Netanyahu's Nephew Jailed for refusing Army
- Netanyahu's Nephew Jailed for refusing Army Service - Guardian (UK)
'I realised the stupidity of it'
His uncle is the hawkish former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin
Netanyahu. But Jonathan Ben-Artzi is a conscientious objector who has
already spent months in prison for refusing conscription - and today
faces a full court martial. He tells Chris McGreal why he will not fight
Tuesday March 11, 2003
Jonathan "Yoni" Ben-Artzi finally came to understand his objection as he
wandered the acres of white crosses spawned by a war far from the
one he is being ordered to fight. Defiant, if boyish and vulnerable, the 20-
year-old physics student says that from the time he was old enough to
understand about the army - which is pretty young in Israel - he has
known he would never wear its uniform. But he did not really know why
until he went to Verdun, where more than 700,000 men were sacrificed
to futility in the first world war. "I always knew I wouldn't go into the
army but I came to realise why when I was 14. We visited France and
some of the battlefields and I saw the rows and rows of graves," he
says. "Then I realised the stupidity of it. So many lives sacrificed and
they didn't really know what they were fighting for. They were never
told the truth."
For his views, Ben-Artzi has now spent more time in prison than any
other Israeli conscientious objector. He is also the best known of the
refuseniks because he is the nephew of Benjamin Netanyahu, the
country's belligerent former prime minister. Theirs is a family of Israeli
war heroes. Ben-Artzi's grandfathers were renowned fighters for
Israel's independence, and he shares a first name with a Netanyahu he
never knew, who was killed during the daring raid on Entebbe in 1976 to
rescue Jewish hostages from German and Palestinian hijackers in Idi
As one of 10 young men locked up for refusing to do three years'
conscription, Ben-Artzi has found courage of a different sort. He has
spent more than 200 days in prison, punctuated by monthly appearances
before a military court - that is longer than any soldier has been jailed in
recent times for the "illegal killing" of an innocent Palestinian. Now the
Israeli army is upping the stakes with a virtually unprecedented attempt
to lock Ben-Artzi away for years when he faces court martial today. But
it could yet backfire and force the military to recognise what it has so far
refused to acknowledge; that there is such a thing as a Jewish pacifist.
Ben-Artzi and his fellow objectors stand apart from the several hundred
older refuseniks who served their conscription fighting to the gates of
Beirut or confronting Palestinians during the first intifada. Today, they
refuse to do their call-up because they oppose the continued occupation
of Palestinian land or the tactics of an army imposing its own brand of
terror and collective punishment on the subjugated.
Ben-Artzi is different. His objection strikes at the heart of what Israel
has become, and it clearly unnerves the army. "In Israel, the army is a
kind of god and I was expected to worship it from as young as I can
remember," he says. "There were military activities in school. High
school students go to army "fire shows", to convince them to join. They
are making a bid for these children, to recruit them to the paratroopers
or engineering corps or whichever. They are guided down a mental
corridor to the military. There's a lot of social pressure from the
principal, teachers, friends."
The military has mythological status among many Israelis. Almost every
man is identified by his army unit as much as his career. But while other
schoolchildren chose essays on the heroics of Moshe Dayan, Ben-Artzi
wrote about pacifism. He refused to take part in a judo class because it
required the use of force, and he made no secret of his abhorrence of
the militarisation of Israeli society.
"When I was 14, we had a trip to the Sea of Galilee through the
occupied territories. I told the teacher I wouldn't go because it's not OK
to have kids on a trip going through villages where [Palestinians] are
trapped in their homes under curfew. I always had arguments in school.
It just grew until my last year when I was 17 or 18 when the first orders
came to be interviewed by officers. I came to everything they told me to
come to and said I wouldn't serve."
Yet the army insists that Ben-Artzi is not a pacifist. Israeli law obliges
every young man, except ultra-orthodox Jews, to serve three years'
conscription. Seven months ago, Ben-Artzi stood before Colonel Deborah
Chassid at the army induction centre and told her he had no intention of
signing up. He was not alone. A few days later, another teenager came
before Chassid and made much the same arguments.
