Israeli anti-war activists face jail time for refusing to enlist in the military

Looking over his shoulder for eavesdroppers in a cafe, an Israeli anti-war campaigner leaned closer to a woman who plans to refuse military enlistment, risking jail time during Israel’s unrelenting Gaza offensive.

“The decision to refuse is brave,” said activist Nave Shabtay Levin, 20, who was jailed for 115 days until last March for refusing the draft.

“It is more brave during wartime,” he said, addressing 18-year-old Sofia Orr who sat next to him in an outdoor Tel Aviv cafe.

Last month, Israeli teen Tal Mitnick became the first “conscientious objector” to be imprisoned for refusing mandatory military service since Israel’s war with Gaza’s Hamas rulers erupted on October 7, according to volunteer group Mesarvot.

Some of Mitnick’s supporters from Mesarvot, Hebrew for “we refuse”, have publicly declared plans to follow in his footsteps, voicing opposition to the war and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Refusal to enlist is a lonely political position, especially as nationalist sentiment soars during wartime, in a country where the military is widely seen as a cornerstone of national identity and army service an important rite of passage.

Amid the war rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the refuseniks — as they are often known in Israel — say their stance has seen them branded as traitors and invited death threats.

Levin spoke in a whisper, his eyes darting around as he conceded that talking openly about opposing the war can be “dangerous”. Both men and women have to enlist in the army at the age of 18.

Orr appeared undeterred, having declared her plan in public forums to refuse when she is up for enlistment in February.

“My conscience does not allow me to enlist,” she said, adding she does not believe eradicating Hamas’s violent ideology — which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist — was possible through military means.

“We are fighting fire with fire.”

‘War of revenge’

Orr expects the same fate as Mitnick, 18, who received a 30-day initial prison sentence that was deemed harsher than usual after he refused to participate in what he called a “war of revenge”.

Israelis who refuse enlistment on political grounds are typically imprisoned for up to 10 days initially and receive additional jail terms if they continue to refuse, members of Mesarvot told AFP.

The war began on October 7 when Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack from the Gaza Strip that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment of Gaza, alongside a ground invasion, that has killed at least 24,100 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Conscription is mandatory for Jewish Israelis. Exemptions are sometimes granted for religious, medical or ethical reasons — but not on political grounds.

Mesarvot has dozens of volunteers but the exact number of refuseniks remains unclear as many have not gone public. The army declined to comment when asked for statistics.

“One massacre does not justify another one,” Iddo Elam, 17, another volunteer who plans to refuse enlistment, told Britain’s Sky News.

‘Moral blindness’

Refuseniks are among Jewish peace advocates promoting coexistence with Palestinians who have organised protests demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, where they are often accosted by ultranationalist hecklers and police.

They remain a minority in a country that has seen a rightward lurch in recent years, with polls showing limited support among Jewish Israelis for peace negotiations with Palestinians or a two-state solution.

A small number of refuseniks are unlikely to dent the Israeli army, comprising hundreds of thousands of active-duty soldiers and reservists, which has defied global criticism over rising deaths and destruction in Gaza.

“There’s not even one soldier or officer, pilot or artilleryman… who has said: ‘That’s far enough. I’m not ready to continue taking part in the slaughter’,” columnist Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli left-leaning daily Haaretz, adding their silence reflected “moral blindness”.

Orr considers her refusal to enlist as a fight to stay human.

The October 7 attack left her “angry”, said Orr, who had an acquaintance killed at a desert rave that was among the sites Hamas targeted in southern Israel.

It also, she added, left her instantly worried about the “horrors” Israel’s retaliation would unleash in Gaza.

“Extreme violence leads to extreme violence,” she said.

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