Ron Gerlitz and Amir Shahal are both reserve captains in the Israeli military—Gerlitz in the army, Shahal in the navy. They both love their country, and consider themselves Zionists. They both also have refused orders to serve any further missions in the West Bank or Gaza, on political grounds. Two years ago, they each joined more than 600 other Israeli officers in signing a highly publicized Combatants’ Letter, which indicated their willingness to go to jail rather than help prolong an occupation they feel is politically and morally wrong. Shahal later spent three weeks in a military prison for refusing to join his unit in the Palestinian territories.
This weekend Shahal, 34, now a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and Gerlitz, 30, who works in the Santa Clara branch of a Jerusalem-based high-tech company, will be speaking in Seaside about their experiences, explaining why they feel it’s a soldier’s duty not to abandon his or her moral conscience, even while in uniform.
“History teaches us that the worst things happen when soldiers carry out immoral orders,” Gerlitz says.
In 1996, Gerlitz, then 23, was in command of an Israeli war ship patrolling the Lebanese coastline. He was ordered to shell a coastal road, to deter Lebanese vehicles heading south toward the fighting. One day, he recalls, they hit a car, apparently killing all the passengers.
“What don’t I forgive myself for?” he asked in an article six years later. “Not that I carried out the orders, [but] for not questioning them, for not hesitating, not even for an instant. Maybe it isn’t permitted to shell innocent civilians? Maybe I am just another one in a long line of soldiers (in the IDF and other armies) that agree to fight in wars of choice and do forbidden things?”
In 1998 Gerlitz completed his mandatory military service (most Israeli citizens are required to serve in the military), and, as a combat officer, he has continued to serve more than 30 days a year of reserve duty.
After the start of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in September 2000, Gerlitz says, he “started to rethink the political and moral issues of the conflict,” and decided to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
In 2001, he joined the Israeli peace group Yesh Gvul, (which translates as “there’s a limit,” and is a pun on the Hebrew word gvul, or border). And in early 2002 he joined Courage to Refuse, the soldiers’ group behind the Combatants’ Letter.
Gerlitz’ resolve was tested almost immediately, when, in the spring of 2002, his reserve unit was assigned to the Gaza Strip, part of the territories he’d pledged to keep out of.
“I refused to go, but I wasn’t punished,” he says. “They sent me to a mission in the north instead. They didn’t like it, but they needed a commander for that [northern] ship, and if they’d sent me to jail, they would have had to call up someone else.”
In Israel, as in the United States, a draftee may avoid military service by claiming to be a Conscientious Objector, opposed to war on any grounds. But soldiers like Gerlitz and Shahal, who are willing to defend their country in general, but who refuse to carry out specific assignments or serve in particular wars, are punished, usually with jail time.
The punishment is not what these two object to.
“If your values tell you you can’t serve at all, in any army, society says OK. But society doesn’t say OK if your values say you can’t serve in a particular conflict,” Gerlitz says. “That doesn’t make sense. Values are not negotiable. Once we decide something is wrong, we can’t do it.”
Shahal joined Courage to Refuse as soon as it was organized in early 2002. When his unit was called to serve in the Palestinian Territories that April, he told his commanders he wouldn’t go.
“I’m in a small, elite unit,” he says. “We’re like family, my commanders are my friends. They wanted to discharge me from the unit quietly.” But when a second soldier in the unit also refused to go, the commanders were forced to send both men to prison for three weeks, the term their unit was to serve across the Green Line (Israel’s 1967 borders).
“It’s so obviously the right thing to do,” Shahal says. “I love Israel very much. The refusenik movement is the most patriotic thing to happen in 30 years. As more people refuse, there’s more chance for an end to the Occupation, an occupation that has caused many Israelis to suffer, too.”
Shahal first began to question his country’s presence in the West Bank 15 years ago. A 19-year-old paratrooper, he was chasing a group of Palestinian kids who were throwing stones at his unit and, unexpectedly, he and his buddies actually caught one of the boys.
“He was nine or ten, and was very frightened,” Shahal recalls. “Imagine the situation—there we were, six soldiers around him, with rifles, all of us 18 or 19 years old. What were we supposed to do with him? It made the whole situation seem so ridiculous.”
Shahal’s unit let the boy go. He acknowledges that the violence has escalated in the 15 years since that incident. “It’s much more complicated, and more violent now, but if we’d stopped the Occupation then, we wouldn’t have come to this situation,” he says.
Gerlitz has spoken to American audiences more than a dozen times this past year, and says he always makes his political opinions clear.
“There are people in the United States who think Israel should not exist, so when I speak, I always say I’m a Zionist, and my refusal is part of my Zionism, to make Israel a better place.
“Zionism is the movement to create a secure and democratic home for the Jewish people, and a country that is going in a non-democratic direction is not realizing the dream of Zionism.”
Gerlitz hasn’t personally met any American soldiers who have refused to go to Iraq. He says he believes that the Iraqi conflict is “more complicated” than the Israel-Palestine issue, and that he’s not sure whether he would refuse to serve in Iraq if he were an American soldier, But, he says, he supports US soldiers’ right to decide.
“I think selective refusal is a very correct way to behave,” he says. “It shows you’re willing to fight for your society if it’s in danger, but you’re not ready to commit crimes in that service.”
He is sure, however, that if he were serving at Abu Ghraib Prison, and if he were ordered to mistreat Iraqi prisoners, he would not have done so. “Once people in Western society think there are some situations in which torture is permitted—the so-called ‘ticking bomb’ scenario—it never stops there. When you put young soldiers in a situation where they control other people’s lives, and you teach them that an Iraqi life is worth less than a US life, they will always exploit it.”
Amir Shahal and Ron Gerlitz will speak Saturday, May 29, at 2pm at the Seaside Public Library, 2200 Noche Buena St. pot-luck lunch at noon, reception 4-6pm. Free, donations accepted.