[Reader-list] Personal Testimony of an Israeli Refusenik

Patrice Riemens patrice at xs4all.nl
Mon Feb 25 15:30:11 IST 2002

Bwo Sandy Mathers <sandy at pressbar.freeserve.co.uk>

Date: Mon, 25 Feb 2002 07:18:45 -0000

Personal Testimony of an Israeli Refusenik
By Asaf Oron

[Asaf Oron, a Sergeant Major in the Giv'ati Brigade, is one of the
original 53 Israeli soldiers who signed the "Fighters' Letter" declaring
that from now on they will refuse to serve in the Occupied territories.
He is signer #8 and one of the first in the list to include a statement
explaining his action.   (There are 251 signers as of February 17,
2002.) Below is the translation of Oron's statement by Ami Kronfeld of
Jewish Peace News.]

On February 5, 1985, I got up, left my home, went to the Compulsory
Service Center on Rashi Street in Jerusalem, said goodbye to my parents,
boarded the rickety old bus going to the Military Absorption Station and
turned into a soldier.

Exactly seventeen years later, I find myself in a head to head
confrontation with the army, while the public at large is jeering and
mocking me from the sidelines.  Right wingers see me as a traitor who is
dodging the holy war that's just around the corner.  The political
center shakes a finger at me self-righteously  and lectures me about
undermining democracy and politicizing the army.

And the left? The square, establishment, "moderate" left that only
yesterday was courting my vote now turns its back on me as well.
Everyone blabbers about what is and what is not legitimate, exposing in
the process the depth of  their ignorance of political theory and their
inability to distinguish a real democracy from a third world regime in
the style of Juan Peron.

Almost no one asks the main question: why would a regular guy get up one
morning in the middle of life, work, the kids and decide he's not
playing the game anymore?  And how come he is not alone but there are
fifty... I beg your pardon, a hundred... beg your pardon again, now
almost two hundred regular, run of the mill guys like him who've done
the same thing?

Our parents' generation lets out a sigh: we've embarrassed them yet
again. But isn't it all your fault?  What did you raise us on? Universal
ethics and universal justice, on the one hand: peace, liberty and
equality to all.  And on the other hand: "the Arabs want to throw us
into the sea,"  "They are all crafty and primitive.  You can't trust

On the one hand, the songs of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bob
Marely, Pink Floyd. Songs of peace and love and against militarism and
war. On the other hand, songs about a sweetheart riding the tank after
sunset in the field: "The tank is yours and you are ours." [allusions to
popular Israeli songs - AK].  I was raised on two value systems: one was
the ethical code and the other the tribal code, and I naïvely believed
that the two could coexist.

This is the way I was when I was drafted. Not enthusiastic, but as if
embarking on a sacred mission of courage and sacrifice for the benefit
of society. But when, instead of a sacred mission,  a 19 year old finds
himself performing the sacrilege of violating human beings' dignity and
freedom, he doesn't dare ask - even himself - if it's OK or not.  He
simply acts like everyone else and tries to blend in.  As it is, he's
got enough problems, and boy is the weekend far off.

You get used to it in a hurry, and many even learn to like it.  Where
else can you go out on patrol - that is, walk the streets like a king,
harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart's content, and get into
mischief with your buddies - and at the same time feel like a big hero
defending your country?  The Gaza Exploits became heroic tales, a source
of pride for Giv'ati, then a relatively new brigade suffering from low
self esteem.

For a long time, I could not relate to the whole "heroism" thing.  But
when, as a sergeant, I found myself in charge, something cracked inside
me. Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer.  I
settled accounts with "upstarts"  who didn't show enough respect.  I
tore up the personal documents of men my father's age.  I hit, harassed,
served as a bad example -  all in the city of Kalkilia, barely three
miles from grandma and grandpa's home-sweet-home.  No.  I was no
"aberration." I was exactly the norm.

Having completed my compulsory service, I was discharged, and then the
first Intifada began (how many more await us?)  Ofer, a comrade in arms
who remained in the service has become a hero: the hero of the second
Giv'ati trial.  He commanded  a company that dragged a detained
Palestinian demonstrator into a dark orange grove and beat him to death.

