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Gush Shalom: Historic Court Martials

GUSH SHALOM pob 3322, Tel-Aviv 61033

June 24, 2003

Dramatic days at the Jaffa Military Court. Today: three young refusniks delivered stirring, hours-long anti-occupation addresses of a kind never before heard in an Israeli military court. It followed yesterday's session of the resumed Ben-Artzi Trial, in which the prosecution ties itself in knots trying to prove that a pacifist is not a pacifist.

[1] June 23, Ben Artzi's court martial the prosecutor's predicament

[2] June 24, court martial of "The Five" the occupation in the dock

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[1] June 23, Ben Artzi's court martial the prosecutor's predicament

As the court martial of Yoni Ben-Artzi resumes, a disappointment: two intriguing witnesses who were expected, didn't show up. Colonel Shlomi Simchi - head of the army's Conscience Committee, which persistently refused to recognize Ben Artzi as a pacifist - was "too busy" and would come on a different occasion. The same with Brigadier Avi Zamir, Deputy Head of Manpower, who had tried to negotiate with Ben-Artzi on "easy terms of service" and when that failed ordered Ben-Artzi court-martialed.

The first witness who appears: Ruti Ben-Artzi, sister of the accused, who came over from Columbia University in the US where she is completing a PhD. in Political Science. "I am twelve years the elder; I know Yoni since I helped change his diapers and have followed closely his development. Already in the highschool he objected to lectures by officers who came to the school to prepare children for military service. Nor did he want to take part in school outings to the Mount Herzl National Cemetery and the like.And I witnessed myself how deeply he was moved when the family visited Verdun, France and saw these terrible cemeteries with hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous tombstones. 'How futile, the Germans and French killing each other, and now they use both the same currency.' I see it that he came back from France a determined pacifist"

The prosecutor his cross-examination tries to trip her up on many minor details. "Is it not true that your father described this a bit different, three years ago in a newspaper interview? And how come your grandfather thinks maybe just afraid?" (The extremely heterogeneous Ben-Artzi family is much sought-after by the press.)

Then, Yoni Yechezkel - a refuser who shared prison terms with his namesake and who last week got a sudden and unexpected discharge from the Conscience Committee (the first applicant to gain an exemption since the committee was formed in 1995). The questions of Adv. Michael Sfard reveal a refusnik of quite different style, a bit flippant one who frequently went AWOL, played a kind of cat and mouse game with the military authorities and had been quite frankly willing to make all kind of compromises ("I told the army I don't care what way they get me out, Conscience Committee, Incompatibility Committee, psychiatrist - whatever they choose, but they will never make a soldier out of me"). Also Yechezkel was cross-examined, and the prosecutor - who tries so assiduously to disprove Ben Artzi's pacifist credentials - was now in the opposite role of bolstering Yechezkel's. But he was unconvincing in trying to show that Yechezkel is more of a pacifist than the punctual and principled Ben Artzi.

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[2] June 24, court martial of "The Five" the occupation in the dock

For a whole hour, before the scheduled time of today's trial, dozens of youths lined the sidewalk in front of the building, holding up placards and chanting "Occupation is Terrorism! - The refuser is a hero!"

Long before the judges came in, the small courtroom was filled far beyond capacity with many envious activists left outside. In the front row were sitting Knesset Members Roman Bronfman (Meretz) and Muhammad Barake (Hadash communists) as well as former KM Tamar Gozanski. When the five accused filed in, they were greeted with prolonged applause.

Adv. Dov Henin started by outlining the main defence line. "This trial is not about technicalities and obscure points of the law. This trial is about a major constitutional issue which no Israeli court has dealt with before. The conscience is the most basic part of human dignity, the part of the personality which defines the essential values; the part which if broken, breaks the whole person. It is the contention of the defence in this trial that Freedom of Conscience is already enshrined in israeli law and has been for the last ten years, ever since the Knesset adopted the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty - even though the military authorities so far did not take proper cognizance of the fact. The defence asks the court's indulgence in listening to the five accused. Each one should have the full possibility of showing that his decision to refuse military service does indeed proceed from deeply held convictions - the dictates of his conscience."

The first to take the stand is CO Haggai Matar.

He speaks out of his already considerable personal experience with the occupation, to which he adds long quotes from the reports of human rights organizations as well as stories which he heard from military prison cell-mates who have been to the territories.

"In 1999, I joined a special of joint summer studies by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian pupils. Soon afterwards I started correspondence with a Palestinian Administrative Detainee who was held in an Israeli prison for six years without trial. When at last he was released I visited him in a house riddled by Israeli bullets and with broken furniture.

I joined actions of the Gush Shalom and Ta'ayush movements. We went to the territories to rebuild houses demolished by the army, to provide humanitarian help in towns hit by closure or curfew, to support Palestinian villagers who have been violently assaulted by settlers. Always, soldiers tried to block us and in many cases used violence against us.

In 2001, I met again with some of the Palestinian pupils of the summer camp and they told harrowing stories of being beaten up and arrested by soldiers. One told of witnessing his friends in Ramallah being shot to death.

On August 20, 2002, three days before I was due to present myself for enlistment, i and several other activists got an emergency call to go to Yanoun Village, a tiny place where settlers have so terrorized the inhabitants that the Palestinians all left. We came there and the empty houses were terribly depressing and somber sights. We were very happy that due to our presence the people started coming back.

With all my experiences, I had no doubt: I absolutely don't want to be and can't be part of the Israeli army which I don't think has any longer the right to call itself an army of defence."

