Occupied East Jerusalem – This year, Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories entered its 51st year.
In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli army is responsible for controlling the lives of more than three million Palestinians through hundreds of checkpoints, raids of villages and homes, trial of civilians in military courts, demolition of homes, suppression of protests, and the killing and injuring of civilians, to name a few.
To sustain the occupation industry, Israel makes it mandatory by law for Israeli citizens, excluding Palestinians and Orthodox Jews, to enter the military at 18. Men have to serve just under three years while women serve two years.
Yet, there are Israeli citizens who refuse to serve in the military for several reasons, including opposition to the army’s policies in the Palestinian territories it occupies.
Sahar Vardi, 27, is one of such refusers. She is an Israeli activist who was sentenced to prison and detention eight times consecutively for her defiance in 2008. Vardi also faced other repercussions for her decision; she said she would get very late phone calls for periods up to a year at a time with people cursing at her.
Her home was also graffitied with profanity directed at her.
Many countries around the world have accepted the right of conscientious objectors to be exempt from military service. In Israel, objectors must apply through a committee to gain exemption.
The committee, popularly known as the “Conscience Committee”, is mostly made up of military officers. In practice, only those who claim religious reasons or apolitical pacifism – a refusal of violence in all forms – are exempted.Those who outwardly state their opposition to the occupation are sentenced to repeated terms of imprisonment until they are declared unfit to serve by the Israeli army.
Al Jazeera spoke to Vardi, who was released in 2009, about her experience and her views on Israeli society after 50 years of occupation.
Al Jazeera: Can you tell us about the process of getting out of military service in Israel?
Sahar Vardi: There are two legal ways to be exempt from military service in Israel. The first is being recognised as a conscientious objector. It’s difficult to do so, but it is possible.
Every year, some 54,000 people are drafted into the Israeli military. Out of the 54,000, about 100-200 request conscientious objector (CO) status*. A military committee assesses each case, but grants CO status to only a few dozen youths.
The committee only allows pacifists to be exempt from military service, but the committee has a very narrow definition of what pacifism is. To be granted CO status, you have to tell the committee that you are against any form of violence under any circumstance and that your refusal is not political. Mainly, if you say the word “occupation”, you fail. That’s kind of the game.
A lot of it is also avoiding the committee’s questions because they’re absurd – you cannot answer them – at least not honestly. We’ve had people being asked: “You’re standing with a gun in front of Hitler, what do you do?”
The second way to be legally exempt from military service is to cite mental health problems, which is the easier way out.
Al Jazeera: How did you decide to go about it?
Vardi: I did go to the conscientious objectors’ committee, but decided in advance that I will say the real reasons why I did not want to be in the military and use the word “occupation” in my explanation. And I failed the committee’s test.
I got a letter saying that I was not recognised as a conscientious objector, and therefore must serve in the military. Once you are classified as fit for service, you cannot refuse to join the military in Israel – there’s no legal way to do that.
You are tried as a soldier refusing an order, which means that you will go to court, be sentenced, and go to prison. When you eventually get out of prison, you will get an order saying you have to go back to your military base to continue your service. If you continue to refuse, you will repeat these steps for a while.
The most anyone has ever sat in prison for refusing to serve was two years.
I refused eight times consecutively, but I wasn’t sentenced to prison each time. Sometimes I was put in detention because they didn’t have room for me in prisons. In those instances, we were kept in a military base instead. I’ve spent a total of five months in prison and detention.
Al Jazeera: Why didn’t you try to get out based on mental health?
Vardi: Getting out on mental health is pretty easy. Today about 12 percent of the Israeli population that’s supposed to be conscripted – Jewish and Druze – either don’t start or don’t complete their military service based on mental health issues. That’s huge. I’m going to assume that not 12 percent of Israeli society is mentally ill.
Everyone knows that this is the easiest way out of the military. Many people who do not want to serve in the military because of economic reasons will get out by citing mental health issues.
Also, some people who are ideologically opposed to being in the military, but who do not want to go to prison, choose the mental health route to avoid military service.