As the verdict stated, Ofer was found to have been the leader in charge
of the whole business.  He spent two months in jail and was demoted - I
think that was the most severe sentence given an Israeli soldier through
the entire first Intifada, in which about a thousand Palestinians were
killed.  Ofer's battalion commander testified that there was a order
from the higher echelons to use beatings as a legitimate method of
punishment,  thereby implicating himself.

On the other hand, Efi Itam, the brigade commander, who had been seen
beating Arabs on numerous occasions, denied that he ever gave such an
order and consequently was never indicted.  Today he lectures us on
moral conduct on his way to a new life in politics. (In the current
Intifada, incidentally, the vast majority of incidents involving
Palestinian deaths are not even investigated. No one even bothers.)

And in the meantime, I was becoming more of a civilian.  A copy of The
Yellow Wind [a book on life in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli
writer David Grossman, available in English -AK] which had just come
out, crossed my path.  I read it, and suddenly it hit me.  I finally
understood what I had done over there.  What I had been over there.

I began to see that they had cheated me: They raised me to believe there
was someone up there taking care of things.  Someone who knows stuff
that is beyond me, the little guy.  And that even if sometimes
politicians let us down,  the "military echelon" is always on guard, day
and night, keeping us safe,  each and every one of their decisions the
result of sacred necessity.

Yes, they cheated us, the soldiers of the Intifadas, exactly as they had
cheated the generation that was beaten to a pulp in the War of Attrition
and in the Yom Kippur War, exactly as they had cheated the generation
that sank deep into the Lebanese mud during the Lebanon invasions.  And
our parents' generation continues to be silent.

Worse still, I understood that I was raised on two contradictory value
systems.  I think most  people discover even at an earlier age they must
choose between two value systems: an abstract, demanding one that is no
fun at all and that is very difficult to verify, and another which calls
to you from every corner - determining who is up and who is down, who is
king and who - pariah, who is one of us and who is our enemy.  Contrary
to basic common sense,  I picked the first.  Because in this country the
cost-effective analysis comparing one system to another is so lopsided,
I can't blame those who choose the second.

I picked the first road, and found myself volunteering in a small,
smoke-filled office in East Jerusalem, digging up files about deaths,
brutality, bureaucratic viciousness or simply daily harassments.  I felt
I was atoning, to some extent, for my actions during my days with the
Giv'ati brigade.  But it also felt as if I was trying to empty the ocean
out with a teaspoon.

Out of the blue, I was called up for the very first time for reserve
duty in the Occupied Territories.  Hysterically, I contacted my company
commander. He calmed me down: We will be staying at an outpost
overlooking the Jordan river.  No contacts with  the local population is
expected.  And that indeed was what I did, but some of my friends
provided security for the Damia Bridge terminal [where Palestinians
cross from Jordan to Israel and vice versa - AK].

This was in the days preceding the Gulf War and a large number of
Palestinian refugees were flowing from Kuwait to the Occupied
Territories (from the frying pan into the fire).  The reserve soldiers -
mostly right wingers - cringed when they saw the female consscripts
stationed in the terminal happily ripping open down-comforters and
babies' coats to make sure they didn't contain explosives. I too cringed
when I heard their stories, but I was also hopeful: reserve soldiers are
human after all, whatever their political views.

Such hopes were dashed three years later, when I spent three weeks with
a celebrated reconnaissance company in the confiscated ruins of a villa
at the outskirts of the Abasans (if you don't know where this is, it's
your problem).  This is where it became clear to me that  the same
humane reserve soldier could also be an ugly, wretched macho undergoing
a total regression back to his days as a young conscript.

Already on the bus ride to the Gaza strip, the soldiers were competing
with each other: whose "heroic" tales of murderous beatings during the
Intifada were better (in case you missed this point: the beatings were
literally murderous:  beating to death).

Going on patrol duty with these guys once was all that I could take.  I
went up to the placement officer and requested to be given guard duty
only.  Placement officers like people like me: most soldiers can't
tolerate staying inside the base longer than a couple of hours.

Thus began the nausea and shame routine, a routine that lasted three
tours of reserve duty in the Occupied Territories: 1993, 1995, and 1997.
The "pale-gray" refusal routine.

