Israeli teenagers jailed for refusing to serve in army
December 18 2008
Peace activists in Israel and around the world are participating on Wednesday in a day of action to call on Israeli authorities to release teenagers imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army for reasons of conscience.
Tamar Katz, Raz Bar-David Varon and Yuval Oron-Ofir are three conscientious objectors who are all serving their third prison sentences. At least six other teenagers – male and female – have been jailed in recent months for refusing to enlist and at least two more, both young women, are at risk of imminent imprisonment.
Their refusal stems from their opposition to the Israeli military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and to the practices of the Israeli army there. They believe that by enlisting they would participate in committing human rights abuses in which they want no part.
Amnesty International has added its voice to the campaign. The organization considers these teenagers to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.
Tamar Katz, aged 19, has already spent 50 days in jail and is serving her third prison sentence. In her declaration of refusal she stated:
“I am not willing to become part of an occupying army… I am not willing to become one of those holding the gun pointed indiscriminately at Palestinian civilians, and I do not believe that such actions could bring any change except ever more antagonism and violence in our region.”
She has been held in isolation and deprived of family visits as punishment for refusing to wear a military uniform in prison.
Eighteen-year-old Raz Bar-David Varon, also serving her third prison term, said on the day of her arrest:
“I have witnessed this army demolishing, shooting and humiliating people whom I did not know… It hurts me when people, Palestinians, are being so brutally assaulted, and it hurts me when they later turn their hatred towards me because of it. I wasn’t born to serve as a soldier who occupies another… My responsibility is to refuse.”
Yuval Oron-Ofir was jailed for the third time on 14 December. The 19-year-old explained his reasons for refusing to enlist:
“There is another way, which is not the way of war. This is the path of dialogue, of understanding… of peace. This is why I shall not join an army behind whose actions I cannot stand and whose behavior I cannot justify.”
Teenagers who refuse to enlist because they do not want to find themselves in a situation where they may contribute to or participate in committing human rights abuses are generally sent to jail for months.
There is no civilian service alternative to military draft in Israel and, although a “conscience committee” exists within the Israeli army, exemption is only usually granted to those who refuse to serve on religious grounds. Those who make it known that they are unwilling to enlist on grounds of conscience – because they are pacifist or oppose the army’s practices in the OPT – are routinely imprisoned.
At the same time, Israeli soldiers who commit grave human rights violations, including war crimes, such as unlawful killings of unarmed civilians, reckless shelling of densely populated residential areas or wanton destruction of homes, are routinely granted impunity.
“Such a policy sends the wrong message to Israeli society and to young people in particular,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “All conscientious objectors should be given the opportunity to present the grounds of their objection to a decision-making body which is impartial and independent.
“Amnesty International calls on the Israeli authorities to ensure that such a body is established, and in the meantime to immediately and unconditionally release the conscientious objectors currently detained and not to imprison others.”
Americans support conscientious objectors to IDF military service by sending 20,000 letters to Barak
By Natasha Mozgovaya
December 21 2008
Conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces received an unprecedented shot in the arm from North American Jewry yesterday, when demonstrators protested against their detention by presenting 20,000 letters from Diaspora Jews demanding their release.
Dozens of activists tried to deliver the letters to Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a demonstration outside his office in Tel Aviv.
Many letters came from a Web site called Jewish Voice for Peace, which features a video in which the objectors explain in English why they refused to enlist.
Although most American Jews are politically aligned with the liberal left, IDF service is generally viewed as an unassailable duty. Thus, there has never been a concentrated effort to lobby Israelis to evade conscription.
The Jewish Voice for Peace has recruited actor Ed Asner, historian and author Howard Zinn, and folk singer Ronnie Gilbert to the cause.
“The recent election of anti-war candidate Barack Obama, who by the way received some 80% of the Jewish vote, was evidence of the American people’s disenchantment with war and occupation,” said Cecilie Surasky, the communications director for Jewish Voice for Peace. “Seven years and untold lives and dollars later, there is almost total agreement in the U.S. that our venture in Iraq has been an unqualified disaster.”
Gilbert called on Israel to change its policies.
“I am an old-time peace activist,” he said. “I have marched and pleaded against the cruel occupation for years. The presence of the Shministim [the Hebrew term for Israeli youths who refuse enlistment] makes me ashamed of sometimes feeling that Israel will never change. You are the change.”
Zinn, a scholar who is no stranger to controversy, called the objectors courageous for their actions.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about courage,” Zinn wrote in his letter. “Right now, while I’m snug and fed this Thanksgiving holiday in the comfort of my home, halfway around the world a group of teenagers is sitting in a jail cell today, demonstrating the very definition of courage and sacrifice. It’s frustrating. Humbling. And I’m damn glad to have the chance to do something big about it.”
Surasky said she was not concerned that the campaign would be viewed as interference in internal Israeli affairs.
“For years, money from Jewish American organizations supported the settlements in Israel. It’s logical for dovish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace to support the Shministim, who represent the values that we wish Jews and Israel would represent everywhere – authentic commitment to the value of human lives. Especially in the days of Hanukkah. They are a small light which shines bright in days of great darkness.”
