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28th February 2017

Refusing the Israeli Defence Force

Ella Kashti looks at the story of Tair Kaminer, who was imprisoned for refusing conscription

At the age of eighteen, all Israeli men and women must register to join the Israeli Army, for two or three years respectively, unless they take the option for a year out to volunteer on social grounds before joining the army, or if they declare that they cannot serve for religious reasons.  Most Jewish religious girls don’t serve in the army. Tair Kaminer — now twenty years old — took the social opportunity, and arrived at an Israel-Gaza border town called Sderot in the summer of 2014 to begin one year’s work. Born into a political family, Tair was around those who opposed the occupation and already knew of her cousin, Madat, who had refused conscription in 2001. Because of this, she decided it was necessary for her to experience what she would be participating in, before she agreed to help the Israeli Defence Force. It was on this year out that she witnessed events that would lead to her refusal to serve the IDF, and land her 155 days in prison.

When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Palestinians were pushed out of land they had inhabited for decades. After the Second World War, Jewish refugees emigrated to what they believed was their promised land from God. The West Bank (of the River Jordan) and the Gaza Strip remained the only Palestinian territories where Israelis did not live, but they were occupied by Jordan and Egypt respectively.  After the 1967 war, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came under Israeli occupation, and Israelis began settling there.

Now the Gaza Strip is home to an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians. Situated on the West coast of Israel and bordering Egypt, a mere one-hour journey from the vibrant Westernised economic capital city of Tel Aviv, Gaza houses a large population of Palestinian refugees. Israel has held Palestinians under blockade since 2005 when Hamas (an extremist Islamic faction whose declared aim is to annihilate the state of Israel) gained control of the Palestinian government, and have since controlled what goes in and out of Gaza, including food, arms, and people.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is responsible for enforcing this regime, and when young people in Israel are drafted, they serve this operation. Tair, keen to open her eyes to the reality of the conflict, therefore chose to spend her year living amongst those affected by the occupation (remaining in Israeli territory), in the impoverished town of Sderot, on the Gaza Strip border. Due to a “combination of what I saw, the war jibes amongst the children there”, and “racism towards the Arabs”, Tair decided when her enlistment date came in January of 2016, she would refuse to serve. Tair was moved by hearing the children she worked with talk of their non-existent summer holidays that year due to war, and joking that whilst they may get one next year, the year after is unlikely.

To finalise her decision, and to make sure she was making the right choice for herself, Tair did further research to find other past ‘refuseniks’, to investigate what the service as a soldier in occupied territories actually means, and what rights the Palestinians had. She described it “hard to enlist” once she had found out the answers. However, she also found that whilst it is the law to serve in the IDF, there are a handful of official reasons that can allow exemption. These include pacifism, health, religion or a lack of financial ability, since soldiers are unpaid. Tair did not fall into any of these categories, because she did not describe herself a pacifist, but simply against the policies of the occupation.

When Tair’s enlistment date arrived, she arrived with her parents and declared refusal on grounds of “conscience”. She would not serve the army, participating in a body whose actions were against her moral values. She was instantly sent to serve 21 days in prison; the standard initial punishment in the IDF. By the time of her release, she had had these 21 days reissued five times.

Near the beginning of her imprisonment, Tair was put in front of the ‘Conscience Committee’, whose job is to evaluate those who refuse service on similar grounds. Should they find her to be a legitimate pacifist, she could have been released immediately on these grounds. However, to be a pacifist is to reject all violence and wars, but Tair’s statement and refusal was against this specific regime. She recalls being asked “if you were in a room, with a gun, and Hitler walked in, would you kill him?”.  This kind of question was clearly chosen to throw people off, and get them back into uniform. But Tair was not willing to be labelled a pacifist as it undermined what she was standing for, and chose to return to jail.

I asked Tair if she was afraid. She replied “yes, I was scared. But what the Israeli government is doing and the consequences of serving are scarier.” She noted that every time someone was imprisoned for these reasons, especially young girls, there’s a lot of media coverage. For Tair and those trying to get a message out to get people rethinking and questioning their participation, this was more than welcomed, and Tair “hoped she had had some impact”.

Once imprisoned, Tair recalls what daily life was like. Since she was not in a prison for criminals, she lived amongst others with offences ranging from taking the same route of refusal as Tair, to rudeness to commanders, or simply not being dressed correctly. Insultingly, she was referred to as “solider” throughout her stay, as well as repeatedly having to announce “yes sergeant” or “present” whenever it was demanded of her. In the army, soldiers are ordered to pay “respect without reason” as Tair put it, to your superiors; something that she was not comfortable with. However, for the majority of enlisted soldiers, it is a reality they accept blindly; it’s just how the system works. Though she described the experience as “humiliating”, she said that in this sense, it was not more so than the humiliation of being a solider in training. However, her liberties were fewer. Though she had no personal phone and limited access to contacting her family, she recalls that the strongest punishment she faced was simply her lack of freedom.

Each time Tair was to be released, a warrant was sent out for her to return the same day. Clearly a fearless woman, Tair often prolonged her stays at home from one day to two, and returned late, to be met with further punishments. All these tactics seemed to also contribute towards the army’s efforts to show the heavy price you pay should you refuse service on this ground, discouraging others who may feel they would like to do the same. Refusing to serve the Israeli army for certain reasons is not something you get away with lightly. All the while, there was the option to claim mental instability diagnosed by a psychiatrist who was, frankly, unlikely to claim she was stable. This would have allowed an early release back to comfort.

However, Tair persisted, and her story, which was documented in a weekly journal entry in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, clearly had some impact as there are currently three more girls in the same prison, serving for the same reason. Tamar Zeevi and Tamar Alon are currently serving their fifth batch of twenty day sentences, which by the end of February will have accumulated to one hundred days. Atalya Ben Aba is serving her first twenty days currently, too. Together, they are part of a resistance movement, named MESARVOT, which literally translated is the female word for refuse in Hebrew. It is a support network for those who have refused service, so they are not alone in their fight.

Since her release in July of 2016, Tair now studies Arabic whilst she volunteers in a school and continues her activism. “As a political activist you attend many political events and demonstrations where you need the Arabic language. In addition, it is always important to be able to speak other languages [other than] Hebrew, that everyone [is] forced to know because of the occupation. It is important so you can show that you are a real partner, it is good to have the option to speak it with your friends.” Whilst she feels the ever-present difference in the life of her friends contrasted to hers, she maintains she does not regret her decision not to serve in the Israeli army, but instead to fight for her beliefs.

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