The Troubled Conscience Of an Israeli Soldier

Adam Keller, jailed for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army in Lebanon, has a son, Uri, who was jailed for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army. The senior Keller, a leader of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and a serial-defier of Israeli governments since he was a teenager (he is now 50), works in Tel Aviv as a translator. In addition to his biological family, he lays claim to a political family of refuseniks, numbering roughly 1,500, who will not fight in the occupied territories or who, like Uri, will not even enter the army.

For me, and for many other Israelis, the big watershed was the Lebanon War in 1982, he says. Israel had previously claimed, whether true or untrue, that it fought wars only for survival. In 1982 it was very clear that this was not a war for survival, but a war for making a new order in the Middle East and for changing the regime in Lebanon. Actually, it was very similar to what Bush is now doing in Iraq, and with similar results.


The war in Lebanon led to the founding of another peace organization, Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit), to which Keller belonged. His name was one of 2,400 on a Yesh Gvul petition declaring that the signers, who had sworn to protect the safety and territorial integrity of Israel, would refuse to be the occupiers and oppressors of another country.

In 1984 Keller was ordered to report to his logistical unit, which was supplying Israeli troops in Lebanon. He refused. His commanding officer told him that if he did not go, another reservist would have to be hauled from his home and sent in his place. (The commander mentioned the reservist by name; it was someone Keller knew.)

He put me in a moral dilemma, says Keller. Did I have the right to put someone else at risk for my principles? But since I was an organizer in the refusal movement, and had even convinced several people who were hesitant to refuse and face jail, how could I have done otherwise when my turn came?

Keller served one month in jail for following his conscience. Four years later, during the first intifada, he served another three months for going around with his magic marker and defacing 117 tanks and trucks as well as the officers’ toilet facilities with the words: The soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces refuse to be occupiers and oppressors.

The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, with its long string of suicide bombings, drove Israelis sharply to the right, marginalizing the peace movement. Keller now sees the movement regaining some of its lost credibility as a result of the failure of Israel’s vaunted military option. The army, as has been widely reported, has carried out targeted assassinations, detentions, strict curfews and the destruction of homes and orchardsall without ending the Palestinian rebellion.

People are seeing for themselves that the war option doesn’t work, says Keller. One result of that awakening was all the media attention around the Geneva peace initiative [2003], where Israeli and Palestinian peace activists agreed on a plan for a two-state solution. Thirty to 40 percent of the Israeli public supported the plan. Also, there was the refusal letter of Israeli pilots, who said they would not attack Palestinian towns and villages, as well as the refusal letter of a group of elite commandos.

In speaking of his son, Keller recalled that in his own generation refuseniks respected the institution of the army, even while resisting its orders to be occupiers and oppressors. For refuseniks of his son Uri’s generation, the army, perceived more as occupier than protector, has lost its luster. Uri is an anomaly among his peers. When he was a child in kindergarten, his teacher went around the room asking the children what their fathers did in the army. Uri said matter-of-factly, My father is a prisoner.

Uri was brought before his commanding officerwhether one serves or not, every prospective soldier has a commanding officerseven times. Each time he was asked, Are you now willing to enlist? Each time, he said, No. Each time, he was slapped with a 28-day jail sentence.

After five or six times, Keller says, two things can happen. You can either go before the Incompatibility Committee, or there can be a full court-martial. Five friends of Uri, who also refused induction, were court-martialed. Each was sentenced to a year in jail. Uri was brought before the Incompatibility Committee, where he was declared unfit to serve. He is now part of the family tradition, Keller laughs. Keller himself was declared unfit to serve in 1990, when he tore off his uniform to protest the pardoning of four Israeli soldiers who had beaten to death an innocent Gaza man the year before.

Gush Shalom members, always quick to protest the killings of Palestinian civilians, especially children, are part of the landscape in front of the defense ministry in Tel Aviv and outside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s residence in Jerusalem. For a long time now, they and other Israeli peace activists have been joining Palestinians fighting against Sharon’s separation wall, which cut off villagers from their orchards, children from their schools and moderates on both sides from the hope of a viable Palestinian state ever being created. Sometimes the police will break up demonstrations with tear gas and gunfire. Sometimes, as in the case of Abu Dis, a village on the West Bank, demonstrators are left alone.

Abu Dis, says Keller, was a special case. A participant in one demonstration was Dr. Aran Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma Gandhi. The action was the initiative of Palestinians who were interested in exploring nonviolence. We had a big march: several thousand people, Israelis and Palestinians. Then a Palestinian spider-man climbed to the top of the wall along a crack. He threw down a rope, and 20 Palestinians climbed up to the top and walked along the wall with a banner that said, No to the Wall!’

Keller did not let the Peaceable Kingdom of Abu Dis soften his perspective on what it will take for Israelis and Palestinians to get to the other side of their river of blood. In real life, says Keller, peace does not mean that the two sides embrace each other and say, Ah, you are our brothers!’ In real life, peace means that the two sides have done their worst to each other. In the end, they say, 'Damn it, let this bastard have something so that he will leave us alone.’

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