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Israeli "Courage to Refuse" Speaker at UPenn

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An Israeli "Refusenik," spoke last night of his decision to refuse to serve with the IDF in the occupied territories.

Last night, Noam Sheifaz, 27, an Infantry Lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces and sports journalist who has been jailed for his refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories, spoke to an audience of 200 at the University of Pennsylvania. “Courage to Refuse,” the group currently made up of 467 IDF soldiers and officers who oppose the occupation, organized the event, along with the local Reconstructionist Synagogue Mishkan Shalom. 54 IDF members formed the group in late 2001, when they were assigned to duty in the Gaza Strip, and its numbers have quickly increased to the largest protest group inside the military for all of Israeli history. Sheifaz is only one of 80 of its members jailed since the campaign began last January.Sheifaz, a 7th generation resident, began by speaking of his family’s history in the region. His mother’s family had come in the 19th century and, as Hasidim, were anti-Zionist. His father’s father escaped three times from trains headed for Auschwitz to fight as a partisan, before moving to Israel. As an Israeli, Sheifaz clearly was concerned with the effect of the occupation on Israel, of the price of the occupation as “the corruption of the entire Israeli society. … The redemption of Zion lies in justice.” He repeated his concern for Israel’s security and integrity, and its right to protect itself against attack, but strongly disagreed with the occupation as a means for meeting these concerns. Not only do the terrible living conditions and humiliations suffered by the Palestinians provide a strong motivation for extremist violence on Israel, but the position of IDF troops forces them to “stop seeing these people as people,” a moral disaster for Israeli society. “I stopped looking this way at Palestinians.”The speaker recalled leading a so-called “moral occupation” of a Palestinian family’s apartment, when the residents are evicted for weeks while the IDF uses their home as a base of operations. He realized how strange it was to be in somewhat else’s living room, which “we stopped seeing as a living room,” and how “I didn’t think of it like my grandfather’s living room.” But, said Sheifaz, “You can’t act otherwise when you do this everyday for years and years.”Further details followed of “the daily routine that is impossible.” Checkpoints on every road stop traffic at gunpoint, separate the cars and the people in them, and make the drivers empty their trunks, and present their bags, cushions, and even the engine for inspection. Officers scared that each person could be a terrorist fidget with their heavy guns. Then, if it’s not turned back as is routine, the car proceeds to the next checkpoint 10 minutes down the road. A 6 mile drive usually takes 4 hours. In many situations, “they aren’t allowed to go anywhere,” such as during the present operations.One friend of Sheifaz was in his second week of basic training when his group drove out to a shooting range in the West Bank. As they were unloading their equipment, one of the new soldiers, also two weeks into his training, grabbed a gun and walked out into the road. He stopped the first car to pass, searched the car, and interrogated the driver. “He meant no harm,” said Sheifaz, “this is just the way we see them. When you understand that, you understand why we can’t let this go on, if we want to stay a moral country, a moral people, a place where people can live.”Routine house searches, even if conducted by “sensitive” soldiers often leave their mark. No warrants are necessary. “We don’t mean to break things, but you move things around, big furniture, and with heavy guns – shit happens.” Sweeps resulting in the detainment of every man over 14 years old are also routine. Recently, according to the report of an IDF staff prosecutor, 3,500 men were brought in to one camp, when food and shelter were available for only 700, and no one were given blankets. They were held for two weeks.

Of course, the IDF often instigates violence as well. Sheifaz recounted how two weeks ago, the engine in an IDF tank in a Palestinian city began to malfunction, emitting a loud noise. The soldiers around it panicked, opened fire, and killed a mother and her two children. “The army says it’s sorry. But these events happen every week.” Sheifaz has always been opposed to the occupation, but served in the IDF for years both because “it’s just what everyone else was doing.” After the Oslo accords, he felt that he was doing his part, and the politicians were doing theirs, to get out of the situation. But a few days after the accords were signed, he witnessed a settler, falsely dressed as a solider, open fire on a crowd of people, injuring several. Violence was particularly bad where he was stationed for six months in Hebron, as the settlement with 400 residents is uniquely situated in the center of town. One family alone required 100 soldiers to guard it. When his unit pulled out at 3am from their position in Hebron in observance of the Oslo accords, Sheifaz urged his men to understand the significance of the moment. “We are now living history. It’s not every day you are part of history.” But three years ago, Sheifaz returned to Hebron, to again guard the same settlements, which now had many more residents. This event led to his decision to refuse to fight in what he calls “The War of the Settlements.”“Why,” asked Sheifaz, “are there 500 refuseniks and not 5,000, or 50,000?” Three major reasons make criticism of the IDF’s presence in the Occupied Territories a difficult taboo. The IDF, said Sheifaz, “has a sacred place in Israeli society.” Sheifaz said the IDF had earned this place in the war of independence and subsequent wars, but that the persecution of the Palestinians is the other side of this position. But, says one Ha’aretz journalist, to criticize the IDF is “to touch the heart of Israeli society.”The anxiety and fear at the heart of Israeli society, with its roots in the Holocaust and the subsequent wars, is another obvious reason for reluctance to criticize the occupation. To many Israelis, says Sheifaz, “Saying ‘I refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories’ sounds like ‘I refuse to fight for your life when you’re getting killed...’ “ Sheifaz defended the role of the army in fighting against the fundamentalists who seek to abolish Israel, which he called a just war, but said that this can’t be won while fighting an unjust war against Palestinian ambition for statehood.

The contradiction between annexation and democracy is another reason for Israel’s difficulty in addressing the situation, in Sheifaz’s view. An average Israeli, if asked to indicate Israel on a map, will point from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Presently, there is no sort of border crossing on the “green line” to indicate where Israel ends and the Occupied Territories begin. Yet, this same citizen will be glad to tell you that Israel has 6 million inhabitants, forgetting the invisibles who bring the actual sum of residents in this area to 9 million. They are not racist, argued Sheifaz, because they acknowledge the Israeli Arab citizens. But to preserve the idea of democracy, this 1/3 of the people who have no say, whom “democracy” is imposed on, cannot possibly exist. “We only see them when a bomb explodes.”Sheifaz emphasized the urgency of the present situation. When government Minister Effi Eitam claims to be “chosen by god to save Israel’s people,” calls Israeli Arabs “cancer,” and speaks in public about plans of “ethnic cleansing,” the present danger should be obvious.Speaking of solutions for the situation, Sheifaz emphasized the central importance of the settlements. While few defend the presence of the settlements, many wish to postpone dealing with them until more immediate issues of peace are addressed. But Sheifaz insisted that the existence of the settlements themselves, and the occupation as the “War of the Settlements,” make peace impossible. The attacks on Israeli citizens would soon cease if their motivation no longer existed. The establishment of a Palestinian state would provide the Palestinians with the voice and dignity that the current situation denies them.