Thursday, July 6, 2017

Israeli Conscientious Objector: 'It's okay to be racist in Israel'

Dear friends,
Israeli conscientious objector and anti-occupation activist, Sahar Vardi recently gave an interview to Al Jazeera on racism in Israel and the Zionist state's ongoing belligerent military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

I first briefly met Sahar when she attended demonstration in the Occupied West Bank against Israel's occupation. At the time, she was a high school refusenik/conscientious objector and had not yet been sent to prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military. 

In 2012, Sahar and Micha Kurz, another conscientious objector and one of the founders of the Breaking the Silence were in Australia for a speaking tour. During the Melbourne leg of their speaking tour, Sahar and Micha kindly agreed to do a video interview with me on co-resistance in Israel and Palestine, which I have included below.

In addition to the 2012 video interview and the recent Al Jazeera interview with Sahar, I have also included the conscientious objector video that Sahar participated in, along with other conscientious objectors in 2009.

In solidarity,

 Israeli Conscientious objectors, 2009

2012: Melbourne interview with Sahar Vardi and Micha Kurz 
on Co-resistance in Israel & Palestine


'It's okay to be racist in Israel'

An Israeli conscientious objector speaks out about racism and subjugation as the occupation enters its 51st year.

Supporters of an Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, charged with manslaughter after he shot a wounded Palestinian alleged attacker as he lay on the ground in Hebron in 2016


Al Jazeera, 25 June 2017

Zena al-Tahhan is an online journalist and producer for Al Jazeera English

Occupied East Jerusalem - This year, Israel's 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories entered its 51st year.

In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli army is responsible for controlling the lives of more than three million Palestinians through hundreds of checkpoints, raids of villages and homes, trial of civilians in military courts, demolition of homes, suppression of protests, and the killing and injuring of civilians, to name a few.

To sustain the occupation industry, Israel makes it mandatory by law for Israeli citizens, excluding Palestinians and Orthodox Jews, to enter the military at 18. Men have to serve just under three years while women serve two years.

Yet, there are Israeli citizens who refuse to serve in the military for several reasons, including opposition to the army's policies in the Palestinian territories it occupies.

Sahar Vardi, 27, is one of such refusers. She is an Israeli activist who was sentenced to prison and detention eight times consecutively for her defiance in 2008. Vardi also faced other repercussions for her decision; she said she would get very late phone calls for periods up to a year at a time with people cursing at her.

Her home was also graffitied with profanity directed at her.

READ MORE: How Israeli soldiers interrogated me

Many countries around the world have accepted the right of conscientious objectors to be exempt from military service. In Israel, objectors must apply through a committee to gain exemption.

The committee, popularly known as the "Conscience Committee", is mostly made up of military officers. In practice, only those who claim religious reasons or apolitical pacifism - a refusal of violence in all forms - are exempted.Those who outwardly state their opposition to the occupation are sentenced to repeated terms of imprisonment until they are declared unfit to serve by the Israeli army.

Al Jazeera spoke to Vardi, who was released in 2009, about her experience and her views on Israeli society after 50 years of occupation.

Al Jazeera: Can you tell us about the process of getting out of military service in Israel?

Sahar Vardi: There are two legal ways to be exempt from military service in Israel. The first is being recognised as a conscientious objector. It's difficult to do so, but it is possible.

Every year, some 54,000 people are drafted into the Israeli military. Out of the 54,000, about 100-200 request conscientious objector (CO) status*. A military committee assesses each case, but grants CO status to only a few dozen youths.

READ MORE: Israeli army 'among world's child rights violators'

The committee only allows pacifists to be exempt from military service, but the committee has a very narrow definition of what pacifism is. To be granted CO status, you have to tell the committee that you are against any form of violence under any circumstance and that your refusal is not political. Mainly, if you say the word "occupation", you fail. That's kind of the game.

A lot of it is also avoiding the committee's questions because they're absurd - you cannot answer them - at least not honestly. We've had people being asked: "You're standing with a gun in front of Hitler, what do you do?"