The Jewish Voice for Peace internet site offers a ready-made text which users can send to Barak after filling out their email addresses, their names and other details.
“I support the Shministim and their right to peacefully object to military service,” the standard letter reads. “I call for the release of those teenagers who have been jailed for their principled refusal to serve in an army which occupies the Palestinian Territories. The imprisonment of these conscientious objectors is a violation of their human rights and contrary to International Law.”
The letter continues: “I am inspired by these caring students and their counterparts in Palestine, whose nonviolent resistance to the Occupation points the way to a just peace and security for all people in the region. They are our best hope for the future. I urge you to heed them, and not punish them.”
The IDF objectors also received a show of support from 25 American objectors who refused to fight in the Middle East.
“We, soldiers in the U.S. Army who refused to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, demonstrate our solidarity with the Israeli Shministim,” they wrote. “The War on Terror, like the Israeli occupation, is fueled by racism and dehumanization.”
The teenagers are right, Israel is committing crimes against humanity. Starvation is a crime.
Israel starving Palestinians: UN
The UN Relief and Works Agency fears that irreversible damage is being done as the latest statistics reveal the level of deprivation in the Gaza Strip
December 22, 2008
Impoverished Palestinians on the Gaza Strip are being forced to scavenge for food on rubbish dumps to survive as Israel’s economic blockade risks causing irreversible damage, international observers said.
Figures released last week by the UN Relief and Works Agency reveal that the economic blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza in July last year has had a devastating impact on the local population. Large numbers of Palestinians are unable to afford the high prices of food being smuggled through the Hamas-controlled tunnels to the Strip from Egypt and last week were confronted with the suspension of UN food and cash distribution as a result of the siege.
The figures collected by the UN agency show that 51.8 percent — an “unprecedentedly high” number of Gaza’s 1.5 million population — are now living below the poverty line. The agency has announced that it had been forced to stop distributing food rations to the 750,000 people in need and had also suspended cash distributions to 94,000 of the most disadvantaged who were unable to afford the high prices being asked for smuggled food.
“Things have been getting worse and worse,” the agency’s Chris Gunness said yesterday. “It is the first time we have been seeing people picking through the rubbish like this looking for things to eat. Things are particularly bad in Gaza City where the population is most dense.”
“Because Gaza is now operating as a ‘tunnel economy’ and there is so little coming through via Israeli crossings, it is hitting the most disadvantaged worst,” he said.
Gunness also expressed concern about the state of Gaza’s infrastructure, including its water and sewerage systems, which have not been maintained properly since Israel began blocking shipments of concrete into Gaza, warning of the risk of the spread of communicable diseases both inside and outside of Gaza.
“This is not a humanitarian crisis,” he said. “This is a political crisis of choice with dire humanitarian consequences.”
The revelations over the escalating difficulties inside Gaza were delivered a day after the end of the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, which had been brokered by Egypt in June, and follow warnings from the World Bank at the beginning of December that Gaza faced “irreversible” economic collapse.
The deteriorating conditions in Gaza emerged as former British prime minister Tony Blair, Middle East envoy for the Quartet — US, Russia, the UN and the EU — warned yesterday that Israel’s economic blockade, which had been imposed a year and a half ago when Hamas took power on the Gaza Strip, was reinforcing rather than undermining the party’s hold on power. Blair said the collapse of Gaza’s legitimate economy under the impact of the blockade had allowed the emergence of an alternative system based on smuggling through the Hamas-controlled tunnels. Hamas “taxed” the goods smuggled through the tunnels.
It was because of this that Blair wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this month demanding that Israel permit the transfer of cash into Gaza from the West Bank.
Calling for a change in policy over Gaza, Blair said: “I don’t think that the current situation is sustainable; I think most people who would analyze it think the same.”
Blair’s comments came as an Israeli air strike against a rocket squad killed a Palestinian militant yesterday, the first Gaza death since Hamas formally declared an end to a six-month truce with Israel.
Also on Saturday, a boat carrying a Qatari delegation, Lebanese activists and journalists from Israel and Lebanon sailed into Gaza City’s small port in defiance of a border blockade. It was the fifth such boat trip since the summer. The two Qatari citizens aboard the Dignity are from the government-funded Qatar Authority for Charitable Activities.
“We are here to represent the Qatar government and people,” delegation member Aed al-Kahtani said. “We will look into the needs of our brothers in Gaza, and find out what is the most appropriate way to bring in aid.”
The arrival of the delegation reflects the growing anger in the Arab world over the Gaza siege.
On Friday, thousands of people joined a rally in Beirut organized by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Addressing the Beirut crowd, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Kassem called on Arab and Islamic governments to act to help lift the Gaza blockade, and urged Egypt to take an “historic stance” by opening its border crossing with Gaza.
“Silence on the [Gaza] blockade is disgraceful. Silence on the blockade amounts to participation in the [Israeli] occupation,” Kassem said.