Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Monday, 12 May 2008 17:04 UK

Nation of warriors contemplates future

By Paul Adams
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Israel has been fighting since day one. Every decade of the country's history has brought a military convulsion of one kind or another.

Israeli soldiers take part in anniversary celebrations
Generations of Israeli soldiers have been called into action

In the beleaguered town of Sderot, earlier this week, an Apache attack helicopter hovered high overhead, keeping a watchful eye on the Gaza Strip, and the militants who might be preparing to launch a fresh salvo of crude Qassam rockets across the border.

Chava Gad showed me where a rocket landed in her garden. It did not explode, but still caused damage to her modest apartment.

"I still know how to use a gun," she told me with shaky defiance.

"If I don't have a choice, I will hold the gun and shoot back."

While the government wrestles with what to do about Gaza, the situation in the West Bank is very different. Since the army reinvaded West Bank cities six years ago, the military's control over life in the territory has been absolute.

Israelis for years have been made to feel scared, that we're alone in a sea of people who want to kill us
Lotahn Raz
Israeli conscientious objector

Some soldiers do their best to respect the dignity of the Palestinians under their control, in sometimes difficult circumstances. But Palestinians all have stories of routine, casual humiliation.

"You feel like cattle," said Mamduh al-Aker, a respected Palestinian urologist in his 60s, when we visited the teeming Qalandia checkpoint, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"They feel the power," he told me, describing the lengthy delays that sometimes cause him to be late for critical procedures at a hospital in Jerusalem.

"Once, I was telling that I am a doctor... that I need to pass fairly quickly. He said 'So what? I'm a professor here.'"

Changing attitudes

Recent years have seen a steady trickle of Israeli soldiers unwilling to play the role of "professor" in the occupied territories. Many have gone to military prison as a result.

Lotahn Raz's decision not to serve landed him in jail for three months in 2000.

Scene from the film Beaufort
Beaufort, which used actors who refused to serve, infuriated some Israelis

"Israelis for years have been made to feel scared, that we're alone in a sea of people who want to kill us," he told me in Jerusalem.

"And it's degraded us. It's had people... feeling that they have to attack to survive."

I wondered if attitudes towards the military were changing in Israel and went to Tel Aviv to talk to film-maker Joseph Cedar, whose Oscar-nominated movie Beaufort depicts the final days of an Israeli outpost in southern Lebanon before the army's withdrawal eight years ago.

Beaufort caused a furore, showing in a sympathetic light an officer giving way to his fears and becoming more human as a result.

"It's not simple to put this kind of fearful character at the centre of a war film that needs to appeal to a patriotic, nationalistic audience that wants to see our men courageous," Cedar told me.

'No choice'

Some Israeli patriots were outraged when it emerged that half the actors in Beaufort's cast had avoided serving in the military.

"It forced Israelis to ask the question whether we can embrace role models that have nothing to do with the military," Cedar said.

But that is not good enough for reserve General Ya'acov Amidror, who met me in his Jerusalem office. From his window Gen Amidror, a veteran of wars going back to 1967, can look out over the battlefields of the past. For Gen Amidror, the Jews had no choice but to become warriors.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," he said. "The necessity was there!"

He explains by telling me the story of his own father.

"He was born in Poland, and immigrated to Israel in the early 30s. Fought in the independence war. And his family, which didn't leave Poland, was murdered from A to Z."

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