Personal Testimony of an Israeli
Asaf Oron, a Sergeant Major in the Giv'ati Brigade, is one of
the original 53 Israeli soldiers who signed the "Fighters'
Letter" declaring that from now on they will refuse to serve
in the Occupied territories. He is signer #8 and one of the first
in the list to include a statement explaining his action. Below
is the translation of Oron's statement by Ami Kronfeld of Jewish
On February 5, 1985, I got up, left my home, went to the Compulsory
Service Center on Rashi Street in Jerusalem, said good-bye to my
parents, boarded the rickety old bus going to the Military Absorption
Station and turned into a soldier.
Exactly seventeen years later, I find myself in a head to head
confrontation with the army, while the public at large is jeering
and mocking me from the sidelines. Right wingers see me as a traitor
who is dodging the holy war that's just around the corner. The political
centre shakes a finger at me self-righteously and lectures me about
undermining democracy and politicizing the army.
And the left? The square, establishment, "moderate" left
that only yesterday was courting my vote now turns its back on me
as well. Everyone blabbers about what is and what is not legitimate,
exposing in the process the depth of their ignorance of political
theory and their inability to distinguish a real democracy from
a third world regime in the style of Juan Peron.
Almost no one asks the main question: why would a regular guy get
up one morning in the middle of life, work, the kids and decide
he's not playing the game anymore? And how come he is not alone
but there are fifty... I beg your pardon, a hundred... beg your
pardon again, now almost two hundred regular, run of the mill guys
like him who've done the same thing?
Our parents' generation lets out a sigh: we've embarrassed them
yet again. But isn't it all your fault? What did you raise us on?
Universal ethics and universal justice, on the one hand: peace,
liberty and equality to all. And on the other hand: "the Arabs
want to throw us into the sea," "They are all crafty and
primitive. You can't trust them."
On the one hand, the songs of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan,
Bob Marely, Pink Floyd. Songs of peace and love and against militarism
and war. On the other hand, songs about a sweetheart riding the
tank after sunset in the field: "The tank is yours and you
are ours." [allusions to popular Israeli songs - AK].
I was raised on two value systems: one was the ethical code and
the other the tribal code, and I naïvely believed that the
two could coexist.
This is the way I was when I was drafted. Not enthusiastic, but
as if embarking on a sacred mission of courage and sacrifice for
the benefit of society. But when, instead of a sacred mission, a
19 year old finds himself performing the sacrilege of violating
human beings' dignity and freedom, he doesn't dare ask - even himself
- if it's OK or not. He simply acts like everyone else and tries
to blend in. As it is, he's got enough problems, and boy is the
weekend far off.
You get used to it in a hurry, and many even learn to like it.
Where else can you go out on patrol - that is, walk the streets
like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart's content,
and get into mischief with your buddies - and at the same time feel
like a big hero defending your country? The Gaza Exploits became
heroic tales, a source of pride for Giv'ati, then a relatively new
brigade suffering from low self esteem.
For a long time, I could not relate to the whole "heroism"
thing. But when, as a sergeant, I found myself in charge, something
cracked inside me. Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation
enforcer. I settled accounts with "upstarts" who didn't
show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my
father's age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad example - all in
the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpa's
home-sweet-home. No. I was no "aberration." I was exactly
Having completed my compulsory service, I was discharged, and then
the first Intifada began (how many more await us?) Ofer, a comrade
in arms who remained in the service has become a hero: the hero
of the second Giv'ati trial. He commanded a company that dragged
a detained Palestinian demonstrator into a dark orange grove and
beat him to death.
As the verdict stated, Ofer was found to have been the leader in
charge of the whole business. He spent two months in jail and was
demoted - I think that was the most severe sentence given an Israeli
soldier through the entire first Intifada, in which about a thousand
Palestinians were killed. Ofer's battalion commander testified that
there was a order from the higher echelons to use beatings as a
legitimate method of punishment, thereby implicating himself.
