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The refuseniks: Israeli teenagers refuse to accept draft

A growing number of politically aware Israeli teenagers refuse to accept the draft, concerned about what they might condone by joining the Israeli army
Amnon - a refusenik (MEE/Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery)

TEL AVIV – Planting the suicide note was an act of desperation. Amnon Halbersberg knew he had to get out of the army, and faking depression was the only option he could come up with. So he began to organise his plan of action, and set forth a plot that very likely changed his future.

Only about a hundred young Israelis a year make the decision to become a refusenik, and refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), where three years’ service is compulsory. Refusing to serve not only isolates an individual in society, but could lead to imprisonment.

“You can only leave the army if the army doesn’t want you, or if you have a mental health or physical health issue,” Halbersberg told Middle East Eye. “Only they can decide for you.”

Omar Saad playing the violin (Fares S Mansour)

Late last year, musician Omar Saad decided he wouldn’t allow the Israeli government to decide for him. Saad decided he would refuse to serve in the IDF, and wrote multiple public letters, which garnered much media attention detailing his intentions. In the end he served a total of 150 nonconsecutive days in prison because of his refusal to swap his viola for a weapon of war.

“The war crimes that are being done in the West Bank and Gaza strip are horrible and inhuman,” Saad told MEE. “To kill an unarmed Palestinian child every three days is not defending, and arresting innocent kids is not defending, and administrative detention is not defending, none of the actions that the Israeli forces are doing is defending.”

Like Saad, Halbersberg never wanted to join the IDF to begin with. However pressures from his family and the rest of society, as well as a lack of options otherwise, led him to enlist. Two weeks into his service Halbersberg realised he had to get out. So he wrote a suicide note, and planted it among his things in his military quarters.

The group of refuseniks together (Photo Credit: MEE/Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery)

“I faked the note, and asked my friend to show it to the chief commander of the army, like he had just discovered it,” Halbersberg said. “The army then became very scared that I would kill myself.”

Halbersberg went through a series of meetings with different psychiatrists who evaluated his mental state. Before he was discharged he was given two weeks to mull everything over, and was told that if he felt better by then he could stay in the army. Two weeks later Halbersberg insisted he was still mentally unfit to serve and he was discharged.

Halbersberg didn’t have support from his family, who continue to disagree with his leftwing politics and stance against Israeli occupation.

“My family don’t agree with my political views and they didn’t back my decision to refuse the army, but it was what I wanted and needed to do so I did it,” Halbersberg said. “They knew I fabricated a mental health issue to get out of the army, and because of this my mother refused to attend any of the army hearings, even though it was compulsory for her, when they were deciding whether to let me go or not.

While there are support groups for refuseniks, Halbersberg was all on his own, even the friend who turned in his suicide note didn’t seem to understand what he was complicit in.

“My friend that helped out, he knew I wanted to defect, but I don’t think he ever understood that it was because of my politics, which are against his,” Halbersberg said.

Halbersberg now works with a group of young Israelis who have decided to refuse. While meeting with MEE, they all expressed their disdain for the Israeli occupation and the compulsory policy of the IDF.

Gilad (Photo Credit: MEE/Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery)

Two of the young people in the group, Mandy Cartner and Gilad Berger, are currently in the process of being called up for army draft, and both have already made their position to refuse clear. Whereas Adi Berko, another member of the group, still has a year before he receives the dreaded phone call.

Berger told MEE he is the only person in his school he knows who will refuse the draft. His political activism – he has previously posted Nakba posters in hallways and classrooms on the day the Mayor of Tel Aviv visited his school – and his decision to refuse has made him highly unpopular with the administration and his peers.

“I am the only person planning to be a refusenik from my school, and the school was very angry when they found this out. The principal summoned the whole school together and told everyone that this was an army school, with students that should be proud to serve in the army,” Berger said. “They hated me before, but now they really hate me.”

Despite this, Berger said he does have a few friends who supported his decision, even if they are not as willing as him to refuse the army service.

Adi (Photo Credit: MEE/Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery)

It is estimated that approximately 100 new recruits refuse to serve in the army every year, a group that is shunned by mainstream society that nurtures the idea that army service is a rite of passage that every Israeli should partake in. For some individuals, like Berko, it is a rite of passage that he wants to avoid for two reasons.

Berko is transgender and identifies as male. It was during his fight for his own rights as a transgendered individual that he started to realise the struggle for the rights of suppressed populations and minorities is, in his mind, often intersectional.

“I can’t fight for my rights while ignoring other people’s demands for rights also. Even if I was allowed in the male section of the army, if the army accepted me for who I am, I would not join the army because of the occupation,” Berko said.

Mandy (Photo Credit: MEE/Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery)

Cartner’s problem with the IDF lies in the military occupation of the West Bank, and the frequent bombing campaigns on Gaza. However, she believes some Israelis do not realise that individuals like her are refusing army service for political reasons, and instead they choose to ignore the political dimensions to refusing.

“A lot of people think that if you don’t want to join the army it is because you are lazy, and they think you just want other people to be in the army instead of you. I don’t want other people to do it instead of me, I don’t want anyone to do it, I refuse not because I am lazy and I want to sit at home, I refuse because of the injustice that is happening. I think that is the harder decision to make, because so many people are critical about it.”

It’s a decision Cartner says she is willing to go to jail for. However she hopes at first to try and be acquitted from army duty on pacifist grounds through the army-run pacifist committee. For Cartner though, the problem lies in her willingness to admit to the committee that she will refuse on political grounds rather than pacifist ones, a decision that, although truthful, may land her in trouble.

“If they don’t let me [leave the army through the pacifist committee] then I will sit in jail, but I think our problems are really small compared to the problems Palestinians face, so I don’t really care if I sit in the army jail for a few months, if that is what I have to do.”

Her views are shared by Berger who admits, that although he is scared by the prospect of going to jail, like Saad, he would rather choose jail than serve in the IDF. Berger is already known by IDF commanders, having already refused to take part in compulsory medical checks, citing his political beliefs and his decision to refuse.

For now Berger, Cartner and Berko must wait, unsure of what their future may hold because of their political beliefs, and the possibility that they could serve time in jail at such a young age. At 16 and 17, all three have begun to think about their responsibilities in society, and what they may be complicit in if they joined the IDF.

Omar Saad is sure that these young people, and the generations that follow them, will continue the refuseniks’ movement, for as long as the occupation continues.

“I’m not the first refuser and I’m sure that I’m not the last one,” Saad said. “I think that there are young people refusing more than before because the awareness of the life that we are living and the war crimes that the occupying army are doing is much higher than before.”