging anti-Israel bias. Israel is cooperating with a second U.N. investigation into deaths, injuries and damage to U.N. premises, as well as the discovery of militant weapons in some vacant U.N. schools.
The Israeli military said it has bolstered its system of internal investigations, adding teams of senior officers outside the chain of command. It has launched 13 criminal investigations and closed nine cases after finding no wrongdoing, while 85 other complaints about what it calls "exceptional incidents" are still under review.
One criminal probe involves a strike that apparently targeted a commander in the Hamas military wing but also killed 24 members of the Abu Jamea family, including 18 children between 6 months and 9 years old, according to death certificates.
The military said it found "reasonable suspicion" of a deviation from approved procedure, but did not name the target.
In two other attacks on homes, an initial review found no fault, the military said.
9 February 2015
The assault left more than 100,000 homes either fully or partially damaged. Many schools, hospitals and water facilities remain in ruins.
In the context of such ongoing devastation, UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, announced last month that it had run out of aid money for Gaza’s reconstruction process.
“Digging under a rock”
Yet to paint the announcement itself as the crisis — implying that the reconstruction process had been working until now — is misleading, according to many people in Gaza.
Around $5.4 billion in aid to Gaza was pledged in October at an international donor’s conference in Cairo — half of which was immediately earmarked by the Palestinian Authority to itself. According to Robert Turner, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, “virtually none of [the $5.4 billion] has reached Gaza.”
“Right now we have to dig under a rock to find any information about the aid we’re supposed to be getting and where that money actually is,” said Omar Shaban, a founder of the group Aid Watch Palestine.
“We hear over and over again that someone new was just hired for $50,000 or that so many people are committed to helping, but then we see no change,” Shaban told The Electronic Intifada. “It’s as if you were to go into a big kitchen and there were twenty people there trying to cook, and then there was no food.”
Aid Watch Palestine was founded during the summer of 2014. Its founders believe that the international aid system needs to be dramatically restructured.
The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Levy recently spoke to three members of Aid Watch Palestine.
Sarah Levy: What is the goal of Aid Watch Palestine?
Nora Lester Murad: The long-term goal is to improve international aid so that it helps Palestinians to claim rights and to further a just and peaceful solution. Seeing as that’s a big goal, to start we’re focusing first of all on Gaza, and second of all on transparency. Transparency is one big step toward accountability because you can’t have accountability without transparency.
SL: What are you working on now?
Heba Alhayek: In Gaza we hope to hold meetings and workshops with locals to raise their awareness about the issue. We have also begun to train a group of writers who can collect stories from Gaza that can be shared with the rest of the world. These are stories about people who were affected by the last aggression on Gaza, people who are living without houses or shelters.
NLM: Besides this our work mainly consists of beginning to collect and compile research to get a better sense of where the aid has come from starting in October 2012, what it was for, where it has gone, and what were the parties it touched before reaching its destination. But the ultimate goal is to transform or liberate international aid so it actually is helpful.
SL: Can you describe the situation today on the ground in Gaza? How different are things today from how they were when Israel stopped its bombing campaign on 26 August?
HA: First, when you’re talking about the failed reconstruction process in Gaza you have to see it as related to everything else. So you have the siege, and you have the unemployment, and you have salaries that have not been paid, and then you have the failed reconstruction process. It’s all together, there is so much suffering.
Today, after the war this summer, people are still living under trees or amongst the ruins of their destroyed or damaged homes.
Omar Shaban: There has not been a single big project built since this summer. No homes or schools or hospitals. The reconstruction has effectively been nonexistent. Gaza is in need of 1.5 million tons of cement and so far only 27,000 tons have been allowed in.
This cement was only allowed for instances of minor damages, for about 17,000 people. On top of this the people who got this cement were forced to pay with their own money for it, told they would be compensated later. Of course this has not happened.
Today there are still 60,000 people living in school buildings and tens of thousands of people living with neighbors or with relatives. In some houses there are fifty people living there.
Students cannot get to school, parents are not working, and many people cannot even afford food. This is a huge social problem. So in some ways the consequences of the war are more destructive than the war itself. Gaza is on the verge of collapsing.
“Upholding a façade”
SL: Why do you think the reconstruction process has been stalled so far?
