Brothers in arms?

Three sons of a former IAF pilot, all from different elite IDF units, refuse to fight.

war paint ufr 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
war paint ufr 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What happens to an elite warrior, a battlefield veteran, that ends up landing him in prison for refusing to fight with his comrades? Brothers Zohar, Yonatan and Itamar Shapira were inculcated with the ideals of patriotism and giving their all to their country's defense. But during the recently concluded Operation Change of Direction, Itamar Shapira, 26, a paratroops engineer who fought in Lebanon during his mandatory army service in the years leading up to the 2000 pullout, refused to take part in the war and was sent to military prison for up to 28 days. His brother Zohar, 37, who co-organized the 2003 petition signed by himself and 12 ex-comrades in the ultra-elite, ultra-secret Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconaissance Unit) unit against service in the second intifada, said he would have refused to fight in this war after it expanded beyond a retaliation in the first few days, and would have refused even at the beginning if he had been called to attack a civilian target. "But if they had called me to fight Hizbullah in Bint Jbeil [a Hizbullah-controlled village in southern Lebanon where fighting was fierce], I imagine I would have gone." Yet their brother Yonatan, 34, a former Air Force pilot who co-organized the 2003 "Pilot's Letter" signed by 27 Air Force pilots calling on them to refuse to fly "targeted assassination" runs, said he would have refused any call-up at any time in this war. "From the very beginning of this operation, the IDF's response was immoral," Yonatan said. "Right away they bombed civilian targets - the airport in Beirut, oil storage facilities, roads, neighborhoods. They turned a million people into refugees." Even though Operation Change of Direction was supported as a "war of survival" by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, there were still some hardline left-wing IDF reservists such as the Shapira brothers who would have opted for prison rather than fight in Lebanon this last month. The phenomenon of draft resistance has shown up in Israel on the margins of the reserve ranks since the 1982-85 Lebanon War. This time around, though, the number of draft resisters was markedly lower than in that first Lebanon war, or in the 1987-93 first intifada, or in the second intifada, which began in 2000. "No one knows the exact number of draft resisters in this war, but we estimate it somewhere in the dozens," said Ishai Menuhin, spokesman and co-founder of Yesh Gvul (There Is A Limit), a movement established by reservists at the beginning of the Lebanon war and the founding organization of the resistance movement. Menuhin retired from reserve duty in 2003, after having served under the condition that he would not enter the territories. He said he personally counseled about 12 reservists who refused to join their units in battle, and of these, three were tried by military courts and sentenced to prison terms of up to a month, while the others were sent home, either to be excused from service or to be tried later. Other Yesh Gvul volunteers counseled additional resisters, while still other reluctant soldiers went through Courage to Refuse or New Profile organizations which started up a few years ago. But these numbers are very small compared to the ones registered during the first Lebanon War, when nearly 200 reservists served prison terms, or the first intifada, which saw a similar number in prison, and the second intifada, when the ranks of reservists in prison rose to about 250, along with a handful of younger, regular army soldiers. One of the reasons for the lower number of draft resisters this time is that Operation Change of Direction, as of this writing, resulted in a cease-fire after 34 days of fighting; the first Lebanon War and two intifadas each went on for years. And while the quantity of draft resistance was smaller this time around, Menuhin thinks it was sharper and more immediate than in previous wars. "In the past, the phenomenon of refusal didn't really surface until the second call-up. The first time, the soldiers would go, and then, when they were wiser the second time around, they would refuse," Menuhin said, noting that this was the path he himself took as a reservist in the first Lebanon War, leading him to spend time in a military prison. At the same time, though, it seems clear that the low number of draft resisters stood in inverse proportion to the high level of public support for the war - the understanding, almost across the board, that Israel, its soldiers and civilians, had been attacked by a radical Islamic group that, unlike the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, were not living under Israeli occupation. While cracks began to appear in this consensus as the war widened and casualties on both sides mounted, in the first days of the fighting, which followed Hizbullah's killing of eight IDF soldiers and kidnapping of two more, Israel's response appeared an almost unassailable instance of self-defense. "There's no comparison between refusal in this war and refusal in previous wars - not only in the numbers of refusers, but in the climate that surrounded them," said Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief IDF psychologist and former deputy head of the National Security Council. "While there have been a lot of criticisms of the handling of the war, there hasn't been much doubt that Hizbullah presented a serious threat to Israel. They didn't accumulate those 12,000 missiles for a parade or a museum. For the first time in a long time, you heard