It's because they fear us, say teenage refuseniks jailed by Israeli
By Chris McGreal in Tel Aviv
7 January 2004
Haggai Matar, centre, and fellow refuseniks speak to journalists
outside their court martial in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv Photograph:
Haggai Matar never expected that his sentence would be so harsh. But
as the teenage refusenik reports to a military prison today, he says
he will draw comfort from the judges' description of him as a threat
to the survival of Israel.
Mr Matar is one of five young men starting one-year sentences at No
6 military prison near Haifa.
They all refused to serve because they object to the occupation.
"I take it as a compliment that they are so afraid of our ability to
persuade others that they called us dangerous and have to lock us
up," said Mr Matar, 19.
Until now, objectors have generally been allowed to walk free, or
have received administrative sentences of a few weeks in jail, to
save the military public embarrassment.
But Mr Matar and his col leagues went public with their protest, and
encouraged others to join them, at a time when the Israeli army is
confronting a wave of objections.
Nearly 1,000 school leavers and reservists have signed refusal
letters, and members of elite forces such as fighter pilots and
commandos say they will no longer attack Palestinian targets because
the large numbers of civilian casualties amounted to war crimes.
To deter the movement, the army made it known that Mr Matar and his
colleagues had been hauled before the first such court martial since
"To date the army's policy against the refuseniks was to put them in
prison for three or four months," Mr Matar said.
"During the verdict and sentencing they said they were punishing us
much more severely because we went public, because we affect other
The three judges said they were guilty of a "very severe crime which
constitutes a manifest and concrete danger to our existence and our
One judge, Colonel Avi Levi, stopped just short of accusing them of
"The accused made their refusal public so as to put in question the
justification for the army's operations and the morality of taking
part in the army," he said.
"Further, by so doing they undermine the international legitimacy of
the state's actions and help hostile nations by providing them with
The five are not typical of Israeli youth, nor of the broader
refusenik movement. They mostly come from radical families with long
attachments to the peace camp. Noam Bahat, 20, touches on issues
rarely discussed among Israelis.
"Every day people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip suffer abuse,
humiliation, poverty and hunger - things that happen because of the
occupation," he said.
"You begin to understand that there is a reason for the bombings,
the terror attacks. You ask how people can get to the situation
where people kill themselves and kill others, and you realise they
He acknowledges that his is not a popular view.
"Sometimes people react badly to what I say. They say that we're
destroying the country, we're anti-democratic, we're the worst
The group's willingness to ask penetrating questions about the cause
of the violence has made them a less embarrassing target for court
martial than pilots and commandos with distinguished records.
But the five are confident that their trial will backfire by
encouraging, not deterring, the growing ranks of refuseniks.
So far, more than 400 have signed the "high school letter" refusing
to serve. A further 550 who served and are now reservists have
signed a similar document objecting to policing the occupation.
In recent weeks, 28 pilots and 13 members of an elite commando unit
have joined the refuseniks.
The five each spent 14 months or more in detention before their
court martial, so know what to expect behind bars. After that, they
are not so sure.
"It's very unclear where the army is going with this," Mr Matar
said. "It is possible that, when the year ends, they will send us
back to be inducted into the army - and we will refuse, and it will
all start again."
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