Meet Israel’s teenage ‘Refuseniks’, who are refusing to enlist in the army
This summer, six Israeli teenagers openly spoke about their opposition to the country’s compulsory military service. They denounced the "apartheid" system and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. As a result, they have been jailed multiple times. One of them, Evyatar Moshe Rubin, who’s just been released from prison and is awaiting a third sentence, spoke to us.
Evyatar Moshe Rubin, Einat Gerlitz, Nave Shabtay Levin, Shahar Schwartz and Sliman Abu Ruken are all aged between 18 and 19 years old and they’ve each spent several weeks in prison for objecting to Israel’s compulsory military service. Conscientious objectors, commonly nicknamed “refuseniks", are typically tried at the recruitment centre and sentenced to prison terms of between 10 and 21 days.
"Refuseniks" serve their sentences at random times. They are then released for a month, requisitioned and sent back to prison as a result.
'I could no longer support my country’s ethnic cleansing'
Evyatar Moshe Rubin is 19 years old. He was recently released from prison – for the third time – after about 20 days. He has served a total of 47 days in prison since turning 18. Since his most recent release, he has been living with his parents. He is now waiting for his next ‘appeal’, which he intends to once again object.
On September 5, I refused to enlist at the recruitment centre for the third time. I was then sent to a miniature military tribunal. An officer, who acted as the judge, sent me to prison.
The army then sets a date for conscription, they usually tell us something along the lines of: “It's OK, you've been a rebel, you've gone to prison, now stop the nonsense and start your military service.” This process is usually repeated three or four times until the army finally drops the case and sets the person free.
The army tolerates a delay before you start your sentence. We take advantage of this time to mobilise ourselves. I am currently waiting for two other refusers to be released from prison so that we can organise a group refusal movement next week.
Military service in Israel is compulsory for all adult Jewish, Druze and Circassian citizens, for a period of 32 months for men and 24 months for women. Some people can be exempted if they have medical or religious reasons, such as belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim community. Between 1998 and 2000, only 9.5% of “conscience” requests were accepted by the army.
"Refuseniks" have been opposing Israel's occupation policy since the country was created in 1948.
In 2002, hundreds of young people and Israeli reservists collectively mobilised and wrote a letter to object their “participation in the fighting in the West Bank”.
Between 2000 (date of the second Intifada) and 2002, 170 refuseniks were imprisoned, many of them several times. No exact figures on the total number of "refuseniks" who have been imprisoned are available to date.
I met "veteran" refusers from the 2002 wave, and they told me they served sentences of one to two years. Today, the army no longer wants to attract media and public attention, so we serve a maximum of 60 to 90 days in prison in total, spread over several short sentences.
This year, six of us are refusing to enlist, which is a relatively high number, as there are usually no more than two or three refusers per year. The refusal movement in Israel, even if it has roots in the history of our country, remains marginal. Until a few years ago, I wasn't even aware of the existence of these activists, which makes it difficult to keep the movement going.
Knowing that other activists, both old and young, have taken the same action comforts me.
Most people in Israel have served in the army, like my parents and my uncles. I was not at all exposed to principles opposed to the Israeli policy in the West Bank, but I discovered this movement on the internet. I decided that I could no longer support the ethnic cleansing that my country has been engaged in since its creation. I refuse to be part of this criminal system.
My parents, although they come from an ultra-Orthodox community, supported me when I made my decision. But Nave Levin, on the other hand, is in a particularly difficult situation as his father is a senior army officer.
'Our whole lives, we have been fed a one-sided narrative about the creation of the State of Israel'
I haven't had much backlash from people close to me. However, yesterday, when I was walking down the street, someone shouted at me and insulted me, he gave me the finger. Maybe he recognised me from an interview I gave to an Israeli TV channel … that would be good!
Many Israelis are critical of our stance, but it’s important to take into account that our whole lives, we’ve been fed a one-sided narrative about the circumstances of Israel's creation and the horrors committed against Jews in Europe, but no one talks about our country's apartheid system. Nobody talks about the raw brutality of the police and military, who are committed to perpetuating the ethnic cleansing and maintaining the foundations of the state.
The army has, to date, not responded to the movement of this year’s six "refuseniks". In 2020, an Israeli officer told a "refusenik" prisoner, Hallel Rabin, that if a demonstration supporting her was held, she would be placed into a “more unpleasant” prison as the “protest would present a security threat”.