soldiers saying they were 'fighting for their home,' making the V sign on their way to Rambam hospital for treatment. Even in Meretz, there was hardly any sympathy for refusal to serve. There's a certain comparison that can be made between this war and the Yom Kippur War, which was also considered a 'debacle' in the way it was run, but which was still thought of as a war of survival." Because of the nearly wall-to-wall sense that Israel was justified in striking back at Hizbullah, some organizations that unanimously backed draft resistance to service in the West Bank or Gaza found themselves divided over whether to resist the call-up for Operation Change of Direction. SONS OF A former IAF pilot, the Shapira brothers began their military service as the cream of the crop. "I was super-loyal to the state, I believed in courage and fearlessness in the army, and I stayed that way for about the first 10 years of my service," said Zohar, who served many stints in the territories, as well as places he can't name, during his time in Sayeret Matkal. But during the worst fighting of the second intifada, he found himself doing things he couldn't abide. "We'd go into the house of some Palestinians looking for a wanted man, or for weapons, and we'd wake the family up in the middle of the night, turn their house upside down. I remember we were told to fire above the heads of anybody who took a step toward us, so one night this little girl about seven took a step toward [us] and I fired above her head. I'd go into houses and take suspects away and they'd go to prison without trial for years, and I wouldn't even know what they were accused of. And I did this night after night. "Then once in 2003 I was rescuing Israeli victims of a terror attack, and it just dawned on me that all the things we were doing to the Palestinians weren't defending Israel, but just causing more hatred and violence against us," said Zohar, a high-school teacher who now serves with a reserve IDF rescue unit that doesn't engage in battle. However, a few months ago he got a call-up to guard at Ketziot military prison, where many Palestinian security prisoners are held, and he refused, saying Ketziot was part of the "occupation apparatus, and I won't lend a hand to it." When Zohar turned to draft resistance after Operation Defensive Shield in spring 2002, his younger brother Yonatan was in the US training to operate the IDF's American-made jumbo transport helicopter, the Sikorsky, in which he was the commander of a flight unit. "Zohar was telling me he wouldn't go back to fight in the territories, and Itamar was telling me about all the craziness, the killing of civilians, and I started to look into it, to research, to ask questions. I remember that in June 2002, there was a terror attackon one of the settlements, and I was flying the first rescue helicopter there to take the wounded to Tel Hashomer. I remember that as we were descending [to the hospital], I could see a big outdoor wedding below, and the people were dancing and everything, and I thought: 'Seven minutes away from here I saw blood, and victims screaming, and the people down there are celebrating as if nothing had happened.' I realized that there was a tremendous disconnect between Israeli society and what's going on in the territories. And I thought, maybe I had been disconnected, too." Yonatan began talking to people in and out of the Air Force, but mainly to other pilots, about the morality of what they were doing. "A lot of the pilots who flew F-16s, F-15s, Apaches, they were very bitter because they'd grown up on 'purity of arms,' and that the Air Force doesn't target civilians, but they found out that this wasn't entirely true. A lot of my pilot friends don't sleep well at night. The killing of [Hamas's chief terrorist in Gaza] Salah Shehada, with a one-ton bomb on a residential building that killed I think 16 civilians including several children, enraged a lot of them. They told me other stories about being ordered to bomb suspects in the middle of crowded neighborhoods where it was obvious there would be a lot of civilian casualties," he said. Although he only flew rescue missions, Yonatan came to the conclusion that "by flying soldiers to the territories, I share responsibility for what happens." In September 2003, he and 26 other pilots announced their refusal to the commanders of the Air Force. Yonatan was informed that his days as an IAF pilot were over, and since then he has not been called back for any kind of reserve duty. BUT THE draft resistance movement in Israel is relatively tiny, having reached a peak of some 3,500 people during the first Lebanon War - those who signed the Yesh Gvul petition pledge not to serve. Unlike the masses of American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, Israeli refusers don't "dodge" - they announce their refusal to serve and accept the consequences, often a prison term. Moreover, they are overwhelmingly from the high end of the ranks - combat veterans. Draft resistance among 18-year-olds is extremely rare, if not unheard of. There is, however, a fairly widespread phenomenon of draft-dodging among reservists, which has nothing to do with the political draft resistance movement. They practice what's called "gray refusal" - faking an injury, or anxiety, or arranging to be out of the country on some phony pretext at call-up time, and thereby avoiding reserve duty without paying any price. Assa Kasher, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor who wrote the IDF's code of ethics in 1994, estimates that for every declared draft resister, there are 10 draft-dodgers or "gray refusers." The lead organization for draft resistance in the second intifada was Courage To Refuse, which in 2002 gathered over 600 