Acts of Refusal
An Interview with Rela Mazali
Rela Mazali, an Israeli writer and feminist peace activist, is a founder of New Profile, a group challenging the militarization of Israeli society and opposing the occupation. Joel Beinin, an editor of Middle East Report, spoke with her in Herzliya, Israel on January 6, 2004 and continued the conversation by e-mail in May 2004.
Your work with New Profile has focused on the relationship between gender and militarism in the context of the occupation. Can you tell us about the status of this relationship, and the historical evolution of feminist anti-occupation activism?
After over half a century of conflict, Israeli society is highly militarized. In my view, public consent to protracted warfare draws on a sharply gendered division of labor where “boys must be boys,” and women and children are constructed as objects of protection. Decades of conscription have functioned to equate masculinity with soldierhood. For many years, combat experience was a prerequisite for being taken seriously or for being heard at all in the public sphere, especially on “the conflict” or “national security.”
In the late 1980s, Women in Black began weekly calls to “End the Occupation” at major intersections, claiming space and visibility for women marginalized in the militarized society. Later, the Four Mothers demanded the evacuation of southern Lebanon, also contesting the silencing of women in security debates, though pointedly rejecting feminist views. But women’s voices are still rarely heard in Israeli national politics. The feminist peace groups prominent in the anti-occupation movement, particularly since the start of the second intifada, have been mostly ignored by the Israeli media.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, feminist activism in Israel has increasingly addressed the intricate social practices underpinning the militarization that extends beyond the occupation. Feminist networking has uncovered a largely submerged, unorganized movement of draft resistance. While the publicly visible resisters are usually young men, the anti-militarization work of feminists has played a vital role in the evolution of this trend. Today, an unprecedented number of draft-age men and women are refusing to enlist in the Israeli armed forces. Only about half of every annual group of candidates for military service serve their full terms of mandatory military duty. (Palestinian citizens of Israel, except Druze, are excluded from military service.) About 8 or 9 percent of candidates are automatically exempted as Orthodox Jews; another 25 percent obtain exemptions on grounds of what the army classifies as “unsuitability” -- grounds of mental, emotional or physical health. About 15 percent more enlist but leave the army early. At the tiny, but important, visible tip of this process, refusers openly declare their ideological opposition to the deeds of the military and/or the government policies it implements. The number of declared draft resisters was higher than ever before in 2003, as was the number of resisters serving prison sentences. Of the dozen or so draft resisters imprisoned during this period, some were exempted from military service after repeated short-term sentences. Two or three were recognized as conscientious objectors, narrowly defined by the Israeli military as pacifists, and exempted from service after consecutive short prison terms. Six resisters were court-martialed after repeated short-term sentences, and in January 2003 five of these -- who claimed conscientious objection to the occupation -- were sentenced to a second year in prison.
For Israeli peace forces, what is the significance of the fact that those five young men were sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to serve in the army -- not just in the Occupied Territories, but anywhere?
Every movement needs symbols. The draft resisters symbolize a moral choice -- a very consistent, well-constructed, well-grounded choice. They are very articulate and have a lot of experience. Not that kids can’t be thoughtful and knowledgeable, but these are very atypical 19 year-olds. So I think they are…a very real, concrete indication of a loss of legitimacy of the government, not just one government, but a whole succession of governments. They demonstrate an accelerating loss of commitment on the part of people to serve the Israeli governments that deploy the military. In December 2003, the maximum age of military service was reduced [by the army] by another five years, after a decade of being reduced a number of times, so that now the discharge age is down to 40. In the security service law, the age is 54. The reduction is a de facto acknowledgement by the army that the reserve system no longer exists. Less than 30 percent of the people who are called up actually show up for duty. Reservists can’t be counted on anymore if there’s any kind of controversy about the operation they’re called up to take part in. For instance, after the incursions into the West Bank towns in 2002, the government claimed there had been a 100 percent response to the call-up. But they didn’t explain that [the scope of ] the call-up was reduced in the first place, because there are a lot of “troublemakers” who don’t get called up at all. Then, when the government wanted to go into Gaza, they refrained partly because they were having trouble with the reserves. It was obvious that controversy was growing about the incursions and, in particular, about the plans to re-enter Gaza. There is a breakdown in compliance, in obedience, in legitimacy.
The whole issue of draft resistance needs to be mapped. During the Vietnam years in the US, a lot of young people were going to Canada or claiming mental unfitness. Only a small minority actually declared their resistance and went to prison. It’s the same here. The vast majority of people who are resisting the draft are doing so by undeclared means. They’re going to army psychologists, they’re going abroad, they’re blaming physical problems, they’re becoming “troublemakers” and getting out because the army kicks them out. All of these are draft resisters. A small minority of them declare their resistance openly. Another minority are declared reserve resisters -- they have done their term of mandatory service and are now openly refusing specific tasks as reservists, like the pilots [who refused to carry out aerial assassinations], or refusing duty within the Occupied Territories, or refusing reserve duty altogether. The public is mostly aware of only two components of this movement. It knows that there are evaders, whom it doesn’t necessarily see as draft resisters, and it knows that there is a small minority of declared resisters, who are seen as a marginal, possibly lunatic fringe. But the lunatic fringe label is getting weaker. The whole idea of not complying with the law of conscription is gradually becoming normalized. The public sees people making a personal decision and deciding to opt out, which was not legitimate 15 or 20 years ago.
What is the gender dynamic of the resistance movement?