NLM: I think there are several factors. Of course the ongoing rift between the Fatah and Hamas governments in Gaza since the unity deal [in April 2014] is a factor because in order to really rebuild Gaza — where we’re not just talking a few houses here and there but entire neighborhoods — it would take government planning, which at this point is not moving forward.
Then there are Israel’s restrictions which are obviously problematic. The blockade and of course the occupation are huge issues that not only affect the reconstruction but everything else in Gaza.
Personally, though, I would put a majority of the responsibility on the international community because by upholding a façade that things are working when they’re not, this is in effect another kind of complicity, to which I think the main antidote is transparency. I think it’s the lack of transparency that directly contributes to people continuing to not get the help that they deserve.
OS: In Gaza, we feel that the UN mechanism has replaced the Israeli siege. The UN has taken the responsibility from the [Palestinian Authority] to help the people of Gaza and now no one is being helped. Meanwhile, the PA is simply hiding behind the UN rather than taking responsibility for its own people. The PA is trying to manage the Gaza crisis from Ramallah, which is no way to get anything done.
And the UN refuses to seriously cooperate with local partners on the ground. The UN serves us without giving us the right to hold them accountable. If you have an authority you have to be responsible. The UN has the authority without the responsibility.
Then you have European countries who do not want to invest again in something that their money rebuilt in 2008, 2009, 2010. They think, why do I need to rebuild something that was rebuilt with my money just a few years ago?
HA: This is why we are looking to the local society. We think that the people who are affected the most must engage in their own development process because they are the only ones who really know what they need.
SL: I’ve heard mention of Israel actually benefitting from the aid money being pledged. Can you explain how or why?
NLM: We know that Israel benefits in many ways.
One is by including Israeli companies on the list of companies whose products are allowed into Gaza [to help with the reconstruction].
Another way they benefit is by ensuring that anything that does make its way into Gaza is considered an import to Israel. So if you’re taking something directly from France to Gaza, it has to be imported to Israel, then taken to Gaza. So that means that the fees and the costs of importing to Israel — customs, taxes, fees at the port, transportation fees — all of that Israel benefits from.
If the materials do finally get to Gaza but aren’t allowed in on that same day they arrive then they have to be stored, which means you have to pay money to Israel to store.
And if it does get in or when it does get in then you have to pay a security fee to have your truck cleared by Israeli security. So there are lots of different ways [that Israel profits from the reconstruction process].
Of course some of the money also goes back to donor countries. Some donor countries are more efficient, you could say, at recycling money back to themselves. This is mostly through consultancies and sometimes through what’s called “tied aid” which is when the recipient is required to purchase from the donor country. The point is that not all of the aid is given with the sole intention of helping the people of Gaza.
The other big problem with the aid donations is that there is no penalty for failing to follow through with a pledge. We should be asking why have the countries that have pledged millions of dollars in aid simply felt that it wasn’t necessary to actually give it.
If the aid and reconstruction process is not accountable to anyone or to any standards of law, ethics or morality, and if it isn’t accountable to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the broader Palestinian community in whose name “aid” is being given, then the violations of Palestinian rights and local priorities will be perpetuated. Aid is essentially subsidizing the continued violations of Palestinian rights.
This is why we think that transparency and accountability have to be the beginning steps in unraveling the current mess that is the international aid system.
Sarah Levy is an independent journalist living in the West Bank. Follow her on Twitter:@levysarahm.
Six months ago, Israel initiated a brutal bombardment followed by a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip for the third time in six years. The war killed more than 2,000 people, the majority civilians, including 500 children, and left nearly 100,000 homeless.
Now, six months later, as winter storms sweep the area, we can't stop thinking about the people we met, the images we witnessed, and experiences we shared when, for a remarkable nine days in November, we were part of the Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility Health Delegation to Gaza. To be in Gaza so soon after last summer's brutally devastating war was to catch a glimpse — through the heart-wrenching stories we heard, and the massive destruction we saw — of the grotesque horror of those 51 days. The demolition was everywhere, the grief universal, the trauma intense.
Amidst the rubble and destruction were people living in bombed-out shells that had been their homes, and many mosques, hospitals, clinics, schools and factories were mere piles of crushed concrete. A busted-up concrete slab with names spray painted on it of family members buried under the mounds of debris and a woman squatting on rubble staring vacantly off in the distance took our breath away.
