August 16, 2002
By Aviva Lori
"I, Yonatan Ben Artzi, refuse to be drafted into the army on grounds of pacifism. My deep belief in nonviolence began when I was a little boy and developed over the years into a comprehensive political and philosophical conception. Because of my belief, my country is about to send me to prison, contrary to all international law and a basic law of morality. I will go to prison with head held high, as I know that this is the little I can do to improve the country."
This was the statement read by Ben Artzi at his brief military trial in the National Induction Center at Tel Hashomer before he was sentenced to 28 days in a military prison for refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Last Thursday, Yonatan's parents, Prof. Matanya Ben Artzi (the older brother of Sara Netanyahu, wife of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and his wife, Ofra, accompanied their son from their home in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood to Beit Hahayal (Soldier's House), where the soldiers who are entering the army bid farewell to friends and family and board the bus for the Induction Center. It's a place where parents and children, brothers and sisters and friends embrace and cry together, touch one another and make the traditional promises. Yonatan said goodbye to his parents and his older brother Ahikam, and boarded the bus without any joy or expectation of embarking on a new path. Not exactly with head held high, and without succeeding, in the meantime, in making any discernible improvement in the country. He knew for certain that later that day he would be sent to Military Prison 4. Early refusenik
In 1980, Matanya Ben Artzi was tried for refusing to serve in the territories. Unlike his son, though, he did not go to prison. Refusal was then very unusual, he says, and the army, based on its own interests, preferred to come to terms with the "rebels" quietly and not give publicity to ideological deviations of this kind. "I remember that I was doing reserve duty at the end of the 1970s and there were demonstrations in the Casbah of Nablus. I was in the reserve brigade of the Paratroops; we were at Training Base 3, on the main road between Nablus and Ramallah. After a few reserve stints, when I saw the humiliations and the oppression and the curfew, I said that I refused to serve in the territories. The army did not get stubborn with me. They understood very quickly who they were messing with and let me serve in the Kirya" -the defense establishment compound in Tel Aviv.
It was around the same time that Ben Artzi stopped visiting his brother Haggai in Beit El. "I went there once by bus, this was in the period of the Jewish underground group [in the early 1980s], and on the way from Jerusalem they threw stones and one of the windows of the bus shattered. There was a little hysteria on the bus but nothing serious happened. I came to Haggai and asked him why they didn't travel in armored buses. He replied, `Out of principle, we travel the same way people do in Tel Aviv, but we react differently.' And before my eyes a group of them organized and they went in the open to the neighboring villages to take revenge. The next day I read in the paper that settlers smashed solar heaters, shot up cars belonging to Palestinians and in general perpetrated a pogrom, and the police were investigating. I told Haggai that I wouldn't come to the settlement again because I didn't want to be an accomplice to all that. I haven't gone there since."
In the 1980s, the whole family went to Berkeley, California, where Ben Artzi taught at the university and did research. In the summer of 1989, after a brief attempt to settle in Haifa, they moved to Jerusalem permanently. Ofra taught at Hebrew University's Buber Center for adult education - Hebrew for Palestinians, Arabic for Israelis - and Yonatan was exposed to the politics of the home and of Jerusalem during the period of the first intifada.
"The 1980s were the worst period in Israeli history, because of the national unity governments," Ben Artzi says. "We read about it at Berkeley, and it drove me crazy that in 1984, after the collapse of the stock market and the Lebanon War, the Likud wasn't toppled. And [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin, instead of telling [the prime minister, Yitzhak] Shamir that [the Likud] had cooked up the Lebanon War and brought about the fall of the bank shares, so they could now go and solve the problems by themselves - instead of that, they entered the government in order to save it, just as Peres is now doing with [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.
Ben Artzi has no doubts about the views of his brother Haggai and his brother-in-law, Benjamin Netanyahu, about Yoni's refusal to serve. "My brother of course doesn't understand it," he says. "He attended the Netiv Meir high-school yeshiva, where he became attached to the whole national-religious elite, which is the most dangerous combination of Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful] with the alter ego of [National Religious Party leader and cabinet minister] Effi Eitam, a kibbutznik who became religious and has reached the highest levels of madness in the connection between army and religion. My brother of course served in the army, he was a major in the Artillery Corps. Bibi is a different story. He sees it from a secular point of view.
"A few months ago we had a big celebration on the occasion of my mother's 80th birthday - Sara [Netanyahu] organized a meal at the King David Hotel. The whole family was there and we talked about the subject. Bibi, who has an American orientation, said that he is familiar with the phenomenon from the period of the Vietnam War in America. Civil revolt is all right, he said, and it is also all right that the army puts the refuseniks in jail. I think that despite everything, though he might not say so, he admires Yoni. In the past we argued more about politics, these days we argue more about economic ideas.
"Politics will soon be finished anyway. In another five or six years there will be an American protectorate here and all the territories will be given back to the Palestinians. Who remembers Sinai today? From the family viewpoint, because of my sister, I am glad that this intifada is not being managed by Bibi but by Sharon. I would feel very bad personally if my brother-in-law were in charge of the army and allowing it to perpetrate serious war crimes."
Ben Artzi has no qualms about the moral question of whether taking specific cases of Israeli army actions to the International Criminal Court at The Hague is a case of "informing" on the IDF. He signed a petition that was sent to the International Court and he regularly updates Amnesty International and other human rights groups about the judicial procedures involving his son and about Yoni's imprisonment.
Conscience and the IDF
In 2000, the IDF, prodded by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, transmitted to the international organization of conscientious objectors data on the scale of the phenomenon in Israel. According to these figures, 115 requests for exemption from service on pacifist grounds were submitted to the IDF between 1998 and 2000; 53 of the requests were made by pre-draft youngsters. Only 11 of the requests, or 9.5 percent, were granted: three pre-induction young men, two soldiers in compulsory service and six reservists.
The body that deals with requests for exemption from army service was established in 1995 and is called the Commission for Exemption from Defense Service on Grounds of Conscience - the Conscience Commission, for short. Its modes of operation and the criteria by which it operates are generally secret, and the grounds for its decisions are not made known to the public. The public occasionally learns about its discussions in specific cases that reach the High Court of Justice, as in the case of Yonatan Ben Artzi. A survey conducted by the international organization of conscientious objectors in 24 countries that signed international conventions on human rights, including Israel, found that only two countries, Israel and Ecuador, deal with requests by conscientious objectors by means of military bodies. The other countries refer such questions to civilian committees. Unlike the other countries, there is no right of appeal against the decisions of the IDF's Conscience Committee. A.L.
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