The second way to be legally exempt from military service is to cite mental health problems, which is the easier way out.
Al Jazeera: How did you decide to go about it?

Vardi: I did go to the conscientious objectors' committee, but decided in advance that I will say the real reasons why I did not want to be in the military and use the word "occupation" in my explanation. And I failed the committee's test.

I got a letter saying that I was not recognised as a conscientious objector, and therefore must serve in the military. Once you are classified as fit for service, you cannot refuse to join the military in Israel - there's no legal way to do that.

You are tried as a soldier refusing an order, which means that you will go to court, be sentenced, and go to prison. When you eventually get out of prison, you will get an order saying you have to go back to your military base to continue your service. If you continue to refuse, you will repeat these steps for a while.

The most anyone has ever sat in prison for refusing to serve was two years.

I refused eight times consecutively, but I wasn't sentenced to prison each time. Sometimes I was put in detention because they didn't have room for me in prisons. In those instances, we were kept in a military base instead. I've spent a total of five months in prison and detention.
Al Jazeera: Why didn't you try to get out based on mental health?

Vardi: Getting out on mental health is pretty easy. Today about 12 percent of the Israeli population that's supposed to be conscripted - Jewish and Druze - either don't start or don't complete their military service based on mental health issues. That's huge. I'm going to assume that not 12 percent of Israeli society is mentally ill.

Everyone knows that this is the easiest way out of the military. Many people who do not want to serve in the military because of economic reasons will get out by citing mental health issues.

Also, some people who are ideologically opposed to being in the military, but who do not want to go to prison, choose the mental health route to avoid military service.

For me, it was kind of an opportunity to make a political stand. I knew I could get out in whatever way - I could have said the right things to the conscientious objectors' committee. I know the answers they wanted to hear. But the idea is that it's an opportunity to talk about the occupation. There are other people like me, so we had a voice - we came out with a campaign, we made statements to the media, and so on.

Once you go to prison, you can talk about the realities of the occupation. This is not merely about avoiding military service, which is easy. It is also about putting out a message.

Al Jazeera: Do you think Israelis are ignorant of the occupation of the Palestinian territories?

Vardi: Israelis do know that something is happening in the West Bank. Some of them won't call it occupation because they like to hide behind the legal discourse of it being disputed territory.

But there aren't Israelis that don't know there's military control on a civilian population at least in the West Bank - in Gaza, it's different.

People have no idea about what that means though. We have this idea that everyone was in the military so everyone knows what occupation looks like right? That's not the case.

Between 10-15 percent of the military are combat - meaning will actually be stationed in the occupied territories.

Even then, what they know is a very specific narrow reality. You speak to soldiers in a protest and they'll tell you this is Area A of the West Bank, you're not supposed to be here when we're not actually in Area A. [Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering Area A of the West Bank, under Palestinian control]

They don't even know what's happening around them.

Even the fact that you're there doesn't mean you understand the reality. Understanding what is actually going on requires a lot of knowledge and the priority of the military is not to educate soldiers. The military's priority is to teach soldiers that they need to follow orders. So, Israelis don't really know what occupation is.

Most Israeli Jerusalemites that you stop in the street in West Jerusalem don't know that Palestinian Jerusalemites are residents and not citizens - they literally have no idea that they are not citizens of the state.

Al Jazeera: Who's responsibility do you think it is?

Vardi: Of course, it is their responsibility to know, but it's the responsibility of Israeli activists to make sure Israeli citizens know these things. For most people, the occupation is not relevant to their lives. It's also important to understand the dynamics within the Israeli society.
Israel today, within the Organisation for Economic, Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a country with one of the biggest gaps between the rich and the poor. This means a huge part of Israeli society is struggling for existence - and really couldn't care less why East Jerusalemites are only residents, and why close to 80 percent of them live in poverty. It's not really their priority.

I think for us as activists, part of the responsibility is to figure out how to make this an issue - and make people understand that it is their responsibility to care about this. But we need to make sure that we do this from a place that also acknowledges other issues that they care about.

Al Jazeera: Why do you think the discussion on 1948 in Israel, even among leftists, is non-existent?

Vardi: There's a difference between the Zionist and the non-Zionist left. But mainly, it's because there's an easy solution for 1967 - the two states. I don't think it's realistic, but at least at the discourse level, the Israeli left have a solution for the problems born out of the 1967 war.

But 1948 - what do you do with it? The one thing you can do with it - if you actually want to talk about it and recognise the Right of Return - is to give up the Jewish state. There's a lot of solutions that will still allow Israeli Jews to be here - that's not the issue. The issue is that if you acknowledge the problem with 1948, your only option is to give up on the Jewish state.

INTERACTIVE: A record year of home demolitions in occupied East Jerusalem

In mainstream Zionist discourse and mindset, that's not on the table. That's not an option, that's not something people conceptualise. It's challenging for people who grew up with the conception of: "We need a Jewish state to protect ourselves." That's mainly what it stems from. They believe that this is a need. So, based on that, opening up 1948 to discussion is a problem.

It's a question of tackling something far deeper and far more rooted within Israeli existence. Most Israelis don't have a reason to do it. Their life is fine - it's comfortable - why should they question these things?

There's actually been more discussion in the last few years about the "Nakba" - surprisingly because of the right wing. For example, the Nakba law [a law that criminalises commemorating the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948] meant that you have to explain what the Nakba is.
Al Jazeera: How do you think regular Israelis justify what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories?

Vardi: For the ideological right, it's about taking over the Holy Land. From a more mainstream political perspective, a lot of it is about resources - cheap land, water, man power, that allows for a successful economy.

Most settlers don't move to a settlement for ideological reasons - they move because it's far cheaper. For example, people who move into the Maale Adumim settlement move there because that is the only place they can afford to live.

Others justify all this with the need for security. They think occupation keeps them safe. This has a lot to do with how Israelis are educated and how fear is a huge part of our identity. And there's a lot of political interest in keeping it that way. You can't continue such a level of militarisation in a society without fear. You can't ignore what happened in 1948 without it. You can't continue maintaining an occupation without it. Our education system is built to make sure that we're terrified. Even our media and political campaigns - [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu is an expert at making sure that we're terrified.

I have a friend who, during her military service, worked at the biggest radio station in the country, which is military run. She was part of the news desk. They were ordered to start the broadcast with a news story about Iran whenever they had to report something that is critical of the military or something bad that happened - like a Palestinian being killed at a checkpoint.
They were told to go to Reuters and find something about Iran. It's like: "We do bad things sometimes at a checkpoint but there's an existential threat - a nuclear bomb, right?"

People are genuinely afraid.
Al Jazeera: How do you explain the Israeli military's use of psychological abuse in the occupied territories?

Vardi: That's how militaries work. If you choose to maintain an occupation and if you choose to maintain military control on a civilian population, it's going to be violent - there's no nice way to do it.

Of course, racism is an inherent part of it. This is rooted in the fact that these people are told that they have to control this civilian population as if they are an enemy. To achieve this, they have to become racist. You can't stand in a checkpoint and stop people from going where they need to go without either going crazy or becoming racist.
You have to dehumanise people. You can't follow orders if you don't dehumanise people. Think about yourself standing at a checkpoint for eight-hour shifts and having to tell people, "Oh, actually, your permission to enter ended three minutes ago and you can't pass anymore, even if you have a doctor's appointment."
You can't do that if you actually see the person in front of you as someone who could be your grandmother.

So you dehumanise them and once you dehumanise a group of people there is no turning back. You dehumanise them just so you can say "no" at a checkpoint. But the next time you're in a situation where you have to push them, it'll be easy enough for you to push them. And then, when you have to shoot them, it'll be easy enough for you to shoot them.

After a few months, you lose all touch with humanity.

Al Jazeera: Is this part of the military training?

Vardi: The military is made up of officers who are used to dehumanising people. It is full of people who used to beat people to the ground. That's already inherent in who they are and how they see things. So, obviously, it's part of the entire culture. This culture stems from the military and eventually becomes part of civil society - and today - racism is a legitimate part of the Israeli discourse.