[The above is excerpted from a two-hour speech; full text in Hebrew and English available from Anat Matar]


The philosophical analysis of CO Matan Kaminer, next in line, was no less impassioned.

"In this testimony I would like to describe the guiding lines of my conscience and explain why it is incompatible with service in today's Israeli army. For some people the basic value from which their conscience is derived is God's word. For others it is loyalty to their country. For me the basic value is human liberty, human rights. I believe that all human beings have inalienable rights such as the right to life, the right to equality, to welfare, to education, to association, to democracy.

All of these rights are violated in countless ways by the occupation - mainly violated as regards the Palestinians, but in many ways also regarding Israelis.

The right of Palestinians to life is violated by the policy of liquidations (which indirectly causes also the loss of Israeli life, as we saw last week), and by the constant military activity in populated areas which causes the death and wounding of civilians. The right to equality, both of Palestinians and of Israelis living within the Green line is violated by the policy of settlement which takes land, resources and basic human dignity from Palestinians and which discriminates against most israelis in the division of national resources.

The right of Palestinians to welfare and to education are violated by the ongoing closures and curfews which cause the sky-rocketing unemployment figures and the severe disruption of the educational system.

The most fundamental, though not necessarily the most directly painful, is the violation of the right to live in democracy. The very very rule over another people which is denied the right to control it's own life and future is a flagrant violation of that right, and after 36 years the pretense that the occupation is temporary wears thin.

The contempt for democracy is gradually crossing into Israel proper, with racist extreme right parties becoming an acceptable and common component of government coalitions.

The deprivation to the right of democracy of the Palestinians is the root cause of all the crimes which accompany the occupation - both the crimes of the occupier of which I described part, and the crimes of the occupied, pushed to immoral and inhuman ways of struggle. Neither set of crimes is in any way justified. Both are direct derivatives of the occupation and can only be abolished by the occupation itself.

From all of this, it logically follows that service in the army, which is the main instrument for implementing the occupation is totally against my conscience. My decision to refuse enlistment does not mean that i am against the state of Israel, against the people in israel, or against the Israeli society of which I am part. On the contrary, I feel impelled to do all i can for the Israeli society. I did it in the past and intend to go on doing it. The occupation is a terrible crime; an immoral and malignant crime against another society which spreads also to our own society, strangling and poisoning it. Obviously, in such a situation i can't go into the army. I can only ask that my conscience be recognized and that i be provided an opportunity to do alternative civilian service for the benefit of the Israeli society.

[Summary provided by Matan himself and translated by us. Full Hebrew text available from: Noam Kaminer]


At three in the afternoon it was the turn of Shimri Tzameret, whose testimony was interrupted by the court adjourning at 5 pm.

"Already for years I know that i am not going to join the army. I know it with as much certainty as I know that I will never kick a homeless person lying on the sidewalk, never rape a woman, and when I will have a child - never abandon it.

We all of us have our own reasonings and my reasons are a bit different from those who spoke before me. I feel that there is no need to detail what the occupation is doing to the Palestinians. What it is doing to ourselves is reason enough.

First I want to talk about the suicide bombings. It is a very central part of our life here in this country and many of us are touched personally in one way or another. It happened a bit more than a year ago, exactly on the day when i decided to tell my schoolmates that i am going to refuse to serve in the army, that a suicide bombing happened in which the mother of one of the girls in the school was killed. And later on the day it turned out that her sister was killed as well.

It brought home to me what does it mean, that the life of this girl whom I knew will never be the same again; how terrible it is when something like this is suddenly breaking in to a life. Some of my schoolmates were angry with me; they said: how can you refuse to go to the army when such things happen. I told them: that is exactly the reason that i am refusing: the army being in the territories is not a way to stop terrorist attacks; it causes them. Exactly because I told Merav that i feel committed to do whatever I can to prevent such things from happening again to others, I feel that one of the most important things which I as an individual can do, is refusing to serve in the army.

After all, everybody knows how the present situation will end: always in the last centuries the rebellion of an occupied people eventually ended in its freedom. The only question how much time it will take, and how many more casualties there will be. I try to make both a bit less. Another point: what the occupation is doing to our society. I want to tell about Rami, whom i met in the prison. I sat with him for hours, listening. It is incredible how many terrible things he had witnessed in just three months of service in the territories.

He told me about the young boy who threw a stone at the lieutenant- colonel's jeep which did not hit but the colonel still chased the child, caught him and beat him brutally with the butt of a rifle. And another child which a Shabak agent tied up, and then urinated on him. When Rami tried to protest the man shouted: go away; i am conducting an interrogation. And he also told me soldiers looting a shop, and then destroying everything which they could not carry. And he told me about how he could not stand it anymore, and how he sat in the toilet for several hours in the night, the barrel in his mouth, the finger on the trigger. In the end he ran away, and that's how he got into prison.

That's what happens to the sensitive people. The non-sensitive ones, those who get used to these Wild West norms, afterwards bring these norms into the Israeli society itself. We are corrupting ourselves. I am not willing to be part of the main instrument of corruption."

[To be continued in the next session some time in July, when also Noam Bahat and Adam Maor will have "their day in court."]

P.S.: On Wednesday, June 25, the court martial of CO Hillel Goral - separated from the others and charged with desertion rather than refusal. Meanwhile the Incompatibilty Committee, in a sudden outburst of activity, granted discharge to Shmuel Baron and Shachar Ben-Har. It seems that while the court martials are on, the army is trying to get rid of the wave.


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