On top of three assaults in the past six years, Israel has slapped a nearly eight-year siege on Gaza that has devastated the economy, wrecked the environment and ripped apart people's hopes that there is a future.
Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, a psychiatrist, a gentle soul, and the executive director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, our host agency, lost 28 members of his extended family in last summer's bombings. No one in Gaza was spared from knowing someone who was killed or injured.
A nurse who works full time and hasn't been paid for a year, Imad, invited us to meet his 10-person family in their modest but comfortable apartment. When asked how they survive with no income and so many mouths to feed, Imad explained that everyone in Gaza does what they can to help others since they're all really in the same boat. He then shrugged his shoulders and posed the question we heard often:
"What can we do?"
But through all the trauma, there is also resistance, resilience and a remarkable amount of love and generosity. It's difficult to make sense of how the occupation and siege of Gaza that is slowly but steadily crushing the life of 1.85 million people can be happening as world powers look away.
Now, six months after the start of the summer assault, there is little rebuilding in Gaza because materials are restricted by the Israeli siege. The cold, wet weather has settled in with only three to six hours of electricity per day. Recently, two young children died in a house fire ignited by lit candles – used because there was no electricity. Over 100,000 people are still displaced — living in shelters or with relatives or friends. The lack of potable water, ever-present sewage backups, lack of garbage collection and broken essential infrastructure are exacerbating the conditions of an environmental health disaster.
Imad's question — "What can we do?" — echoes with us.
We were struck by the humanity of the people in Gaza who share our aspirations to just be allowed to live, to fulfill dreams, to raise healthy and well-educated children, to have a home and enough food, to know peace and justice. Our Jewish tradition of "Justice, justice, thou shall pursue" requires us to answer Imad's question in both words and deeds.
What we can do is clear: 1) Call upon our congressional representatives to pressure Israel to lift the deadly siege of Gaza; 2) Support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), a non-violent civil society movement against Israel, similar to the one that helped to end apartheid in South Africa; and 3) Speak out in support of one of the foremost moral issues of our time — the Palestinian struggle for justice.
Maxine Fookson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, and Ned Rosch has served as executive director of a number of Portland community-based nonprofits and co-hosts KBOO's One Land Many Voices. They are both active in Jewish Voice for Peace — Portland.
An Open Letter to Oregon's Congressional Delegation: Follow the leadership of Rep. Blumenauer and boycott Netanyahu's speech
We, the undersigned organizations, commend Oregon’s U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer for asking House Speaker John Boehner to cancel an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Rep. Blumenauer has stated that if the speech is not cancelled, he will refuse to attend. We implore all the members of Congress from Oregon to follow his example.
Our objections to the Netanyahu invitation go beyond the fact that: a.) This invitation is a breach of protocol, b.) It is a stunt timed just prior to a very close Israeli election and c.) It is an attempt by the Republican-controlled Congress to embarrass President Barack Obama.
The most serious objection to the invitation is that Netanyahu is attempting to scuttle negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program by urging Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran. As Rep. Blumenauer states, the only solution in the best interests of all countries is a negotiated settlement. Why would Mr. Netanyahu be invited to thwart that effort? World leaders also recognize the danger of his address as interference with the diplomatic process and are also imploring that he not interfere.
Additional sanctions risk an end to the diplomatic path and an increase in tensions between our country and Iran that may lead to war. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is under routine inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has never documented any evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Iran has called for the Middle East to be a nuclear weapons-free zone. In contrast, Israel has never signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and is known to possess nuclear weapons.
Inviting Netanyahu to address Congress is also reprehensible in view of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza this past summer. Three respected human rights organizations—Amnesty International and the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights—have issued reports finding Israel guilty of committing war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians during its 51-day bombardment. Under Netanyahu’s government, Israel has continued unfettered settlement expansion and land confiscation, making a viable Palestinian state impossible. It continues to imprison Palestinians by using administrative detention laws that lack due process. It is unconscionable to invite a leader with such a dismal human rights record to address the U.S. Congress.
In short, Netanyahu’s speech is not in the best interests of the United States or of world peace. We, the undersigned, urge you to boycott the speech and speak out in opposition to any leader of a foreign nation seeking to intervene in the making of U.S. foreign policy.
Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Corvallis/Albany Friends of Middle East Peace, Friends of Sabeel North America, Individuals for Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter, Lutherans for Justice in the Holy Land, Mission of the Atonement Holy Land Ministry, Peace and Justice Works Iraq Affinity Group, Oregon Fellowship of Reconciliation, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Tree of Life Educational Fund-West Coast, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (Corvallis chapter), Veterans for Peace Chapter 72 and Linus Pauling Chapter.
TEL AVIV — “WHAT are you,” he asked, “a leftist?”
We were both wearing the surplus United States Marines uniforms given to prisoners at Israeli Military Jail No. 6.
“It depends how you define ‘left,’ ” I said.
“Don’t get clever with me. Why are you here?”
“I didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”
“In other words: You love Arabs, and don’t care about Israeli security.”
“I think the occupation undermines all of our security, Palestinians’ and Israelis’.”
“You’re betraying your people,” he said.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
There is a growing chasm between Israeli rhetoric and reality. In the discourse of Israel’s Knesset and media, the Israel Defense Forces represent a “people’s army.” Refusal to serve is portrayed by politicians and pundits — many of whom began their careers through service in elite units — as treacherous and marginal. This rhetoric becomes the common wisdom: A popular bumper stickers reads, “A real Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft.”
The outrage is disproportionate. Rarely do more than a few hundred Jewish Israelis publicly refuse to serve each year in protest against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The shrill condemnation of refusers is thus an indication of the establishment’s panic.
Last year brought something of a surge in refusals. Open letters of refusal were published by a group of high schoolers, a group of reservists, veterans of the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and alumni and former staff members of the prestigious Israel Arts and Sciences Academy. All were denounced by politicians and in the media: In September, the Knesset’s opposition leader, the Labor member Isaac Herzog, blasted the letter from Unit 8200 as “insubordination.”
Aggression toward refusers is widespread. When I accompanied a refuser named Udi Segal to his draft station during the Gaza war this summer, we were met by a group draped in Israeli flags and chanting, “Udi, you’re a traitor! Go live in Gaza!” After signing the scholars’ letter, Raya Rotem, a former literature teacher whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, received a threatening phone call. And a friend of 50 years severed ties with her.
The idea that the “real Israelis” serve and those who refuse are “traitors” is a false dichotomy. As Ms. Rotem told me, “Israeli patriotism today means resisting anything which frames the occupation as normal.” It’s also inaccurate: The reality is that a majority of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the “fifth column,” as they are often branded, and the ultra-Orthodox, or “leeches,” as they’ve been called. as long as they were enrolled full-time in a yeshiva. Recently, though, a coalitionformed in the Knesset over a proposal to draft the Haredim — which resulted in a 500,000-strong public demonstration. Most Haredim cite religious reasons for refusing, but the Haredi refusenik Uriel Ferera, recently released after six months in jail, gave the occupation as a primary factor in his decision.
There are also thousands of “gray refusers,” who find quieter ways to get out of the army, mostly by seeking mental health exemptions, known as a “Profile 21.” Like most public refusers in recent years, I was released after a month in military jail with a Profile 21.
Most of the prisoners with me in Military Jail No. 6 were Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Ethiopians and Russians. Many of these members of Israel’s most marginalized Jewish communities told me of their intention to “get out on 21,” despite the risk this entailed for their future: Employment and educational opportunities often depend on completing military service.
In a recent interview, the Israeli author Amos Oz urged politicians to act as “traitors,” and make peace. But the type of traitors Mr. Oz wishes for — visionary ministers, peace-minded military men — are nonexistent. The most left-wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential challengers in Israel’s coming election is the same Mr. Herzog who attacked the 8200 refusers.
Peace won’t come from the next Knesset, or the one after that. But some hope for a less violent, more decent future lies with the real traitors, the disregarded millions of Israeli citizens who have refused to serve in the army.
The reasons for not serving may differ between a Palestinian youth from Acre and a Haredi from Beit Shemesh, between an 8200 veteran and an Ethiopian immigrant, between me and the deserter in Military Jail No. 6, but there is a deeper consensus: We all refuse to see the government as a moral guide and military service as sacrosanct. As the Israeli government leads us further from peace, and the army faithfully executes its violent orders, this is the kind of treachery we need most.