- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

JERUSALEM A threat by more than 200 Israeli reserve soldiers to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has revived public debate over the way the army is fighting the Palestinian uprising.
The dissenters, who number about 210, complain that soldiers are increasingly called on to "dominate, expel, starve and humiliate" Palestinians. Their revolt poses one of the most serious internal challenges in the Israeli army's history.
They have also given encouragement to the nation's peace movement, which drew about 14,000 supporters to a rally Saturday night, and which had become moribund in the wake of the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.
"I think we triggered a national discourse that until now no one was willing to instigate," said Haim Weiss, a reserve army captain who was in the first wave of dissenters last month.
Though some Israelis have criticized the army's aggressive measures including its sieges on Palestinian towns and its air strikes on urban areas analysts say an overwhelming majority of Israelis regard the army's response to Palestinian violence as reasonable and proportionate.
The protesters have drawn severe criticism from Cabinet ministers, army officers and even some left-wing groups. An opposing group of reservists published an open letter in the same newspaper criticizing the dissenters.
Defense forces chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, viewed as a hard-liner in policies against the Palestinians, defended the army's record during 16 months of fighting and suggested that political groups might have engineered the dissent.
"Very few armies in the world would … behave on the same moral and value level as Israeli soldiers and commanders do in the field," he told journalists last week. But Gen. Mofaz has not decided whether to jail the reservists or let them conduct their future tours of duty inside Israel proper.
Television news programs have aired film of harsh military action at roadblocks and jails, and newspapers have allowed soldiers to relate disturbing experiences from service in the West Bank and Gaza. One high school has invited the dissenters to speak to its graduating class.
The former head of Israel's domestic security agency, Ami Ayalon, while taking exception to the reservists' behavior, said that some orders being handed down in the West Bank and Gaza are patently illegal, and that more soldiers should be challenging their commanders.
The dissent by reservists is not a broad phenomenon, and thousands of Israeli soldiers serve in the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war without raising objections. Nor is this form of dissent new. A few hundred soldiers refused to serve in Lebanon during and after the 1982 Israel incursion into Lebanon, which had no effective government.
But it is the makeup of the group that has jolted the military brass. Most of dissenters are combat veterans, low to midranking officers among the most committed and motivated reservists in the Israeli army. They ordinarily serve up to six weeks of reserve duty a year.
Many are career professionals or graduate students in civilian life. Nearly all served long stints in the West Bank and Gaza over the past decade.
"My unit was sent to the West Bank many times," says Mr. Weiss, a doctoral student in Hebrew literature who served until recently as deputy commander of a tank platoon. "I was always troubled by what we were doing to the civilian population. But I believed it was better that I do the work than someone who had no compunctions about punishing innocent people."
Mr. Weiss mainly objects to Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, where large numbers of Palestinians are subjected to sieges or to aggravating traffic jams.
What changed his mind, he said, was an order in October to conduct a "violent patrol" in Bethlehem. "In military vernacular, that means you go in firing machine guns arbitrarily in every direction."
Though the task ultimately fell on another platoon Israeli soldiers killed 23 Palestinians during that foray into Bethlehem Mr. Weiss pledged at the end of his month of duty never to go back.
Last month, Mr. Weiss agreed when a friend asked if he would like his name added to a public declaration. Among other things, the declaration said: "We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country … [hereby declare] we shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders."
The first group of dissenters numbered 50, most of whom responded to an ad posted on the walls of Tel Aviv University. Their declaration was published in Israel's largest-circulation newspaper, and it drew more dissenters to the list.
Mr. Weiss said a tough response by the army would only increase the group's numbers. "I don't think the army wants 210 people in prison."


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