"I told her I object completely to killing," says 19-year-old Uri Ya'akovi. "I
can't imagine myself being part of killing, even if it's indirect. I told them
this but they don't listen. They just try to scare you. They tell you you
will be raped in jail. They say you are a traitor. Other boys said they
would also object, but after that only a few still make a stand and go to
Chassid sentenced both young men to a month in military prison number
four, notorious for its life under canvas and harsh discipline.
Ben-Artzi exercised his right to see one of the "conscience committees"
reluctantly set up by the government after it signed up to international
human rights conventions. When he walked into the room he discovered
every member of the committee was a serving military officer. "I was
asked questions. I answered. Their decision was that I'm not a pacifist.
It's an automatic decision. No one has ever been accepted as a pacifist.
Israel is the only country that officially declares there are no pacifists."
The committee came to the remarkable conclusion that his persistent
resistance to the army was evidence of the qualities of a soldier and
therefore he could not be a pacifist. "It's politics," Ben-Artzi says. "The
only type of conscientious objection they recognise is from the Jewish
There are other ways out of conscription. Every year, thousands of
young men find a psychologist to declare them mentally unsound. Uri
Ya'akovi's father, Adam Keller, did that more than a decade ago. "I
refused to do duty in Lebanon so they made me a dishwasher in a tank
regiment. In 1988, at the beginning of the intifada, I went out one night
and wrote on the tanks: 'Soldiers refuse to be occupiers and
aggressors. Don't go to the occupied territories'."
Keller scrawled the graffiti on 117 tanks before he was caught on the
second night. "I did three months in prison for that," he says. "When I
was in high school, some pupils passed out leaflets on what was
happening in the occupied territories. People said it couldn't be that our
soldiers would do such things. Now you read worse things in the
mainstream media and people don't care. We used to say that if only
people know about it, it would stop. Now they know about it, and it
Eventually, Keller slipped out of the army by getting himself declared
mentally unfit. "A psychiatrist asked me what was my motivation. I told
him it was the people in history who fought for right that motivated me.
Then he said: 'Can we say you hear the voice of history?' That's how I
got my discharge - he wrote on my report that I was hearing voices of
Ten days ago his son, Uri Ya'akovi, finally decided to play ball with the
army before a "competence committee". "They told me they didn't want
to hear about pacifism or conscientious objection," he says. "I said I
didn't want to be in the army because I don't like the uniform. It's half
true, you know. I don't like the uniform, but I made it sound bigger."
The military's official reason for getting rid of Ya'akovi was because
his "low motivation and morale made him unfit for the army", without
conceding the pacifism principle.
Last week, Ben-Artzi was called in for a chat by a brigadier general. "I
am not talking to you as a general to a draftee, but as Avi to Yoni, OK?"
he said. The general had an offer. If Ben-Artzi agreed to enlist he would
be granted "an easy service, without a gun, uniform or military training".
A job would be found for him in a hospital. Ben-Artzi replied that he
would do three years' service, but not in an organisation dedicated to
killing. The army changed tack. It declared Ben-Artzi was already
conscripted and ordered the first court martial of a conscientious
objector in three decades. The maximum sentence is three years - the
length of conscription. Although a model prisoner who made no attempt
to escape during his first 200 days in prison, Ben-Artzi was handcuffed
when he left his new cell. This one had no furniture and food was
served without a knife or fork.
At the initial hearing, the military prosecutor described Ben-Artzi as "no
better than any deserter or drug addict," and said the young prisoner
was not a pacifist because "the competent military committee has
already reviewed his case" and decided he was not. He added that to let
Ben-Artzi go would "undermine discipline in the army".
Opinion is divided on whether Ben-Artzi is being singled out because of
his uncle. Ya'akovi thinks so. "They think Yoni is the leader of this
protest, that we're all following him because his family is powerful. But
it's not true," he says.
Ben-Artzi disagrees, and may be right. His absolute refusal to give an
inch to the army has made him a uniquely awkward customer.
Netanyahu has not involved himself in the case, other than to say that he
wishes his nephew would change his mind. Ben-Artzi seems unlikely to
do so, and it may yet be that the army is the one forced to change.
Today's court martial opens the way to the supreme court where human
rights lawyers believe the young refusenik will finally get to put his case
before civilian judges - who are more likely to be persuaded that there
is such a thing as a pacifist in Israel.
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