signatures of combat soldiers and officers pledging to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, citing the immorality of the occupation and the suffering of millions of Palestinian civilians at the hands of the IDF. "I'd say about 500 of us were against serving in this war, and 100 were in favor," said the organization's founder, David Zonshein, who counts himself with the majority. He said he knows of about a half-dozen signators who were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the territories, but who answered the call-up to fight in Operation Change of Direction - again, out of the conviction that this war, unlike Israel's military actions in the territories, was a matter of self-defense, of a sovereign country defending itself against an act of foreign aggression. Among the more mainstream Left, led in the Knesset by Meretz and on the "street" by Peace Now, draft resistance has usually been seen as a crossing of a red line, a dangerous, divisive abdication of one's responsibilities as a citizen and member of a "citizen's army." Yet this is not a monolithic opinion; at the height of the second intifada, after the Courage To Refuse movement breathed life into the Left, many members of Peace Now backed the draft resistance movement. One of them was Galia Golan, a political science professor at Hebrew University, a co-founder of Peace Now and key organizer of the recent antiwar demonstration by the self-styled "Zionist Left." "I didn't support refusal during the first Lebanon War - we just weren't there yet - nor in the first intifada, because the suffering imposed on the Palestinians wasn't terrible to such extremes, but I did support it in the second intifada, because we were doing truly indefensible things - depriving the Palestinian population of their basic needs, closing off villages entirely, abuse at checkpoints, the assassination policy. I could understand a soldier who didn't want to do that," said Golan. And unlike most of her colleagues on the mainstream Left, Golan opposed Operation Change of Direction from day one, echoing Yonatan Shapira in saying that the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure began then. Nevertheless, her opposition remains ambivalent. She is unenthusiastic about draft resistance in the war that quieted down this week, because of the blatant wrong committed by Hizbullah in starting it. "I'm not sure whether people called up should refuse to serve, but I didn't condemn them, either. I said the government should take a decision to end the war and seek a diplomatic process," said Golan. At the same time, though, she said that if an IDF pilot decided, for instance, to drop his bombs in the sea rather than on a civilian facility, she would likely support such a move. THE POLITICAL EFFECT of the draft resistance movement - its effectiveness in shortening Israel's recent wars - has been uneven. The movement spread quite widely during the first Lebanon War, leading some observers to say it convinced the IDF brass to lean on regular soldiers, not reservists, to fight the war - if that can be considered an "accomplishment." In the second intifada, the movement created a strong initial splash, injecting some life into the moribund protest movement, but it peaked and then petered out after a year or so. In retrospect, its credibility may have been weakened because, contrary to the movement's claims that there was "no military solution" to Palestinian terror, the IDF eventually succeeded in breaking the back of the intifada with relentless military pressure. However, it is also widely believed that the refusal by the pilots and Sayeret Matkal members had a telling effect on prime minister Ariel Sharon, and played a part in leading him to decide on the disengagement from Gaza. "I never expected draft refusal to be the decisive factor in ending a war, I never thought that 500 or 1,000 draft resisters would change the government's policy," said Golan. "I saw it instead, during the second intifada, as the creation of a meaningful, moral option for people in this society. As for its political impact, it's one element among many. And given the nature of Israeli society, I think draft resistance grew much bigger than I expected it to." During Operation Change of Direction, it has had little if any impact on society at large. The handful of resisters of Summer 2006 have gone almost unnoticed, and if the cease-fire holds, they will go unremembered beyond the small circles that gather around Yesh Gvul, Courage to Remember and New Profile. But if the cease-fire breaks down, if the war resumes, what then? If the consensus around the war weakens in the face of rising casualties, would draft resistance spread as it did in the past? "It depends on several things - whether Hizbullah starts firing katyushas again, whether people in the North have to go into their bomb shelters again, if there's an emergency call-up or not," said former Chief IDF psychologist Gal. "You can't predict what will happen in a war." The Shapira brothers are now members of Warriors for Peace, a discussion group of some 60 Israeli draft resisters and 60 Palestinians, all of whom pledge to take no violent part in the conflict between their nations. "This is my unit now," said Yonatan. He considers his activity in Warriors for Peace to be a kind of non-military national service - "the most important thing I can do for my country's security," he said. While acknowledging that Israel needs a strong army, he dismissed the question of what would happen if all Israelis resisted the draft, saying this was not a real-life possibility, and that the more urgent, realistic threat - the one he was resisting - was of a nation of robot-like soldiers who would obey any order, moral or immoral.