'War or jail': The young Israelis refusing to fight

Palestinians wait to cross the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem during Ramadan in 2017. [Getty]
10 min read
In-depth: In Israel, young people face a stark choice: go to war, or go to jail. Meet the young Israeli women who would rather face prison than enforce the occupation of Palestine.

This week, 18-year-old Shahar boarded a bus from the inland Israeli city of Kfar Yona to Tel HaShomer outside Tel Aviv. 

Officers at Tel HaShomer's Israeli Defence Force (IDF) facility were expecting her to report for two years' compulsory military service.

She would have been set for four months' basic training, from handling a Tavor assault rifle to moreshet krav, a history of IDF operations. If judged ready to kill, she could have been plunged into the front line of one of the world's longest-running military occupations. Conscript forces form the core of Israel's fighting capacity.

But when Shahar reached the front of the queue, this did not happen. Instead, she refused to serve. 

"I won't agree to take part in the occupation and the violent, racist policies of Israel," she told her superiors. She was detained at the enlistment facility and sentenced to ten days in jail.

"This is the choice thousands of Israeli teenagers face each year: war or jail"

Shahar has not applied for a conscientious exemption, wanting to express her view publicly and not "behind closed doors". 

Having openly defied a citizenship requirement, Shahar faced an immediate custodial sentence. The teenager was detained at the enlistment centre overnight and will be kept in a military prison for ten days. 

If she refuses to enlist again - as she intends - she will face more jail time. This is the choice thousands of Israeli teenagers face each year: war or jail.

Shahar's defiance is primarily a form of resistance to the ongoing occupation of Palestine; a long-running humanitarian emergency that has seen hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pushed into permanent refugee camps, exiled with no right to return, or living daily life under harsh military rule and routine human rights violations.

Live Story

Israel defies UN resolutions, international condemnation, and human rights watchdogs to maintain an aggressive system of control that its leaders claim is vital for its existence but rights groups label apartheid.

Israelis who refuse the draft in protest of the occupation face heavy criticism. While exemptions exist for some religious groups, ethnic minorities, or conscientious objectors, these are limited and controversial. Most applications for conscientious exemption are not granted.

Einat, also 18 and from a Tel Aviv suburb, is trying nonetheless. She will go before the Committee for Granting Exemptions for Reasons of Conscience who will determine whether she is a genuine pacifist - an odd task for military officials to undertake.

"It's a very confusing process," she says, "and there's basically nothing written about it." If she fails, she too will face prison.

"Critical Israeli historians have characterised their country as 'an army with a state'"

This scenario has existed since the first Israeli was tried for refusal to enlist in 1948. But even when all refusers' reasons are aggregated - from opposition to the occupation to refusal to participate in evictions of Israeli settlers, religious reasons, or simply avoiding danger - they are still considered marginal.

Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, a former junior Israeli military officer whose father was a refuser, recently published a searing history of the force. 

"Service begins before birth," he argues, citing an advert for a maternity hospital featuring a uniformed fetus receiving future military honours. At fourteen the Gadna (youth battalions), begin preparing children for military life more rigorously than other cadet forces. 

The military controls most of the land in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), builds elite networks in public service, business, and politics, and is a major academic and economic power, exporting its expertise globally. 

Live Story

A generation ago, critical Israeli historians characterised their country as "an army with a state", while Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion believed “the whole nation is the army.”

So what motivates young people to resist everything they have been force-fed? 

For Shahar, the military has been a constant presence; on the streets, in the family, among friends' families, in school, in places named after veterans, and at the Memorial Day parades which serving alumni of her school attend. 

"There is a week that you go with your school to an army base," she says. "It's supposed to be a fun time; you shoot a little bit, crawl on the floor, and do 'army stuff', but I didn't go. I already knew I wasn't going."

"There's no such thing as a nice soldier at the checkpoint. There is no such thing as moral occupation"

Einat spent part of her childhood in the US, so the pervasive military presence was a shock when her family moved to Tel Aviv. "I always remember being on the train, being scared of the guns that the soldiers carry," she says.

At 12, Shahar attended Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families For Peace, a camp created to help people who have lost loved ones build peace. Her parents, who served in the Israeli military but later became critical of it, encouraged her. This was a rare opportunity to make friends across the divide. 

"I realised that we don't live in the same way," she recalls. "That they don't have the ability to move as they wish, to walk their streets feeling safe, or to go to sleep without the fear that a man with a weapon will be standing in front of their bed."

"At the beginning", says Shahar, "I thought okay, it sucks that there is an occupation but maybe I could be one of the nicer soldiers," but, she adds ruefully, she realised there's "no such thing as a nice soldier at the checkpoint. There is no such thing as moral occupation, and 'change from the inside', a phrase that many soldiers do believe in, doesn't exist either. Nothing will help but refusing to take part."

In their early teens, many of Einat's classmates began to discuss the military roles they might be placed in. 

"I was like, okay, I'm gonna do it but I'm not hyped about it," she says. Like Shahar, she hoped to be a principled soldier.

