After a total of 155 days inside a cell and over the span of six separate stays in an Israeli military prison, 19-year-old Tair Kaminer was released in July as the longest serving female conscientious objector to the Israeli military service.
Tucked away on a side street off of Tel Aviv’s bustling roads, Tair sits in her family apartment with her 18-year-old friend, Omri Baranes, a fellow objector who served 67 days in Israeli military prison during three separate sentences.
The two friends are part of a small group of Israeli teenagers called “conscientious objectors” or “conscientious refusers,” who have chosen to resist Israel’s obligatory military draft in protest of the nearly half-century occupation of Palestine.
During their intermittent stays in Israeli military prison, they received support from a small network of activists, called the Refusers Solidarity Network, established less than a year ago. Yasmin Yablonko, 23, is the media coordinator for the network. Her father spent time in military prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories during Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon. Yablonko assists new refusers in voicing their political views to the media and consequently challenging mainstream Israeli narratives on Palestine.
While Tair was eventually exempt from military service during her last stay in prison on grounds that the teenager was unfit for duty, Omri will be forced to return to military prison within 21 days since her last release. If she doesn’t turn herself in, she would officially be tagged a “deserter,” risk being detained by Israeli forces, sentenced to a longer prison term, and stained with an irreversible criminal record.
“I had never even seen a map that shows the green line”
Growing up in a politically mainstream household where military service was not only seen as a duty, but also an honor, Omri found herself at odds with what she saw as an inherently violent culture surrounding her. When it came time for her conscription, she refused on the basis of her budding pacifist beliefs.
“Even before I knew anything about the occupation of Palestine, I couldn’t understand why our culture was centered on violence. It’s like we are born with guns in our hands,” she said. “Our society is so militant and most Israelis never learn anything else.”
Four months ago, Omri requested exemption from military service through an ethics committee. But her request was rejected, and she found herself facing prison time.
Leading up to her first stay in military prison, Omri was introduced to Tair and other members of the Refusers Solidarity Network, who gave her an informal, educational lesson on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.
After discovering the widespread human rights violations occurring just a short drive away, Omri dedicated herself to reading books about Palestine and stumbled upon a very different history of Israel than what she had learned growing up.
“I had never even seen a map that shows the green line,” Omri said incredulously, referring to the pre-1967 borders recognized under international law as the border between Palestine and Israel. “To this day, I have not been able to find a map of Israel in Hebrew that recognizes any Palestinian borders.”
Tair reiterated Omri’s sentiments, saying, “The maps we are shown in school represent the entirety of the land as belonging to Israel. There are no occupied territories. This is what all Israelis are being taught.”
Unlike Omri, Tair comes from a long line of left-wing Israelis. Her uncle spent 66 days in military prison for refusing conscription during the 1982 Lebanon war, and her cousin refused in 2002 and became one of the longest serving conscientious objectors after serving two years in military prison.
Despite being raised by left-wing parents who encouraged her to be critical of Israeli society, she told Mondoweiss that she still didn’t understand the full reality of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and was unsure whether she would join the military.
“I was never taught about the Nakba or about the everyday realities Palestinians experience under occupation. It never came down to taking a map and showing me what Israel is actually supposed to look like,” Tair said.
But Tair began to educate herself on Palestine. “I learned how cruel Israeli policies are towards Palestinians. I am not someone who can support cruelty, so I decided that I am not someone who can support the occupation.”
“Israelis are educated to know nothing”
Erica Weiss, a professor at Tel Aviv University whose research focuses on resistance movements among Israeli soldiers already serving in the military, told Mondoweiss that the soldiers she speaks with “express awe at the ability of high school refusers to be so politically aware even before they are personally confronted with the violent reality of the occupation.”
Tair emphasized how uncommon it is for young Israelis to be educated on the realities of the occupation. “Israelis are educated to not know anything. No one is forcing them to get out of their bubble and see that people living just 30 minutes away from them don’t even have basic rights.”
“Joining the army is the easiest choice for people,” Tair continued. “But once you know more about what the government is doing to the Palestinian people, it becomes much harder to shut your eyes and ears and be a part of it.”
A common trend among left-leaning Israelis who decide to join the military is to attempt to “change the treatment of Palestinians from within,” a notion that the young refusers reject.
“If you smile at Palestinians while working at a checkpoint, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a checkpoint,” Tair said. “As refusers we are against the whole system. We are not just against the military. We are against the government. We are against the policies that oppress the Palestinians.”
Yasmin added, “The fact that you are wearing an Israeli military uniform is already problematic. It doesn’t matter if you are a nice soldier. You are still a soldier.”
“Israelis need to understand that this is not our land,” Yasmin continued. “It has been almost 50 years and the occupation continues and continues and has turned into something normal. Israelis have forgotten that what we are doing is illegal.”
Yasmin still remembers the day she was sitting in Tel Aviv watching the news, when a local weather channel began announcing the forecast in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel, located 20 kilometers inside the Green Line. “It’s one example of how our government constantly attempts to normalize all of these crimes.”
She pointed out that even the road signs to the Ariel settlement are being erected farther away from the actual settlement and closer to Israeli cities. “It’s our government’s way of trying to convince us that these illegal settlements are a part of Israel. They are trying to teach Israelis to not understand what is really happening.”
“If you don’t like Israel, why don’t you just go to Gaza?”
Though their families generally support them through their decisions to refuse military service, the teens often face a different, much harsher reaction outside their homes.
According to Weiss, a strong, supportive social network is essential for military refusers in Israel, in order to help them cope with the isolation that would otherwise be felt in an increasingly right-wing society where military service is considered an important rite of passage.
“Often in their activism, by stepping out into the public arena and challenging political norms they are exposed to strong feelings, including anger,” Weiss said. “However, many activists see this as a price they are willing to pay for the potential of influencing Israeli society.”
Omri likes to call the insults spewed at her “Israeli mantras.” She described how she is targeted with the same verbal attacks from Israelis regardless of where she is, such as “Arab lover” and “self-hating Jew,” and “if you don’t like Israel, why don’t you just go to Gaza?”
Tair told Mondoweiss that Israelis telling her she should “go get raped in Gaza” has been a popular message in her Facebook inbox since she first appeared in the media for her military refusal.
For her, it is not difficult to understand why Israelis get upset at those resisting what is considered an essential part of Israeli national identity.
“It is hard for Israelis to read a story about the horrible things our soldiers do to the Palestinians, because in Israel soldiers are considered heroes. People don’t want to believe it, so they get angry.”
“But we are doing what we think is right for our society,” Tair continued. “We sit in prison because we are fighting for everyone. We are fighting for peace. We are doing everything we can to end the occupation and resist the hatred that exists in Israel.”