First of all, resistance is not limited to young men. The twelfth graders’ letter, addressed to the prime minister in 2001 and again in 2002 announcing that these students would “refuse to serve the occupation and war crimes committed by the Israeli Occupation Forces in the territories,” was written by both men and women. Some of the men are sitting in prison with long sentences. They’ve gone through courts martial, while the young women are all out, though recently a few young women have been imprisoned. Within the resistance movement there is a classic distribution of gender roles as they manifest in a sexist, militarized society, where the men are the visible ones, the ones who are considered brave and have become the heroes. The women are supposed to support the men and tend the home fires. The young women have actually started to question this process. Their questioning has generated a lot of anger from some of the young men and from some resisters’ parents. The women have been told, “You want to be a hero? Go to jail.” They also heard what most women’s movements hear when they are intertwined with nationalist or other movements: “Now is not the time.” This is an indication of how deeply the whole culture is predicated on the masculinity that keeps young men in the role of soldiers; even if they are not soldiers, they become comparable to soldiers.
Some of the young women draft resisters see their resistance as a result of their feminist views. They object not only to the occupation, or to the war crimes committed by the army or to organized violence, but also to the second-class citizenship assigned to women and other groups by militarization. They state this clearly in some of their letters to the military authorities. They believe it is futile to focus on the occupation or Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, without recognizing how these things mesh with mechanisms of social stratification modeled on male domination.
These young women are themselves resisters, which older feminist activists were not. Formerly, refusal, with very few exceptions, was considered to mean men resisting call-ups to their annual terms of reserve duty. Women were exempted from the reserves from the time of their marriage (on the sexist assumption that they should stay at home to care for children), or from well before men’s age of discharge if unmarried (on another gendered assumption that they were not “real” soldiers and weren’t needed by the military). Meanwhile, men were obliged to do annual reserve duty well into their forties.
Due to underlying sexist assumptions and the history of coalition politics, women’s right to refuse to enlist on grounds of conscience is recognized by Israeli law, while men’s is not. For many years now, a trickle of women have gone before the so-called conscience committees and exercised that right. Most of these women did so as individuals, often (though not always) as pacifists, without public support and without recognition from the only visible refusal movement of the 1980s and 1990s, Yesh Gvul. As late as 1998, a leading member of Yesh Gvul told me he didn’t consider these to be acts of refusal, saying, “Pacifism is apolitical.” Consequently, courageous acts of refusal performed by young women stayed virtually unknown, including the prolonged imprisonment of a young woman soldier who had refused to continue her research work at the biological institute at Nes Ziona, commonly claimed to be developing biological weapons. While tiny pacifist groups or individuals had formerly offered such women some support and counseling, New Profile has been the first group to succeed in offering women’s refusal some degree of public visibility. Such recognition became possible within the context of a refusal movement increasingly including the draft resistance of 18 year-olds.
Are the younger feminists consciously adopting a more militant pose than the earlier generation?
As refusers, these young women can claim the right to criticize the refusers’ movement in a way that older feminist activists had not allowed themselves. In addition, they can discuss the state’s differential treatment of women’s and men’s refusal from personal experience. The high personal price of imprisonment functions not only as a deterrent to future resisters, but also as a means of division. Imprisonment is widely perceived, even in the refusal movement, as the distinctive mark of the “real” resisters, whom it sets apart from the many more “would-be” resisters, who do not go to prison. Most of the women (as well as those male refusers who opt out via mental, emotional or health clauses) find themselves voiceless, despite their act of refusal, and called on to fulfill the feminized role of supporting and amplifying other’s voices and deeds.
Some of the young women have attempted to resist this process. To date, however, it has proven quite difficult to overcome the divisive effects. In any case, their ability to grasp the gender dynamic has been considerably enhanced by the existence of an alternative public space created by the feminist anti-militarist movement. While the young men on trial faced the public institutions of the military court and the media, using these components of the public sphere to state their cases very eloquently, in full public view, with strong support from parents, from some of the best of Israel’s human rights lawyers, from talented and sympathetic publicists and from the various refusers’ groups, the young women made their statements within the modest but crucial space created by their older, feminist sisters and brothers. They also drew considerably on the view of militarization offered by these feminist activists, and acquired the feminist methodology of jointly collecting personal testimonies about the process of refusal.
The dialogue between younger and older feminist women and men in the refusal and anti-militarist movement in Israel has been extremely lively and productive. Most activist groups in Israel tend to be segregated by age, with some mainly comprised of seasoned activists and others mainly comprised of young people. The feminist peace movement and New Profile in particular is exceptional in its integration of a broad age spectrum with the active membership dispersed pretty evenly across the whole range. The interaction between age groups, though not always smooth, has generated a vibrant dynamic. All over the country, high-school student groups, operating under a New Profile umbrella and facilitated by young adults, generate discussion of conscription, within the context of occupation and militarization, from a feminist perspective.
How are you working with Palestinians?
In June 2002, we initiated a project called Women Refuse, which involved a very interesting week-long tent vigil on the beach, right on the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Women were invited to come and talk about refusing to take part in whatever it was they objected to. We initiated this project after the incursion into the West Bank. The next to the last morning in the tent, over e-mail had come the statement of a group of Palestinian intellectuals questioning suicide bombing. We read the statement aloud and sat in the tent formulating a media response. It was quite amazing. On the one hand, we were saying that we refused to take part in what our army was doing; on the other side, they were saying that this use of violence, this militarization and brutalization of ourselves, is something we really need to question. It is not true, as some say, that nothing came of that statement. No, it did not prevent suicide bombings on the spot. It did not succeed in organizing a non-violent movement among Palestinians. But it was a very strong, brave voice that I cite very often. It is very important to me and to others to know that it is there. I know that there are women on the Palestinian side who, as feminists, believe that the issue of nationality needs to be regarded with greater skepticism. At this moment, nationality is on their agenda, almost by force. Yet, even as they live through a moment when national identity is of paramount importance, they question the idea that the nation should be the paramount identity.