It has been ten years since the publication of the Combatants’ Letter. In January 2002, in the midst of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, 50 combat soldiers and officers in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reserve signed a public statement in which they pledged to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Their protest was made at great personal cost to themselves because of the almost religious devotion most Israelis feel toward the army. The declaration boldly protested the IDF’s campaign to “dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.”
The reservists vowed loyalty to the defense of the Jewish State, but not to the “war of the settlements.” Led by two young reserve officers, David Zonsheine and Yaniv Itzkowitz, who together composed the letter, the original group of signatories founded the organization Courage to Refuse. The group was quickly joined by more than 400 reservists. That caught the attention of the Israeli media and government, partially because the protest came from the core of the army. Arguably, the most significant support for the refusers came from a group of Air Force reservists who signed a similar letter stating they would no longer participate in missions in Gaza and the West Bank. In 2005, Dov Weissglass, who was one of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s closest advisors, told the daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, that the refusers’ rebellion was one of the factors that influenced Sharon’s decision to evacuate the settlers and “disengage” from Gaza.
In the United States, Courage to Refuse was the subject of a sympathetic segment on “60 Minutes” hosted by Bob Simon (pt. 1, pt. 2; H/T to Annie Robbins) who at that time lived with his family in Israel. The dissident soldiers were hosted at various venues by the fledgling self-identified pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jewish organization, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace). Brit Tzedek has recently been incorporated into the Washington-based lobbying organization, JStreet, who shares the same American liberal Zionist orientation. However, I doubt very strongly if any local J Street groups will be showcasing soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories any time soon. Times have changed, and not always for the better.
Mr. Zonsheine, who owns and operates his own software company (Wikipedia, Hebrew), stated in an email to me that close to 1000 reservists have signed the Combatants’ Letter. Although more than 300 have removed their names for various reasons, most continue to refuse to serve in the territories. Currently there are 627 signatories to the letter. Zonsheine writes that 500 of the signers [including Mr. Zonsheine] have served time in military prison for their refusal. He reports that Courage to Refuse closed its office five years ago, but continues to function on “a volunteer basis.” Members of the group “are active within many organizations, participate in demonstrations and by writing, and [we] contribute to ending the occupation in various other ways.”
Mr. Zonsheine bemoans the fact that currently the Israeli public views the “refusal of the right” e.g., soldiers who will not obey orders to evacuate settlement outposts, in the same way it understands the “refusal of the left.” He believes the “the only way to return the State of Israel to political, military and moral sanity is to refuse to serve in the territories. That is the most Zionist action an officer can contribute to the nation for which he has pledged to fight.”
In 2002, I was part of a Brit Tzedek group in Northampton, MA which hosted a speaking appearance by Res. Major Stav Adivi of Courage to Refuse. His commitment, courage, optimism and his belief that his organization would succeed in stopping the settlement enterprise, electrified the audience of over 100 listeners. The previous evening he spoke before an equally enthusiastic crowd of over 400 students at the neighboring University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Sadly, Courage to Refuse has not grown to be the force for sanity that Mr. Adivi had predicted. Today, even most Jewish-American Israel/Palestine activists are not aware of Courage to Refuse and the Combatants’ Letter which once rocked Israel and its armed forces. That is too bad. These Israelis are a group of men of conscience worth recognizing, both for what they have done and what they continue to do.