Israel's armed forces are struggling to contain the most serious internal challenge of the 16-month Palestinian intifada after more than 100 combat reservist soldiers signed a petition saying they would not serve in the occupied territories.
At least four of the signatories have been stripped of their command positions, and the army's chief of staff, Lt-Gen Shaul Mofaz, declared that "there is no place in Israel's military forces for such occurrences". The petition, which by last night had attracted 104 signatures, has prompted a national debate, and a backlash within the army. Another group of several hundred reservists has signed a counter-petition accusing the petitioners of "lies, distortions and unbridled defamation of the army".
The issue erupted when a group of reservists, led by two young lieutenants, published an indictment of Israel's 35-year occupation in the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, saying that it was "corrupting the entire Israeli society". Some of the signatories are officers and others are from frontline units – the paratroops, infantry and armoured and artillery corps.
The petition said soldiers had been issued commands while serving in the occupied territories that "had nothing to do with the security of our country", and had "the sole purpose of perpetuating our control" over the Palestinians. "We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people," it stated.
The reservists' protest is the most compelling example of the simmering dissent within Israel over the conflict. In September, more than 65 Israeli teenagers signed a letter to the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, saying that they would refuse to do compulsory military service because of the "aggressive and racists policies of the Israeli government and army".
A fortnight ago, an article appeared in the Ha'aretz newspaper by Dr Yigal Shochat, a physician who used to be an Israeli fighter pilot, who called on F-16 pilots to refuse to bomb Palestinian cities. At the same time, the army faced intense domestic criticism for demolishing 60 Palestinian homes in a Gaza refugee camp, while the Israeli left has begun to accuse the army of war crimes. The divided opinion in the military ranks was further exposed by revelations that a group of senior reserve officers, led by a brigadier-general, were planning to present the government with proposals for the reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the destruction of the Palestinian Authority.
Refusals to serve are not a new problem for the Israeli army. There were conscientious objectors in the 1982 Lebanon war and the first intifada, from 1987 to 1992. According to a group that represents Israel's refusenik soldiers, Yesh Gvul (translated as "There is a limit"), 49 have been jailed this time round for refusing to go to the occupied territories, 14 of them regular soldiers. Most Israeli men and women are conscripted into military service at age 18 -- men for three years, women for 21 months. Israeli men also usually serve up to one month of reserve duty every year until the age of 45.
Organisers of the reservists' petition say they want to attract the support of at least 500 reservists. They have declined to speak to the foreign press, for fear of fuelling international anti-Israel sentiment. But the Israeli media has pounced on the issue. Itay Sviresky, a lieutenant in a reserve paratroop unit, told Channel Two TV that, "as a human, a citizen and as a Zionist, I feel that there are certain things that I can't take part in. You have to be an occupier -- you can't be an enlightened occupier, you have to be ... a cruel occupier."
The Israeli army has countered with a statement saying that the petitioners were unrepresentative, and pointing out that there is no place for soldiers to choose what jobs they do and do not want. A press officer cited the example of a 56-year-old Tel Aviv lawyer, Avraham Dviri, who finished reserve service eight years ago, but volunteered again last year.
After several Palestinian suicide attacks, Israelis feel even more embattled than ever. Mr Dviri represented the mood of many when he said he "despised" the refusing reservists. "An officer who says that he cannot serve somewhere should not command other soldiers. He should be dismissed with dishonour," he said.Reuse content