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Refusal to serve in the IDF is a social phenomenon in Israel in which citizens refuse to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or disobey orders on the grounds of pacifism, antimilitarism, political disagreement with Israeli policy, or religious philosophy.[1][2] Conscientious objectors in Israel are known as sarvanim (in Hebrew סרבנים) which is sometimes translated as "refuseniks", or mishtamtim (evaders, dodgers).[3]


Israeli refusniks at a demonstration

Although Israel has mandatory conscription, some Israelis do not serve in the military. Israeli Arabs are not drafted, though they may enlist, and small numbers serve voluntarily. Haredi Jews were exempt, so long as they did study in yeshivas (up to a maximum of 62,500 individuals), based on an arrangement worked out with David Ben-Gurion in 1948 and the Tal Law, though small numbers volunteer to serve in the IDF, specially in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion. The exemption lapsed in August 1, 2012, after being struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court in April 2012. Orthodox women can avoid service on the basis of their religion upon filing certain paperwork. After becoming officially exempt, religious women may choose to do national service work instead, although this is not compulsory. Many people who are "unfit" or "unqualified", either mentally or physically, are also exempt. Military service can often be postponed for further education—either college or university, or technical studies. Finally, a number of people refuse to serve because of pacifist views, or refuse certain orders based on their disagreement with government policy.

Some distinguish between refusal to serve in the military because of a pacifist world view that rejects any manifestation of violence and encompasses a refusal to submit to compulsory military service in any form, and partial refusal to serve, such as the Courage to Refuse group who "do their reserve duty wherever and whenever they are summoned, but refuse to serve in the occupied territories."[4] The diverse range of opinions regarding the refusal to serve is the reason why there is no single umbrella organization that encompasses all groups of refusers. While most instances of refusal to serve have historically been found among left-leaning Israelis, there is a rapidly expanding willingness among right-wing soldiers to refuse orders to evict Jews from settlements in the West Bank (and formerly in the Gaza Strip).[citation needed]

In February 2004, Israeli Chief of Personnel Major-General Gil Regev told a Knesset committee that the number of soldiers refusing to serve in the territories had dramatically decreased in 2003 despite the increase in the number of high-profile refusals. He said that eighteen reserve soldiers and eight officers had been imprisoned for refusal in 2003 compared to 100 reservists and 29 officers in 2002, a decrease of 80%. Members of the refusers' organization Yesh Gvul claimed in reply that actually 76 people, including eleven officers, had been jailed for refusal in 2003. They also said that 79 soldiers and eighteen officers had added their names to the Courage to Refuse letter in 2003, and that the number of high-school refuseniks had risen to 500.

The first well-known instance of an individual refusing to serve in the IDF occurred in 1954 when Amnon Zichroni, a lawyer, asked to be released from military service as a pacifist. Initially, then Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon refused to release Zichroni, though he was eventually discharged from the army reserves.

Religious exemption

Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Haredi Jews have refused to serve in the Israeli military for religious reasons. Typically, they study Torah in Yeshivas, and as such are legally exempt from military service. Also refusing any Israeli military service are people affiliated with various Hasidic anti zionist groups (most notably Satmar), the Brisk Yeshivas, and the Neturei Karta. Most of these groups are followers of the Edah HaCharedis.

Shministim incident

On April 28, 1970, a group of high school seniors about to be drafted sent a letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir expressing their reservation about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the War of Attrition and the government's failure to take steps to avoid conflict. In 1987, a new group was formed, also made up of high school students intent on refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. They gave themselves the name that the press used to dub the previous effort – 'Shministim' (Hebrew: שמיניסטים), literally "twelfth graders". In 2001, a high-school refusers movement – also called Shministim followed in their stead. Over 3,000 Israeli high school students are currently members of Shministim.[citation needed]. A smaller number of them have also signed a public letter in which they state their intent to refuse any service in the army. Such a behaviour has usually resulted in repeated jail sentences of several weeks. One of the most prominent Shiministim that went to jail is Omer Goldman. Her case received special attention since her father used to be one of the highest ranking Mossad officers.