For me, it was kind of an opportunity to make a political stand. I knew I could get out in whatever way – I could have said the right things to the conscientious objectors’ committee. I know the answers they wanted to hear. But the idea is that it’s an opportunity to talk about the occupation. There are other people like me, so we had a voice – we came out with a campaign, we made statements to the media, and so on.
Once you go to prison, you can talk about the realities of the occupation. This is not merely about avoiding military service, which is easy. It is also about putting out a message.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Israelis are ignorant of the occupation of the Palestinian territories?
Vardi: Israelis do know that something is happening in the West Bank. Some of them won’t call it occupation because they like to hide behind the legal discourse of it being disputed territory.
But there aren’t Israelis that don’t know there’s military control on a civilian population at least in the West Bank – in Gaza, it’s different.
People have no idea about what that means though. We have this idea that everyone was in the military so everyone knows what occupation looks like right? That’s not the case.
You dehumanise them just so you can say no at a checkpoint. But the next time you're in a situation where you have to push them it'll be easy enough for you to push them. And then when you have to shoot them, it'll be easy enough for you to shoot them.
Between 10-15 percent of the military are combat – meaning will actually be stationed in the occupied territories.
Even then, what they know is a very specific narrow reality. You speak to soldiers in a protest and they’ll tell you this is Area A of the West Bank, you’re not supposed to be here when we’re not actually in Area A. [Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering Area A of the West Bank, under Palestinian control]
They don’t even know what’s happening around them.
Even the fact that you’re there doesn’t mean you understand the reality. Understanding what is actually going on requires a lot of knowledge and the priority of the military is not to educate soldiers. The military’s priority is to teach soldiers that they need to follow orders. So, Israelis don’t really know what occupation is.
Most Israeli Jerusalemites that you stop in the street in West Jerusalem don’t know that Palestinian Jerusalemites are residents and not citizens – they literally have no idea that they are not citizens of the state.
Al Jazeera: Who’s responsibility do you think it is?
Vardi: Of course, it is their responsibility to know, but it’s the responsibility of Israeli activists to make sure Israeli citizens know these things. For most people, the occupation is not relevant to their lives. It’s also important to understand the dynamics within the Israeli society.
Israel today, within the Organisation for Economic, Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a country with one of the biggest gaps between the rich and the poor. This means a huge part of Israeli society is struggling for existence – and really couldn’t care less why East Jerusalemites are only residents, and why close to 80 percent of them live in poverty. It’s not really their priority.
I think for us as activists, part of the responsibility is to figure out how to make this an issue – and make people understand that it is their responsibility to care about this. But we need to make sure that we do this from a place that also acknowledges other issues that they care about.
Al Jazeera: Why do you think the discussion on 1948 in Israel, even among leftists, is non-existent?
Vardi: There’s a difference between the Zionist and the non-Zionist left. But mainly, it’s because there’s an easy solution for 1967 – the two states. I don’t think it’s realistic, but at least at the discourse level, the Israeli left have a solution for the problems born out of the 1967 war.
But 1948 – what do you do with it? The one thing you can do with it – if you actually want to talk about it and recognise the Right of Return – is to give up the Jewish state. There’s a lot of solutions that will still allow Israeli Jews to be here – that’s not the issue. The issue is that if you acknowledge the problem with 1948, your only option is to give up on the Jewish state.
In mainstream Zionist discourse and mindset, that’s not on the table. That’s not an option, that’s not something people conceptualise. It’s challenging for people who grew up with the conception of: “We need a Jewish state to protect ourselves.” That’s mainly what it stems from. They believe that this is a need. So, based on that, opening up 1948 to discussion is a problem.
It’s a question of tackling something far deeper and far more rooted within Israeli existence. Most Israelis don’t have a reason to do it. Their life is fine – it’s comfortable – why should they question these things?
There’s actually been more discussion in the last few years about the “Nakba” – surprisingly because of the right wing. For example, the Nakba law [a law that criminalises commemorating the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948] meant that you have to explain what the Nakba is.
Al Jazeera: How do you think regular Israelis justify what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories?
Vardi: For the ideological right, it’s about taking over the Holy Land. From a more mainstream political perspective, a lot of it is about resources – cheap land, water, man power, that allows for a successful economy.