It's okay to be racist in Israel today. It's okay to say, "Yes, Jews are better." It's okay to think, "Yes, when we are thinking of security, the security of Jews is more important than the security of Arabs" - that's not even a question.

The legitimacy of racism is partially based on what Zionism is. It's a nationalist movement of the Jewish people – it's by definition preferring Jews over non-Jews – that's what Zionism is. People believe that this is a logical way of thinking in light of the way we have been treated through history.

There's a fundamental difference between protecting the Jewish identity as a minority and what happens when Jews become the majority and still pursue the ideology of protecting the Jewish identity at any cost.

Once, I witnessed a family having a serious conversation about what would be worse - their Jewish son bringing home a Palestinian girl or [an Israeli] man. A Palestinian friend of mine, who speaks fluent Hebrew, also witnessed this conversation. And we just sat there, thinking that this is a legitimate conversation that can be had in public.

Al Jazeera: What do you think needs to happen for things to change?

Vardi: I think one of the things that Israel has done very well is to maintain a level of oppression, which means you will always have to deal with certain issues, but you also still have something to lose because, when people don't have anything to lose, they revolt.
Israel is pretty good at keeping that balance, although it is beginning to break slightly. The fact that Israeli society is becoming more right-wing and that Israeli politicians are responding to that and are becoming more aggressive means that at some point that balance will break - at some point Palestinians will not have as much to lose - but I hate to see that as the optimism.

*The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera's request to confirm the figures.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Facts & Figures: 50 Years of Israeli Military Rule, 70 Years of Palestinian Dispossession

Originally published June 08, 2017 - IMEU

50 Years of Israeli Military Rule, 70 Years of Palestinian Dispossession

A woman sits in front of her destroyed home after it was demolished by Israeli bulldozers in the Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran

The policies of discrimination and displacement that Israel has implemented against Palestinians in the lands it has military occupied since the 1967 war are part of a larger program of dispossession of Palestinians dating to Israel’s establishment in 1948 and encompassing Palestinians citizens of Israel as well. Inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, these policies are intended to limit and contain the Palestinian population in order to create and maintain a Jewish majority country that privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish ones.
  • Although they have the right to vote, Palestinian citizens of Israel (who comprise about 20% of the population) face widespread systematic discrimination in virtually every aspect of life, including dozens of laws that preference Israeli Jews dealing with everything from land ownership and housing, to education, employment, health care, and family reunification.


  • As non-Jews in a Jewish state, Palestinian citizens of Israel are confined by law and zoning policies to just 3.5% of the land. Ninety-three percent of the land in Israel is state controlled by the Israel Land Authority and quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund, which discriminate against non-Jewish citizens. According to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, in 2015 only 4.6% of the housing tenders published by the Israel Land Authority were given to Palestinian communities in Israel. 


  • Like Palestinians in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel who build homes without difficult to obtain permission from Israeli authorities risk having them destroyed. Between 1997 and 2017, Israel destroyed more than 5,000 homes belonging to Palestinian citizens of the state. According to the Israeli government, between 2012 and 2014, 97% of the demolition orders issued were for homes belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel. In April 2017, the Israeli government passed the “Kaminitz Law,” making it easier for authorities to destroy homes belong to Palestinian citizens of Israel.


  • There are currently entire Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Negev desert in southern Israel which are threatened with destruction by the Israeli government. In 2013, Israel decided to forcibly remove the 500 Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran and build a town for Israeli Jews in its place, called Hiran. Following the decision, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an editorial declaring that it “constitutes a new low in the state’s treatment of the Bedouin of the Negev, and a new stage in Israel’s becoming an ethnocracy: a regime that exists for the good of a single ethnic group, and that grants rights on the basis of ethnic affiliation rather than the principles of equality.”


  • In total, there are an estimated 56,000 homes belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel that under threat of destruction by the Israeli government.