On the other hand, Efi Itam, the brigade commander, who had been
seen beating Arabs on numerous occasions, denied that he ever gave
such an order and consequently was never indicted. Today he lectures
us on moral conduct on his way to a new life in politics. (In the
current Intifada, incidentally, the vast majority of incidents involving
Palestinian deaths are not even investigated. No one even bothers.)
And in the meantime, I was becoming more of a civilian. A copy
of The Yellow Wind [a book on life in the Occupied Territories
by the Israeli writer David Grossman, available in English -AK]
which had just come out, crossed my path. I read it, and suddenly
it hit me. I finally understood what I had done over there. What
I had been over there.
I began to see that they had cheated me: They raised me to believe
there was someone up there taking care of things. Someone who knows
stuff that is beyond me, the little guy. And that even if sometimes
politicians let us down, the "military echelon" is always
on guard, day and night, keeping us safe, each and every one of
their decisions the result of sacred necessity.
Yes, they cheated us, the soldiers of the Intifadas, exactly as
they had cheated the generation that was beaten to a pulp in the
War of Attrition and in the Yom Kippur War, exactly as they had
cheated the generation that sank deep into the Lebanese mud during
the Lebanon invasions. And our parents' generation continues to
Worse still, I understood that I was raised on two contradictory
value systems. I think most people discover even at an earlier age
they must choose between two value systems: an abstract, demanding
one that is no fun at all and that is very difficult to verify,
and another which calls to you from every corner - determining who
is up and who is down, who is king and who - pariah, who is one
of us and who is our enemy. Contrary to basic common sense, I picked
the first. Because in this country the cost-effective analysis comparing
one system to another is so lopsided, I can't blame those who choose
I picked the first road, and found myself volunteering in a small,
smoke-filled office in East Jerusalem, digging up files about deaths,
brutality, bureaucratic viciousness or simply daily harassments.
I felt I was atoning, to some extent, for my actions during my days
with the Giv'ati brigade. But it also felt as if I was trying to
empty the ocean out with a teaspoon.
Out of the blue, I was called up for the very first time for reserve
duty in the Occupied Territories. Hysterically, I contacted my company
commander. He calmed me down: We will be staying at an outpost overlooking
the Jordan river. No contacts with the local population is expected.
And that indeed was what I did, but some of my friends provided
security for the Damia Bridge terminal [where Palestinians cross
from Jordan to Israel and vice versa - AK].
This was in the days preceding the Gulf War and a large number
of Palestinian refugees were flowing from Kuwait to the Occupied
Territories (from the frying pan into the fire). The reserve soldiers
- mostly right wingers - cringed when they saw the female conscripts
stationed in the terminal happily ripping open down-comforters and
babies' coats to make sure they didn't contain explosives. I too
cringed when I heard their stories, but I was also hopeful: reserve
soldiers are human after all, whatever their political views.
Such hopes were dashed three years later, when I spent three weeks
with a celebrated reconnaissance company in the confiscated ruins
of a villa at the outskirts of the Abasans (if you don't know where
this is, it's your problem). This is where it became clear to me
that the same humane reserve soldier could also be an ugly, wretched
macho undergoing a total regression back to his days as a young
Already on the bus ride to the Gaza strip, the soldiers were competing
with each other: whose "heroic" tales of murderous beatings
during the Intifada were better (in case you missed this point:
the beatings were literally murderous: beating to death).
Going on patrol duty with these guys once was all that I could
take. I went up to the placement officer and requested to be given
guard duty only. Placement officers like people like me: most soldiers
can't tolerate staying inside the base longer than a couple of hours.
Thus began the nausea and shame routine, a routine that lasted
three tours of reserve duty in the Occupied Territories: 1993, 1995,
and 1997. The "pale-gray" refusal routine.