Most settlers don’t move to a settlement for ideological reasons – they move because it’s far cheaper. For example, people who move into the Maale Adumim settlement move there because that is the only place they can afford to live.
Others justify all this with the need for security. They think occupation keeps them safe. This has a lot to do with how Israelis are educated and how fear is a huge part of our identity. And there’s a lot of political interest in keeping it that way. You can’t continue such a level of militarisation in a society without fear. You can’t ignore what happened in 1948 without it. You can’t continue maintaining an occupation without it. Our education system is built to make sure that we’re terrified. Even our media and political campaigns – [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu is an expert at making sure that we’re terrified.
I have a friend who, during her military service, worked at the biggest radio station in the country, which is military run. She was part of the news desk. They were ordered to start the broadcast with a news story about Iran whenever they had to report something that is critical of the military or something bad that happened – like a Palestinian being killed at a checkpoint.
They were told to go to Reuters and find something about Iran. It’s like: “We do bad things sometimes at a checkpoint but there’s an existential threat – a nuclear bomb, right?”
People are genuinely afraid.
Al Jazeera: How do you explain the Israeli military’s use of psychological abuse in the occupied territories?
Vardi: That’s how militaries work. If you choose to maintain an occupation and if you choose to maintain military control on a civilian population, it’s going to be violent – there’s no nice way to do it.
Of course, racism is an inherent part of it. This is rooted in the fact that these people are told that they have to control this civilian population as if they are an enemy. To achieve this, they have to become racist. You can’t stand in a checkpoint and stop people from going where they need to go without either going crazy or becoming racist.
You have to dehumanise people. You can’t follow orders if you don’t dehumanise people. Think about yourself standing at a checkpoint for eight-hour shifts and having to tell people, “Oh, actually, your permission to enter ended three minutes ago and you can’t pass anymore, even if you have a doctor’s appointment.”
You can’t do that if you actually see the person in front of you as someone who could be your grandmother.
So you dehumanise them and once you dehumanise a group of people there is no turning back. You dehumanise them just so you can say “no” at a checkpoint. But the next time you’re in a situation where you have to push them, it’ll be easy enough for you to push them. And then, when you have to shoot them, it’ll be easy enough for you to shoot them.
After a few months, you lose all touch with humanity.
Al Jazeera: Is this part of the military training?
Vardi: The military is made up of officers who are used to dehumanising people. It is full of people who used to beat people to the ground. That’s already inherent in who they are and how they see things. So, obviously, it’s part of the entire culture. This culture stems from the military and eventually becomes part of civil society – and today – racism is a legitimate part of the Israeli discourse.
It’s okay to be racist in Israel today. It’s okay to say, “Yes, Jews are better.” It’s okay to think, “Yes, when we are thinking of security, the security of Jews is more important than the security of Arabs” – that’s not even a question.
The legitimacy of racism is partially based on what Zionism is. It’s a nationalist movement of the Jewish people – it’s by definition preferring Jews over non-Jews – that’s what Zionism is. People believe that this is a logical way of thinking in light of the way we have been treated through history.
There’s a fundamental difference between protecting the Jewish identity as a minority and what happens when Jews become the majority and still pursue the ideology of protecting the Jewish identity at any cost.
Once, I witnessed a family having a serious conversation about what would be worse – their Jewish son bringing home a Palestinian girl or [an Israeli] man. A Palestinian friend of mine, who speaks fluent Hebrew, also witnessed this conversation. And we just sat there, thinking that this is a legitimate conversation that can be had in public.
Al Jazeera: What do you think needs to happen for things to change?
Vardi: I think one of the things that Israel has done very well is to maintain a level of oppression, which means you will always have to deal with certain issues, but you also still have something to lose because, when people don’t have anything to lose, they revolt.
Israel is pretty good at keeping that balance, although it is beginning to break slightly. The fact that Israeli society is becoming more right-wing and that Israeli politicians are responding to that and are becoming more aggressive means that at some point that balance will break – at some point Palestinians will not have as much to lose – but I hate to see that as the optimism.
*The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request to confirm the figures.
Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan