The government of Israel faces a serious dilemma. Its population lives in legitimate fear of terrorist suicide bombers. But its reprisals against the Palestinian civilian population have been so heavy-handed that they are creating dissension within the ranks of Israel’s own army.
Indeed, a February 4 editorial in The New York Times, a long-time supporter of Israel, said: “The growing harshness of Israeli military practices in the West Bank and Gaza is creating thousands of potential suicide bombers and Israel haters as well as coarsening a generation of young Israeli soldiers.”
More than 100 Israeli army reservists have declared they will no longer fight in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “with the aim of dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people.” These Israeli soldiers follow in the tradition of scores of American GI’s who refused to kill Vietnamese civilians during the 1960s and 1970s. After Seymour Hirsch exposed the cover-up of the My Lai Massacre, where U.S. soldiers killed thousands of civilians, Lt. William Calley was tried and convicted of murder. Calley unsuccessfully claimed he was just following orders. That defense theory has been rejected by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the International Criminal Court.
In their declaration, the Israeli resisters said: “The price of occupation is the loss of the Israeli Defense Forces’ semblance of humanity and the corruption of all of Israeli society.” They reported firing at Palestinians who hadn’t endangered them, stopping ambulances at checkpoints, and stripping areas clean of groves and trees necessary to people’s livelihoods. Some fear their treatment of Palestinian civilians constitutes war crimes. Attacks on a civilian population as a form of collective punishment violate Article 50 of the Hague Regulations and Articles 33 and 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The dissenting Israeli reservists made clear their statements were not aimed at the Israeli army, but rather at the political system. A recent poll conducted by Israel Radio found 30 percent of Israelis supported the reservists’ protest.
Last month, the Israeli army’s demolition of 52 Palestinian homes, which left 411 people homeless, drew rare criticism from Israeli Cabinet ministers and journalists. The demolition was condemned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said: “House demolitions are a blatant violation of human rights and contravene international humanitarian law, which forbids destruction of property, collective punishment and reprisals.”
The Israeli government has called the reservists’ declaration “dangerous and antidemocratic.” Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon threatened to sever all communication with Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat after the interception of a shipment of arms that Israel claims were bound for the Palestinians last month. With Arafat out of the picture, however, Israel would have no one with whom to negotiate except the extremists.
The Palestinians live under a system of apartheid, according to a report issued by the National Lawyers Guild delegation to the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel last year. In December, the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and called for international observers to be dispatched to the Palestinian territories, which Israel rejects. The U.S. government has consistently opposed U.N. resolutions critical of Israel’s policies. The U.S. staged a walkout from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism last year when it criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The National Lawyers Guild report said most of the weapons Israel has used to inflict indiscriminate attacks with excessive force on the Palestinian civilian population were manufactured in the United States.
Lev Grinberg, Director of the Humphrey Institute for Social Research at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, says: “Unless we, the Israelis, cast off our arrogant mode of thinking, and our position as an occupying power, the present cycle of bloodshed can only intensify, with Arafat and even more so, in his absence.”
In his op-ed in The New York Times on February 3, Arafat unequivocally condemned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. He invoked U.N. resolutions, which call for the return of the Palestinian refugees, and the Oslo Accords, where the Palestinians recognized Israel, renounced their claim to historic Palestine, and settled for 22 percent of the land (the West Bank and Gaza). He described the Palestinian vision, which would have Israel and a Palestinian state co-exist equally with peace and security for both. But, he said, “two peoples cannot reconcile when one demands control over the other…we will only sit down as equals, not as supplicants; as partners, not as subjects.”
The popularity of Sharon, known as “The Bulldozer,” has declined in Israel since his election last year. Resistance to the Israeli government’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is now growing within Israel. Forty-five percent of Israelis polled by Israel Radio said they thought more reservists would join the resistance and refuse service in the West Bank and Gaza. They will do so at great risk to themselves. Many resisters have been disciplined and jailed. But it will take a large resistance movement within Israel to ultimately stop the collective punishment of the Palestinians, end the occupation and halt the killing of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The war between Israel and the Palestinians has claimed too many lives on both sides. It is essential that a neutral international body try to negotiate an end to the bloodshed. International observers should be allowed in, and there should be an emphasis on reconciliation, not cutting Arafat out of the equation.