Who are the Israeli refuseniks picking jail over the Gaza war?

Tel Aviv teen Tal Mitnick is the latest Israeli to refuse to fight against Palestinians, and he is willing to pay a price.

Israeli soldiers during raid on Jenin
Israeli soldiers stand guard on December 13, 2023, following an overnight army raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, as Israel continues its war on Gaza [Zain Jaafar/AFP]

He’s a baby-faced 18-year-old with a heart full of idealism. When Tel Aviv teen Tal Mitnick refused to enlist in the Israeli army, he was put on trial: on Tuesday, he was taken to military prison to serve a 30-day sentence.

Standing alone in a country on a determined war footing is an agonising decision. But, speaking at Tel Hashomer, a base near the Gaza fence in central Israel, Mitnick staunchly defended his decision.

“I believe that slaughter cannot solve slaughter,” he said. “The criminal attack on Gaza won’t solve the atrocious slaughter that Hamas executed. Violence won’t solve violence. And that is why I refuse.”

The statement appeared on the X account of Mesarvot, a support network connecting refuseniks in a campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. In an earlier interview posted on the account, Mitnick laid out his universalist stance on the conflict.

The solution, he said, would not come from corrupt politicians in Israel or from Hamas. “It will come from us, the sons and daughters of the two nations,” he said.

Friends came out in support of Mitnick, holding placards with phrases like: “You cannot build heaven with blood”, “An eye for an eye and we all go blind” and “There is no military solution.”

Military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israelis, viewed as a rite of passage. In the country’s highly militarised society, so-called refuseniks risk being labelled traitors.

Are refuseniks common?

No. Generally speaking, refuseniks may end up serving repeated prison services, ordered to return to recruitment centres again and again. Some wind up doing months behind bars before they are eventually discharged.

The Israeli military does have a conscientious objectors committee, but exemptions are usually only granted on religious grounds – the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, for instance, are legally exempt. Refusing to serve as a matter of political principle is not considered a valid objection.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks behind Israeli soldiers at the entrance to a military recruiting office in Jerusalem on July 4, 2012. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner had issued a veiled threat to quit the government over a dispute on amending Israel’s compulsory draft policy, which grants exemptions to ultra-Orthodox men studying the Torah in religious colleges [File: Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Earlier this year, Amnesty International released a report on Yuval Dag, a 20-year-old who had made his political objections clear before his summons. The army classified his refusal as disobedience and sentenced him to 20 days at Neve Tzedek military prison in Tel Aviv.

The rights group named four other individuals – Einat Gerlitz, Nave Shabtay Levin, Evyatar Moshe Rubin and Shahar Schwartz  – who were repeatedly detained in 2022. Conscientious objectors commonly serve five months or more in prison – a high price to pay for young people doing what they believe to be right.

Many objectors come to their decision after participating in protest movements, whether on LGBTQ rights, climate change or Israel’s occupation, violence and discrimination against Palestinians — a system that many rights groups have compared with apartheid.

Are there any famous refuseniks?

In 2003, a group of Israeli Air Force pilots provoked national fury when they refused to take part in operations in the West Bank and Gaza. Submitting a letter to the media, they branded attacks on the territories as “illegal and immoral”.

The case was noteworthy, involving elite army members like Brigadier General Yiftah Spector, considered a legend in the forces for his attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1982. The government accused the pilots of “pretentious snivelling”.

That same year, the country’s elite commandoes also defied orders to carry out attacks on the occupied territories. Setting out their position in a letter, 15 reservists from the Sayeret Matkal unit, often compared with the British army’s SAS, said: “We will no longer corrupt the stamp of humanity in us through carrying out the missions of an occupation army.

“In the past, we fought for a justified cause (but today), we have reached the boundary of oppressing another people.”

In 2007, swimwear model Bar Refaeli married a friend to avoid military service, later telling the press that “celebrities have other needs”. Later, to avoid damage to the companies she worked for, she agreed to participate in an enlistment campaign. The case ignited a debate on how easy it is to dodge conscription.

Hang on, wasn’t there dissent in army ranks this year?

Yes, but it was not linked to the occupation. In early March, about 700 reservist soldiers – including some top brass – resigned en masse during widespread protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul. Critics accused him of curtailing Supreme Court powers to shield himself from corruption charges.

People take part in a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
People take part in a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 22, 2023 [File: Corinna Kern/Reuters]

Explaining his refusal to serve in the army, Dag said that reservists had resigned because they were afraid of living in a dictatorship. But, he pointed out, “We need to remember that in the occupied territories there has never been democracy. And the anti-democratic institution that rules there is the army.”

Responding to rebellion in the ranks, Netanyahu said: “There’s no room for refusals.” Military service was, he said, “the first and most important foundation of our existence in our land …The refusals threaten the foundation of our existence.”

Netantahu’s view is not unusual. Across the political spectrum, with the exception of some left-wing and Arab groups, parties condemn the refusal to serve for a number of reasons. Left wingers worry about polarisation, claiming that refusing to serve will encourage right-wing resistance to removing settlements. Right wingers believe that refusal helps the enemies of Israel.

What does the law say?

The right to conscientious objection to military service is protected by international law, enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UN Commission for Human Rights has stated that states must “refrain from subjecting conscientious objectors to imprisonment and to repeated punishment for failure to perform military service”.

However, it is common practice in Israel, not only to imprison objectors, but to repeat sentences several times. In 2003, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that international law banned “double jeopardy”.

Selective objection is not an option. In 2002, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that allowing soldiers not to serve in the occupied territories would “loosen the links that hold us together as a people”.

The case had been brought by a group called Courage to Refuse, who said their duties would involve “dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies