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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 17:53 GMT
Israel's culture of reservists
Israeli soldiers in the West Bank
The objectors do not want to serve in the West Bank
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

The refusal of some 50 reserve officers of the Israeli Defence Forces to serve in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza strip strikes at the heart of the notion of Israeli citizenship

For much of Israel's history, serving in the reserves for a few weeks a year until well into middle age - a legal requirement - was regarded as an honour.


This is the tip of the iceberg. The army's reaction is one of panic

Ishai Menuvhin, There's a limit!
With a small population, the only way Israel can maintain an army of sufficient size to protect its borders is through reservists.

Conscientious objection is not new. Many reservists refused to take part in Israel's occupation of Lebanon and to serve in the occupied territories during the previous Palestinian uprising.

But what makes this case so unusual is that so many combat reservists, soldiers and officers have come forward publicly at one time.

Prison sentences

This has sparked a divided reaction. Some people have labelled the men traitors and cowards, others say they are men of principles.

An Israeli group that monitors and encourages objectors, says this protest is the "tip of the iceberg".

"The reaction of the army shows that it is in panic," said Ishai Menuvhin, spokesman for Yesh Gvul (There is a limit!), and a major in the reserve IDF.

The campaign is being supported by some civilians
The campaign is being supported by some civilians
"More and more soldiers are not willing to take part in occupation, partly for moral reasons. But others don't want to risk their lives for stupid politics. People think I only have one life but will not be willing to lose it to defend a settlement."

He emphasised, though, that the reservists were still prepared to fight to defend Israel.

According to the group, more than 400 Israelis have refused to serve in the occupied territories since the current intifada erupted. About 40 have been given relatively short prison sentences.

Social campaign

And he says the organisation has been inundated with calls from reservists, their wives and mothers asking for advice.

The government, however, has dismissed the rebellion in the ranks as "marginal".

In a petition that has been posted on the internet, the officers and combat soldiers refuse to "continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people."

Israeli soldiers in Lebanon
Many reservists refused to serve in Lebanon
These men, many of whom have served as reservists in Lebanon and the occupied territories, don't want to leave the army.

They say the aim is to launch a broad social campaign to force Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas and remove Jewish settlers.

The petition is being organised by a pair of reserve lieutenants in their twenties. "We all have limits," reserve Lt David Zonshein, 28, a software engineer, told one of the country's best-selling newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth.

"You can be the best officer, always be the first... and suddenly you are asked to do things that should not be asked of you - to shoot people, to stop ambulances, to destroy houses in which you don't know if there are people living."

The objections are being given added weight by comments made by the recent head of the Israeli internal security service Shin Bet and former admiral in the Israel Navy.

'Illegal orders'

Ami Ayalon says he is concerned about illegal orders given in the territories.

In an interview with Channel One TV, he said soldiers should not obey orders that were "blatantly illegal".

"As far as I'm concerned," he said "too few soldiers are refusing such orders. For example, [an order] to shoot an unarmed youth is a blatantly illegal order. I am very worried by the number of Palestinian children shot in the past year."

Palestinian child
Concern has been raised over the number of Palestinian children who have been shot
But he said refusing to serve was not the answer.

The IDF acknowledges that this is a serious phenomenon but, it says, one that will not have a widespread effect in the country or the army.

Settlements

Chief of staff Shaul Mofaz has said he suspects political rather than moral concerns are behind the petition and said most IDF reservists were "furious" about the petition.

According to the IDF, some 200 other reservists have proclaimed that they want to serve because it is not possible for the army to choose the mission.

Previous reports in the Israeli press have referred to absenteeism among the reservists ranks as a growing problem - mainly because many Israelis have come to see it as a burden.

One commentator writing for Haaretz newspaper last year said the real crisis would come when reserve combat soldiers who have already fought in the West Bank and Gaza since September 2000 are called up "for a second or third time in less than two years, and it's still dangerous."

With the intifada showing no sign of abating, it remains to be seen how many will answer the call of the petitioners.

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