  • During Israel’s establishment, between 1948 and 1950, Zionist and Israeli forces ethnically cleansed more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages, including homes, businesses, houses of worship, and vibrant urban centers, which were systematically destroyed or repopulated with Jews. Most of them were demolished to prevent the return of their Palestinian owners, now refugees outside of Israel's pre-1967 borders, or internally displaced inside of them. (See here for interactive map of Palestinian population centers destroyed during Israel's creation)


  • During its establishment, Israel expropriated approximately 4,244,776 acres of land belonging to Palestinians who were made refugees or internally displaced people. Between 1948 and 1967, Israel expropriated approximately 172,973 acres of land belonging to Palestinian citizens of the state.


  • Today, approximately 100,000 internal refugees from Israel’s establishment in 1948 live in more than 100 “unrecognized villages” near their original homes, which were destroyed by Israel, where they “suffer from inadequate living conditions and constant threats of demolition,” according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).


  • Similar to Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territories since 1967, Palestinian citizens of Israel were governed by martial law from 1948 to 1966. Thus, during the entirety of Israel’s nearly 70-year history, there has been a period of only about one year that it didn’t rule over large numbers of Palestinians while denying them the most basic of political and civil rights.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Facts & Figures: 50 Years of Israeli Military Rule - Settlements & Settlers

Originally published by IMEU on June 05, 2017

50 Years of Israeli Military Rule: Settlements & Settlers

As Israeli soldiers watch, Jewish settlers from the settlement of Yitzhar throw rocks at Palestinian farmers near the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank.

  • Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are segregated housing units built by Israel for the use of Israeli Jews on Palestinian land occupied by the Israeli army during the June 1967 War. Their purpose is to cement permanent Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian territories and to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state in them.


  • All Israeli settlements, including those in occupied East Jerusalem, violate international law and longstanding official US policy. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The Hague Convention on the laws of war also forbids occupying powers from making permanent changes in the occupied territory unless it is a military necessity.


  • While successive Israeli governments have argued that settlements are not illegal, a formerly classified document dated September 1967 shows that the legal counsel to Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the time advised the government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that “civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."


  • Today, there are approximately 650,000 settlers living on occupied Palestinian land in approximately 125 official settlements and more than 100 “outposts,” including approximately 300,000 in East Jerusalem and 350,000 in the rest of the West Bank.


  • Although Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territories live in the same land, they are subject to two separate and unequal legal systems based on their religion. As Human Rights Watch noted in a June 2017 statement entitled, Israel: 50 Years of Occupation Abuses :

“Israel applies Israeli civil law to settlers, affording them legal protections, rights, and benefits that are not extended to Palestinians living in the same territory who are subjected to Israeli military law. Israel provides settlers with infrastructure, services, and subsidies that it denies to Palestinians, creating and sustaining a separate and unequal system of law, rules, and services.”

  • The presence of settlers makes life extremely difficult for Palestinians:

    • Palestinian land is stolen by the Israeli government and by settlers themselves for the expansion of settlements and Palestinians are forcibly evicted from their homes so that settlers can live in their place;

    • Palestinian famers and others are harassed, assaulted , and even murdered by heavily-armed extremist settlers, often while under the protection of Israeli soldiers.

    • Restrictions on the movement of Palestinians imposed by the Israeli army for the convenience of settlers and the location of settlements dividing Palestinian population centers makes it nearly impossible for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to travel freely or live normal lives.


  • Israel’s settlement enterprise and related infrastructure, including roads that are off limits to Palestinians, cover approximately 42% of the occupied West Bank.


  • According to one study, Israel has spent an estimated $20 billion on settlements and related infrastructure since 1967. As part of an effort to encourage Israelis to move to settlements, Israel’s government provides the average settler with three times more in public subsidies than Israelis living within Israel’s internationally-recognized pre-1967 borders.


  • Today, settlers are a powerful political force in Israel, exerting a strong influence on the government through parties like the extreme religious nationalist Jewish Home, counting among their number several cabinet ministers. After half a century, Israel’s settlement enterprise is deeply entrenched on the ground in the occupied territories and in Israeli society.


  • Polls repeatedly show that nearly half of all Americans, and a majority of Democrats, would support sanctions or stronger action against Israel due to settlement construction.