On December 18, 2008, a worldwide campaign was launched in order to request the freedom of Shministim, including the delivery of more than forty thousand letters, to Israeli embassies, appealing for the youngsters' cause.[5]

Yesh Gvul movement

Yesh Gvul (Hebrew: יש גבול, can be translated as "there is a limit" or "the border exists") is a movement founded in 1982 at the outbreak of the Lebanon War by reservists who refused to serve in Lebanon. A petition, delivered to Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was signed by 3,000 reservists, some of whom were court martialed and served time in military prison for refusing to obey orders. Currently it sees its main role as "backing soldiers who refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature."[6] It also engages in human rights activities, such as petitioning British courts to issue arrest warrants for IDF officers accused of human rights abuses and war crimes.[7]

In the Adam Keller Court Martial in April–May 1988, Reserve Corporal Adam Keller was charged with insubordination and spreading propaganda harmful to military discipline. While on active military duty he had written on 117 tanks and other military vehicles graffiti with the text: "Soldiers of the IDF, refuse to be occupiers and oppressors, refuse to serve in the occupied territories!" [8] as well as placing on electricity pylons in the military camp where he was serving—and on inside doors of the stalls in the officers' toilet—stickers with the slogans "Down with the occupation!". Keller was sentenced to three months imprisonment although the maximum penalty could have been six years, three for each of the charges. Keller was an active member of Yesh Gvul, but declared that he had operated on his. For its part, the movement did not take responsibility for his act, but did provide his wife with the monetary support given to the families of refusers.

Courage to Refuse group

In January 2002, 51 reserve soldiers and officers signed a "Combat Troops' Letter" or "Combatants' Letter"[9] in which they declared their refusal "to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people." They established the group, Ometz Le'sarev, which distinguishes itself by using conspicuously Zionist discourse: "Refusal to serve in the Territories is Zionism." 633 combatants from all units of the IDF and from all sectors of the Israeli society have since signed the letter.

Pilots' letter incident

"The pilots' letter," published on September 24, 2003, was signed by 27 reserve and active duty pilots.[10] One of the signatories was the famous pilot Brigadier General (res.) Yiftah Spector. The letter was precipitated by the targeted killing of Salah Shehade, leader of Hamas's militant wing, who was killed by a one ton bomb dropped on his residential building along with 14 others. Pilots decried the large number of civilian casualties caused by Israel's targeted killings as violating the military's ethics code.[11] In their letter, the pilots stated:

We, veteran and active pilots alike, who served and still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral of the type the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories. We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians. These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.[12] [5]

The signatories clarified that they do not reject military service in the IDF, only targeted killings of individuals, declaring: "We ... shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force for every mission in defense of the state of Israel."

In response, the Chief of Staff announced that the pilots would be grounded and will no longer be allowed to train cadets in the country's flight school.[13] In response to their letter, hundreds of IAF pilots signed a petition denouncing the pilots' letter and their refusal to serve. Because of the harsh response, several of the pilots who originally signed the letter reneged and removed their signatures; after more than 30 signed, four later recanted. One, an El Al pilot, was threatened with dismissal and another lost his civilian job.[13]

Commandos' letter incident

This letter, dated December 2003, was signed by 13 reservists of Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit, serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (nine commandos in Sayeret Matkal, 2 soldiers who had been removed from reserve duty because of prior refusals to serve there, and 2 additional combatant soldiers). Their letter, addressed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, stated:We shall no longer lend a hand in the occupation of the territories. We shall no longer take part in the deprivation of basic human rights from millions of Palestinians. We shall no longer serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements. We shall no longer corrupt our moral character in missions of oppression. We shall no longer deny our responsibility as soldiers of the Israeli DEFENSE force.[14]

Mateh Chomat Magen group

There are some Israeli rabbis, former generals and public figures who call on soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle Israeli settlements and remove their residents. One of those who call soldiers to refuse removal order is Uri Elitzur, a publicist and former civil servant. Eliztur claims that settlers-removal order is an illegal order, and therefore soldiers must refuse to obey it. He used the Hebrew term פקודה בלתי חוקית בעליל (literally, a clearly illegal order), which is a judicial term for an order that a soldier must refuse, coined in relation to the Kafr Qasim massacre. He used a Yossi Sarid (a left-wing politician, Yachad) quotation that an order to transfer Palestinians should be resisted by any means, as a legitimation to a total and even semi-violent resistance against transfer of settlers. On June 2004, MKs Effi Eitam and Aryeh Eldad (National Union) initiated a law bill called "Unity of the Military Law". The law says that only Israeli police (including Border Police) officers could engage in the removal of Jewish settlements, and soldiers could not. In 2005, as a reaction to the Israel's unilateral disengagement plan, a group called "Mateh Chomat Magen" (the name referring to Operation Defensive Shield) published a letter with 10,000 signatures of soldiers who signed a petition saying that they would refuse to uproot and remove Israeli settlements.