For several weeks at a time I would turn into a hidden "prisoner
of conscience," guarding an outpost or a godforsaken transmitter
on top of some mountain, a recluse. I was ashamed to tell most of
my friends why I chose to serve this way. I didn't have the energy
to hear them get on my case for being such a "wishy washy"
I was also ashamed of myself: This was the easy way out. In short,
I was ashamed all over. I did "save my own soul." I was
not directly engaged in wrongdoing - only made it possible for others
to do so while I kept guard.
Why didn't I refuse outright? I don't know. It was partly the pressure
to conform, partly the political process that gave us a glimmer
of hope that the whole occupation business would be over soon. More
than anything, it was my curiosity to see actually what was going
on over there.
And precisely because I knew so well, first hand, from years of
experience what was going on over there, what reality was like over
there, I had no trouble seeing, through the fog of war and the curtain
of lies, what has been taking place over there since the very first
days of the second Intifada.
For years, the army had been feeding on lines like "We were
too nice in the first Intifada," and "If we had only killed
a hundred in the very first days, everything would have been different."
Now the army was given license to do things its way. I knew full
well that [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak was giving the
army free hand, and that [current Chief of Staff] Shaul Mofaz
was taking full advantage of this to maximize the bloodshed.
By then, I had two little kids, boys, and I knew from experience
that no one - not a single person in the entire world - will ever
make sure that my sons won't have to serve in the Occupied Territories
when they reach 18. No one, that is, except me. And no one but me
will have to look them in the eye when they're all grown up and
tell them where dad was when all that happened. It was clear to
me: this time I was not going.
Initially, this was a quiet decision, still a little shy, something
like "I am just a bit weird, can't go and can't talk about
it too much either." But as time went by, as the level of insanity,
hatred, and incitement kept rising, as the generals were turning
the Israeli Defense Forces into a terror organization, the decision
was turning into an outcry: "If you can't see that this is
one big crime leading us to the brink of annihilation, then something
is terribly wrong with you!"
And then I discovered that I was not alone. Like discovering life
on another planet.
The truth is that I understand why everyone is mad at us. We spoiled
the neat little order of things. The holy Status Quo states that
the Right holds the exclusive rights to celebrate the blood and
ask for more. The role of the Left, on the other hand, is to wail
while sitting in their armchairs sipping wine and waiting for the
Messiah to come and with a single wave of his magic wand make the
Right disappear along with the settlers, the Arabs, the weather,
and the entire Middle East. That's how the world is supposed to
work. So why are you causing such a disturbance? What's your problem?
Woe to you, dear establishment left! You haven't been paying attention!
That Messiah has been here already. He waved his magic wand, saw
things aren't that simple, was abandoned in the midst of battle,
lost altitude, and finally was assassinated, with the rest of us
(yes, me too) watching from the comfort of our armchairs. Forget
it. A messiah doesn't come around twice! There is no such thing
as a free lunch. Don't you really see what we are doing, why it
is that we stepped out of line? Don't you get the difference between
a low key, personal refusal and an organized, public one? (and make
no mistake about it, the private refusal is the easier choice.)
You really don't get it? So let me spell it out for you.
First, we declare our commitment to the first value system. The
one that is elusive, abstract, and not profitable. We believe in
the moral code generally known as God (and my atheist friends who
also signed this letter would have to forgive me - we all believe
in God, the true one, not that of the Rabbis and the Ayatollahs).
We believe that there is no room for the tribal code, that the tribal
code simply camouflages idolatry, an idolatry of a type we should
not cooperate with. Those who let such a form of idol worship take
over will end up as burnt offerings themselves.
Second, we (as well as some other groups who are even more despised
and harassed) are putting our bodies on the line, in the attempt
to prevent the next war. The most unnecessary, most idiotic, cruel
and immoral war in the history of Israel.
We are the Chinese young man standing in front of the tank. And
you? If you are nowhere to be seen, you are probably inside the
tank, advising the driver.
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