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Israeli Democracy's Decline: A Matter of Conscience

3 April 2002

More than 350 combat officers and soldiers from the Israeli reserve forces recently declared that they are no longer willing to serve in the occupied territories; they will not be partners to the war crimes and atrocities that the Israeli army is carrying out there. If these reserve soldiers refuse to serve, they may be court-martialed and imprisoned. Their stand spurred a movement of citizens who support these conscientious objectors and who call on other soldiers to join them.

Although there have always been lone pacifists in Israel, or selective conscientious objectors unwilling to serve in the occupied territories, until now the phenomenon has been marginal and has never instigated public debate.

This time things are different. Because of the greater number objectors and the current context of escalating Palestinian terrorism and Israeli state terrorism in response, the soldiers' declaration has awakened wide public opposition.

The principal claims against the soldiers are that they are breaching legal orders of a democratic regime, and that they are not motivated by conscience but represent an ideological minority that wants to impose its desires on the majority. But these claims ignore the wider political context.

Today in Israel, there is no greater moral or democratic act than refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Those who claim that conscientious objection is rooted in ideological and political motivations are correct, because the military oppression of the Palestinians is at the heart of the issue. Conscientious objection is necessary to restore the democratic regime in Israel by repairing the foundations of legitimacy on which Israel is founded.

Since 1967 Israel has ruled directly, and since 1994 indirectly, over millions of Arab residents who lack all civil rights and the most basic human rights. As this situation has been institutionalized, Israel has ceased to be a democratic state and has become a Herrenvolk democracy - a regime in which citizens enjoy full rights and non-citizens have none. The laws of Israel have become the laws of a master people and Israeli morality the morality of lords of the land.

The reality is that in every matter that benefits Israel, residents of the territories are part of the state; but in every matter that does not benefit Israel, they are outside the state. Israel is a polity with a double legal system, a double rule and a double morality.

In this context, conscientious objection undermines all the logic of a regime that claims, in the name of democracy, the obligation of obedience to its laws in precisely the same domain in which it is clearly undemocratic.

The general attitude in Israel toward conscientious objection is not merely an isolated misunderstanding of the phenomenon itself but is part of the militaristic and colonial political culture. Thus there has never been a genuine peace movement in Israel which has deserved to be called such.

The power of the settler minority to set Israel's national agenda, and most importantly to establish seemingly irreversible facts on the ground, stems from the willingness of settlers to take personal risks by sacrificing personal and family life on an ideological altar.

Most "peace camp" members, however, have been armchair revolutionaries, unwilling to make personal sacrifices. This does not make their ideas less valid, but it does make them empty of power and political efficacy.

A striking example of this phenomenon is the extra-parliamentary working arm of the Labor and Meretz parties, the Peace Now movement. When this organization refuses to adopt the idea of conscientious objection in the name of a democracy that does not exist, and from fear of leaving the national consensus, it ceases being a peace movement and becomes a collaborator with the occupying regime, granting it a legitimacy that no political body from the right would be able to grant them.

Baruch Kimmerling, Professor of Sociology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Published in the International Herald Tribune © 2002 the International Herald Tribune

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