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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 12:11 GMT
Dissent in the ranks
An Israeli soldier trains his rifle on Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank
One reservist claims the army is "trigger happy"
As Israel wages the toughest response to Palestinian attacks since the intifada began, the BBC's Caroline Hawley reports on the most significant rebellion within army ranks for years.

The protest began with 52 Israeli combat officers. Now almost 250 soldiers in Israel's reserve army have signed a petition refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, and the numbers keep growing.

If you can locate where the shots came from you shoot back there, but mostly you don't. You're happy with the trigger and you just keep shooting

Israeli reservist
They say they will not continue to fight in what they call missions of occupation and oppression to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.

It is the first protest of its kind since the latest Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, and it is provoking unprecedented debate in Israel.

One reservist, Ilan Feldman, says he is deeply concerned about how the army operates in the occupied territories:

"I witnessed some of the not so nice things done over there... even some atrocities."

'Power corrupts'

Ilan is a 35-year-old reservist and father of two who is disturbed by what it means to be part of an occupying army.

"Your morals are getting confused and you don't feel the wrong-doing that you do. You're an 18-year-old, or 20-year-old or 25-year-old and you can do what you want against someone who's 50 or 60 or 70. You rule their lives and that gives you power and power corrupts."

Ilan has thought several times about refusing to serve. He admits he has also sometimes made excuses to avoid reserve stints. But he has just come back from a tour of duty in Nablus in the West Bank.

"Last time, just a couple of weeks ago, they were shooting at us and when we shot back there were people who were shooting into taxis they saw, and houses, and people who had nothing to do with the shooting at us.

"If you can locate where the shots came from you shoot back there, but mostly you don't. You're happy with the trigger and you just keep shooting."

But Ilan hasn't yet taken the leap of joining the protesting reservists, who have shocked the local press with stories of routine army abuses and cover-ups. The army denies them.

Abuses acknowledged

Gadi Bialik, a philosophy student and reserve major who is doing his reserve duty at a military base near the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya, thinks, along with his soldiers, that the reservists' rebellion is not only wrong, but also a danger to the rule of law:

Peace rally in Tel Aviv
Criticism of Ariel Sharon's policy has been mounting

"I think they don't have the right to use their democratic right against democracy. I think that their responsibility is to follow the rules, which are not illegal.

Asked whether he accepted that abuses occurred, he acknowledged: "Abuses do occur but by a minority that has to be taken care of."

It is the refusenik reservists, though, that are now being "taken care of".

The army has stripped some of them of their ranks.

But it is wary of the intense media spotlight and is careful not to draw more negative publicity by meting out the ultimate sanction for disobeying orders - prison.

Rising publicity

Yesh Gvul, which means There is a Limit, is a small organisation set up by soldiers who didn't want to serve in Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion.

The group, which now supports those who refuse to go to the occupied territories, says it knows of several hundred people who have opted out of doing duty in the West Bank and Gaza, since the latest Palestinian uprising began.

About 40 have been jailed for it - all without attracting much attention.

But now that there has been a collective refusal by combat officers it is not easy for either the army or the Israeli public to dismiss.

Most Israelis oppose what they have done, and yet thousands attended a recent demonstration in Tel Aviv, organised by a coalition of left-wing groups whose events over the past year and a half have not drawn more than a handful of people.

The left is now hoping the movement will snowball. But Israeli public opinion has moved dramatically to the right over the past 18 months of conflict.

It will take a lot more Israelis speaking out to bring change.

See also:

18 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel reservists back occupation end
25 Jan 02 | Middle East
Yasser Arafat's dilemma
16 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
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