For several weeks at a time I would turn into a hidden "prisoner of
conscience," guarding an outpost or a godforsaken transmitter on top of
some mountain, a recluse.  I was ashamed to tell most of my friends why
I chose to serve this way.  I didn't have the energy to hear them get on
my case for being such a "wishy washy" softy.

I was also ashamed of myself: This was the easy way out.  In short, I
was ashamed all over.  I did "save my own soul."  I was not directly
engaged in wrongdoing  -  only made it possible for others to do so
while I kept guard.

Why didn't I refuse outright?  I don't know.  It was partly the pressure
to conform, partly the political process that gave us a glimmer of hope
that the whole occupation business would be over soon.  More than
anything, it was my curiosity to see actually what was going on over

And precisely because I knew so well, first hand, from years of
experience what was going on over there, what reality was like over
there, I had no trouble seeing, through the fog of war and the curtain
of lies, what has been taking place over there since the very first days
of the second Intifada.

For years, the army had been feeding on lines like "We were too nice in
the first Intifada," and "If we had only killed a hundred in the very
first days, everything would have been different."  Now the army was
given  license to do things its way.  I knew full well that [former
Prime Minister] Ehud Barak was giving the army free hand, and that
[current Chief of Staff] Shaul Mofaz was taking full advantage of this
to maximize the bloodshed.

By then, I had two little kids, boys, and I knew from experience that no
one - not a single person in the entire world - will ever make sure that
my sons won't have to serve in the Occupied Territories when they reach
18.  No one, that is, except me.  And no one but me will have to look
them in the eye when they're all grown up and tell them where dad was
when all that happened.  It was clear to me:  this time I was not going.

Initially, this was a quiet decision, still a little shy, something like
"I am just a bit weird, can't go and can't talk about it too much
either."  But as time went by, as the level of insanity, hatred, and
incitement kept rising, as the generals were turning the Israeli Defense
Forces into a terror organization, the decision was turning into an
outcry: "If you can't see that this is one big crime leading us to the
brink of annihilation, then something is terribly wrong with you!"

And then I discovered that I was not alone.  Like discovering life on
another planet.

The truth is that I understand why everyone is mad at us.  We spoiled
the neat little order of things.  The holy Status Quo states that the
Right holds the exclusive rights to celebrate the blood and ask for
more.  The role of the Left, on the other hand, is to wail while sitting
in their armchairs sipping wine and waiting for the Messiah to come and
with a single wave of his magic wand make the Right disappear along with
the settlers, the Arabs, the weather, and the entire Middle East.
That's how the world is supposed to work.  So why are you causing such a
disturbance?  What's your problem?  Bad boys!

Woe to you, dear establishment left!  You haven't been paying attention!
That Messiah has been here already.  He waved his magic wand, saw things
aren't that simple, was abandoned in the midst of battle, lost altitude,
and finally was assassinated, with the rest of us (yes, me too)
watching from the comfort of our armchairs.  Forget it.  A messiah
doesn't come around twice!  There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Don't you really see what we are doing,  why it is that we stepped out
of line?  Don't you get the difference between a low key, personal
refusal and an organized, public one? (and make no mistake about it, the
private refusal is the easier choice.)  You really don't get it?  So let
me spell it out for you.

First, we declare our commitment to the first value system.  The one that
is elusive, abstract, and not profitable.  We believe in the moral code
generally known as God (and my atheist friends who also signed this letter
would have to forgive me - we all believe in God, the true one, not that
of the Rabbis and the Ayatollahs).  We believe that there is no room for
the tribal code, that the tribal code simply camouflages idolatry, an
idolatry of a type we should not cooperate with.  Those who let such a
form of idol worship take over will end up as burnt offerings themselves.

Second, we (as well as some other groups who are even more despised and
harassed) are putting our bodies on the line, in the attempt to prevent
the next war.  The most unnecessary, most idiotic, cruel and immoral war
in the history of Israel.

We are the Chinese young man standing in front of the tank.  And you? If
you are nowhere to be seen, you are probably inside the tank, advising the

Asaf Oron


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