Einat became a climate activist as Greta Thunberg's school climate strikes gathered global attention. In a region where rising temperatures and water shortages threaten everyone, this was not an abstract issue to her. She read voraciously and discovered causes from climate to LGBT rights. Meanwhile, she learned about what it meant to be living through a war. 

"I read about Israeli intelligence contacting Palestinian gay people in Gaza and telling them that if they didn't help Israel, then they're gonna tell Hamas that they're gay," she recalls. "That was when I was trying to discover my sexual identity, and that really caught my eye."

"I won't agree to take part in the occupation and the violent, racist policies of Israel"

She agrees with Shahar that ignorance of the occupation's realities is a major factor in this enthusiasm, "because there's such a big separation between us and the Palestinians and because in Israel, there's barely any talk about what's actually going on in the Occupied Territories."

"I never knew that there's an option to refuse," Einat says. "It's kept very quiet and no one knows, people don't know that it's an option." 

She first met a refuser at a protest against Donald Trump's controversial peace plan. "I told her that's really cool, but I think it's much too scary."

When Einat began the military preparation process, "it started to be real", she said. "I was hearing myself saying these things in interviews that I didn't really believe. Then I met another girl in the process of refusing, and began to understand that it felt right for me."

Israelis protest for the right to refuse to enlist. [Mesarvot]
Israelis protest for the right to refuse to enlist. [Mesarvot]

Like Shahar, Einat was motivated to refuse by learning about the occupation of Palestine. But she is now a pacifist who adds, "I don't think I'd serve in any other army."

Both women have stayed friends with serving peers who disagree with but respect their stance. Shahar reflects that her serving friends are no longer entirely open around her. For a moment this saddens her, but she adds that the differences are useful if they push them to think twice about their role.

Not everyone is open-minded. 

"When some people hear of my decision," says Shahar, "it offends them personally." She rattles off standard objections to draft-dodging: "Why do you get to avoid your duty? You're a traitor."

"And those are the nicer reactions", she adds. 

"At the age of 14, a military program called Gadna (youth battalions) begins preparing children for army service"

She has endured vicious personal abuse, sometimes online, but sometimes also from "people who might be your friends, who you would expect to respect your decision."

Einat has found it difficult to square her decision with her family life. 

Shahar's parents, however, have attended events with her and are part of the network she and Einat share, Mesarvot.

Since Mesarvot was established in 2015 by former refusers, it has attracted refusers of all ages, providing information and solidarity. It is periodically quoted in interviews with refusers, including those imprisoned for their stance.

Israelis protest for the right to refuse to enlist. [Mesarvot]
Israelis protest for the right to refuse to enlist. [Mesarvot]

"It's been a really good place to share with each other what we think and support each other," Einat says. "There are refusers that are 40-something-years old and some that are in their 20s and then us who are in the process of our refusal."

Other grassroots groups also work with refusers, like Refuser Solidarity Network which mobilises international support, or Courage to Refuse which works with serving soldiers who refuse to serve outside the 1967 borders. 

But is refusal on the rise? There have certainly been high-profile incidents. In 2019, the owner of a popular Taylor Swift fan account was famously jailed for refusing. Shahar recently signed the shministiyot letter, a refuser manifesto annually circulated by young people coming of fighting age.

It reads: "We are calling for high school seniors (shministiyot) our age to ask themselves: What and who are we serving when we enlist? What reality do we create by serving in the military of the occupation? We want peace, and real peace requires justice… Justice requires reform in the form of the end of the occupation, the end of the siege on Gaza, and recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Justice demands refusal."

"In 2018, exemptions were granted to around 7.9% of eligible recruits. For 2020, the figure is 11.9% and expected to increase to 13% by 2023"

In 2018, exemptions were granted to around 7.9% of eligible recruits. For 2020, the figure is 11.9% and expected to increase to 13% by 2023. But the military carefully guards data on conscientious refusal. 

How much of this is political is unclear. Nonetheless, it is worrying Israeli leaders. In December 2020, centrist MK Ofer Shelah blasted the government. "The people's army is collapsing, and the government is not doing anything," Shelah warned. 

"The statistics that were presented… on the scope of exemptions… are no less than terrifying." 

In a revealing sentence, the legislator added that "social legitimacy not to serve is growing, particularly not to serve in a combat unit."

Shahar is wary of stereotypes about generational politics. She says she "would like to think that the younger generation is against violence," but that may not be the case. "I think the major change is more access to information through social media." 

Einat concurs. "It's spun as an existential crisis to the young people, as if Israel will cease to be if they do not enlist." 

But she thinks the movement is growing more powerful, even if the number of refusers is not, because they are able to spread their message through new networks.

It is both a personal and public choice for two women who want to stand up, be counted, and inspire others. "It's a privilege to know you have the choice," Shahar says, "and I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to make it." 

Amy Addison-Dunne is a freelance digital journalist with an interest in the Middle East and British politics. She has written for the Daily Mirror, Middle East Monitor, and The Morning Star.

Follow her on Twitter: @redamylou

Nathan Akehurst is a writer, campaigner, and communications specialist with bylines in the Guardian, the Independent, and Jacobin Magazine.

Follow him on Twitter: @nathanakehurst