Draft evasion among celebrities

Some Israeli celebrities have evaded military service national service to further their careers. A 2007 incident that garnered international headlines focused on revelations in the press that Israeli Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model Bar Refaeli had married a family friend in 2004 and divorced him soon after in order to avoid military service.[15] Refaeli received widespread criticism, including from the Israeli Forum for the Promotion of Equal Share,[16] to which she responded, "I really wanted to serve in the IDF, but I don't regret not enlisting, because it paid off big time. That's just the way it is, celebrities have other needs. I hope my case has influenced the army."[17] In a compromise to avoid potential boycotts of companies Refaeli works with, she agreed to visit injured IDF soldiers on visits to Israel and encourage enlistment in the army.[16] The incident made headlines again in October 2009 when fellow Israeli model Esti Ginzburg criticized Refaeli in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, reigniting arguments over the ease with which conscription can be dodged.[18]

Response to draft evasion

Almost all the political factions in Israel have condemned refusal to serve on ideological grounds, using terms such as dangerous and undemocratic. The conscientious objectors, or refuseniks as they call themselves, found support within left-wing and the Arab parties, Hadash, Balad, Raam and parts of Meretz (Zehava Galon, Roman Bronfman and Shulamit Aloni). The Israeli Labor Party and other Meretz members have condemned the refuseniks and said that although their protests against the occupation are justified and understandable, the means they are taking to manifest it are wrong. Some major left-wing politicians expressed the fear that left-oriented refusal to serve in the territories will lend legitimacy to right-oriented refusal to remove settlements. Right wing politicians have claimed that the refuseniks' actions are helping the enemies of Israel in their anti-Israeli incitement. Some have even accused the refuseniks of treason during war-time. This viewpoint was given some support when the book The Seventh War, by Avi Yisacharov and Amos Harel was published in 2004; it contains extensive interviews with Hamas leaders, at least one of whom explicitly stated that the actions of the commandos' and pilots' letters encouraged to promote and continue the use of suicide bombers.[19]

The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that refusal to serve was legal on the grounds of unqualified pacifism, but "selective refusal" which accepted some duties and not others was illegal. The court said that allowing selective refusal would "weaken the ties that bind us as a nation". The court also said that the refusal to serve in the territories is selective refusal and not conscientious objection.

From 1998 to 2000, 9.5% of applicants who filed for an exemption from service for conscientious reasons were granted it.[20]

On January 4, 2004, a military tribunal imposed one-year prison terms on five young activists who refused to enlist in the IDF. The court accepted that the five acted in accordance with their conscience but "ruled that they did not refuse to serve as individuals, but rather as a group, with the explicit goal of bringing about a change in Israeli policy in the territories. As such, the court ruled, their action strayed from the norms of classic conscientious objection into the realm of civil disobedience" (Haaretz).

See also


  1. Israeli 'draft dodgers' protest occupation – over 1/4 of men and 43% of women not enlisting. Verified 3 Oct 2007.
  2. Central European Journal of International and Security Studies Between Militarism and Pacifism: Conscientious Objection and Draft Resistance in Israel by Yulia Zemlinskaya
  3. פ"ע (להשתמט מ-) השתמט hishtamet – intransitive verb; le-hishtamet mi- = [to] dodge, evade, shirk. Oxford Hebrew-English-Hebrew dictionary, ed. Ya'acov Levy; English text from Oxford University Press 1994 Kernerman Publishing Ltd. ISBN 965-307-026-6
  4. [1]
  6. Yesh Gvul
  7. Haaretz War crimes prosecution overseas: How should Israel respond?
  8. 'I realised the stupidity of it' – article in The Guardian, Tuesday March 11, 2003 [2]
  10. The Nation (Online: September 23, 2003; Print: October 13, 2003). "In Fact... (THE ISRAELI PEACE MOVEMENT TAKES FLIGHT)". The Nation. Retrieved 2010-01-11. 
  11. McGreal, Chris (December 3, 2003). "We're air force pilots, not mafia. We don't take revenge". The Guardian. London. 
  12. Courage to Refuse Pilots letter
  13. 13.0 13.1 Guardian 'We're air force pilots, not mafia. We don't take revenge'
  15. "Dodging IDF paid off big time".,7340,L-3455802,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Bar Refaeli: IDF's new 'enlistment officer'".,7340,L-3540565,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  17. Israeli models Refaeli and Ginzburg at war over IDF The First Post
  18. Israeli supermodels in catwalk spat over draft-dodging The Independent
  19. [3]
  20. [4]

External links

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