Haggai Matar, Adam Maor, Matan Kaminer. These names may not be familiar to the world at large, but in Israel they are part of a well-known group of five young men who banded together to take a stand against the country’s compulsory military service. Theirs were not rash decisions based on fear, nor inherent ones based on a strictly religious or pacifist doctrine. Rather, their actions were based on a simple desire to see an end to both human suffering and a military occupation that was destroying souls as well as taking lives.
Like over 1,300 other so-called Refuseniks in Israel, the five conscientious objectors – all in their early twenties – were fully aware of the legal implications of their actions. Each served some two years in prison. As Matar explains, this was a small price to pay for an ideal that they all felt compelled to uphold:
‘There’s a long answer and short answer for why I did what I did. The short answer is that there was no other way. I felt then – as I do now – that I had to be involved in what was happening here. I saw what was going on and I felt I had to act. And this, of course, leads me on to the detailed and longer reason for my refusing. As a person who went to the Occupied Territories many times, I saw many terrible things. Mounds of earth on the main entrance to a village, which stopped Palestinians getting in or out with cars. House demolitions; water deposits that the (Israeli) army had destroyed – taking away the only water source for a population in the desert! And then there was the time when a Palestinian village was invaded by illegal Jewish settlers who destroyed the water and electricity supplies, causing the villagers to run away, go into exile, and leave the village empty. These, as well as the accumulating effects of militarization on Israeli society, were the main reasons for refusing: these, and the need to make people hear and understand these things.’
Despite the contentious nature of their decision, all five men received support from their families though, as Matar admits, it was harder for some than it was for others. ‘My family supported me from the outset. But some of us had parents who were not politically involved and did not understand why their children were refusing. But with time all our families became very much involved. You could say we “dragged” our parents into politics.’
Indeed, their families’ unavoidable involvement in the political arena was, says Maor, integral to their cause. ‘My parents took part in founding the “refusenik parents’ forum” which was unbelievably active and useful for our struggle. Most of my friends supported me as well: even those who did not agree appreciated my standing up for what I believed in.’
Although it has become more accepted in Israeli society to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories or to refuse to serve in the army altogether, there is still a feeling amongst some Israelis that such decisions are tantamount to treason. As Matar explains, this view has no basis in reality: ‘I would say “a traitor to what?” If they consider me a traitor to the racist Israeli state that commits war crimes against the occupied Palestinians and one that oppresses its own people as well then, yes, I am a traitor to these causes. But to the Israeli people – no, I am not. I work for Israeli society to work for a viable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Is that what a traitor looks like?’
‘I do not recognise the state [of Israel] as a moral authority,’ adds Kaminer. ‘I did what I did because I have the best interests of the Israeli [people] at heart – not the abstract concept of “Israel”. I also did it in the best interest of the Palestinians, too.’
Untainted by their years in jail and unapologetic about their decision to challenge an entrenched part of Israeli society, the men now see the peace process as a race against time.
‘As time goes by, more and more settlements are being built, the [West Bank] wall is taking Palestinian land and Palestinian life is getting worse,’ says Maor. ‘The Israeli Government has always left a potential peace process hanging in the air and has always felt it necessary to make life harder for Palestinians on the ground. The longer we wait, and the longer Palestinian independence is put off, we are losing much more than we are gaining. We must keep the pressure on.’
The Refuseniks talked with Alasdair Soussi