Friday, 29 August 2008

Israeli conscientious objectors

From Neve Gordon*:

Eighteen-year-old Sahar Vardi is currently in an Israeli military prison. She is being punished for the crime of refusing to be conscripted into the Israeli military.

A few weeks before her imprisonment she wrote Israel’s Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, explaining her decision to become a conscientious objector. “I have been to the occupied Palestinian territories many times, and even though I realize that the soldier at the checkpoint is not responsible for Israel’s oppressive policies, that soldier is still responsible for his conduct…” She summed up her letter to Barak with the following words: “The bloody cycle in which I live--made up of assassinations, terrorist attacks, bombings, and shootings--has resulted in an increasing number of victims on both sides. It is a vicious circle that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in violence. I refuse to take part in this choice.”

While Vardi is the first woman to be imprisoned this year, she is part of a broader movement of Shministim, high-school seniors who refuse to be conscripted due to the military’s oppression of the Palestinians. Two other conscientious objectors, Udi Nir and Avichai Vaknin, were imprisoned earlier this month and a few others are likely to follow suit.

Like many other Shministim, Vardi’s conscientious objection is also rooted in a wider pacifist position, which explains why she refused to wear a military uniform once imprisoned. The prison authorities are not sympathetic to such acts of defiance and immediately placed her in the isolation ward, which, according to existing reports, is a site of abuse.

Vardi is in prison because the military conscientious committee did not accept her appeal. In early March 2008, Vardi testified in front of the committee, recounting her years of activism against the West Bank separation barrier and the dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the South Hebron hills. She explained to the committee members -- made up of officers as well as civilians -- that as a pacifist her conscience prevented her from being part of an occupying power. She added that instead of serving in the military she was willing to carry out two years of civil service in Israel and had already secured a position with the Tel-Aviv based rights group Physicians for Human Rights.

Converting military service into civil service is common practice among Israeli women; in fact, it has become routine among religious women. Vardi’s appeal was, accordingly, not exceptional or strange.

The appeal, however, was rejected, because, in the military committee’s opinion, it was based on political convictions rather than a sincere conscientious belief. This spurious separation between politics and conscientious principles was originally formulated by Israel’s two court philosophers, professor Asa Kasher from Tel-Aviv University and professor Avi Sagi from Bar Ilan University. These moral philosophers (Kasher is also one of the authors of the Israeli military Code of Conduct which among other things provides moral grounds for assassinations), have spent much of their time arguing that people who refuse to serve in the military due to its colonial and repressive actions and policies are doing so in order to advance a specific political agenda and not due to conscience. According to Kasher and Sagi, conscientious objection is, by definition, divorced from politics; therefore anyone who refuses to serve in the military because he or she wants to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories (a political position) simply cannot be a conscientious objector.

The military was, of course, delighted to adopt the philosophers’ distinction and has repeatedly used it to reject the appeals of conscientious objectors like Vardi and to put them behind bars. On the day of her imprisonment Vardi told her father that she would not bow down to the powers that be regardless of how the military presents her case. “The occupation is cruel,” she said, “and my conscience will simply not allow me take part in the oppression of another people.”

While she has yet to study moral philosophy, eighteen year-old Sahar Vardi understands something basic that Kasher, Sagi and their cronies are determined to elide: conscientious concern for one’s country and neighbors is intricately tied to action. As Joseph Raz from Balliol College, Oxford, points out, “there is no doubt that [conscientious objection] covers the case of military service, for calling on people to be ready to kill when ordered, or calling on them to engage in activities which perpetrate an occupation with the subjugation of people to the indignities and humiliation which occupations involve are clear cases where the right applies.” It is, after all, the duty of respect for human beings, perhaps the most fundamental of all moral duties, which serves the guiding principle for the Israeli refuseniks. It is also the foundation of the right to conscientious objection.

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*Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. One can read about his book Israel’s Occupation and more at www.israelsoccupation.info.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Monday, 11 August 2008

Urgent: “Free Gaza” expedition needs your help

Two years ago, about a dozen human rights activists devised a plan to sail a boat to Gaza in order to break the siege. We rejected a plan to rent a boat as impractical because a similar venture in 1988 failed when the Israelis disabled the boat before it sailed and the three organizers were killed. Thus no boat owner would willingly risk his craft. We ultimately decided to purchase two small boats that could carry 44 passengers,crew and media.

Each of us contributed what we could, and we also received thousands of dollars from individual supporters, most of whom used the Paypal link on our website. We also held fund-raising events, received a few thousand dollars from small grants, and several "angels" helped us along the way. Each passenger has paid his/her own way to get here, and many have raised additional money through their groups, worked extra jobs and asked family and friends to donate. The passengers also paid an additional 600 Euros each for lodging in Cyprus and to cover the cost of supplies and food on land and sea.

Through these efforts we have raised 300,000 US dollars, which we thought covered our costs. (Some of the photos of the boats are on the image gallery page on our website. More will come.)

But the eroding dollar/Euro exchange rate seriously drained our funds. All of our planning did not anticipate this contingency.

We are now in Cyprus awaiting our boats' arrival from Crete. When they come in, we will fuel up (with very high-cost diesel) and stock necessary food and supplies. We hope to cast off for Gaza this weekend. We are told that hundreds of thousands of Gazans will greet us on arrival.

Many people thought we'd never come this far. But here we are and we firmly intend to set sail regardless of some recent staggering debts. Frankly, we have spent much more than we raised; here are just a few of our recent expenses:

  • Two Sailor 250 FleetBroadband systems to allow us to stay in electronic contact and to send streaming video in real time, 16,000 dollars each, or 32,000 dollars;
  • Repairs required to make the boats seaworthy, 25,000-30,000 dollars;
  • Electronics, wiring, connections, satellite uplinks, SPOT Trackers to make the system work, 5000-8000 dollars. (Most of the labour on the electronics and boats has been donated by the Greek crew and technicians.)
  • Forty-four life jackets and two hand-held GPS units, 8000 dollars;
  • Paint and banners for the boats, and balloons and toys for Gaza children, 2,000 dollars. Diesel fuel for both boats, both ways, 15,000 to 25,000 dollars.

Except for part of the diesel fuel, we have already paid these costs by running our personal credit cards to the limit, borrowing money and asking some of the Greek crew to help. Frankly, we're tapped out.

We need your help so that we sail on the Mediterranean Sea but not on a sea of debt.

Please donate through the Paypal account on our website, send a tax-deductible cheque to the US address on the website and/or send a cheque to the address in the UAE. Every donation, large or small, will help keep us afloat.

And, finally, thanks for your interest, support, and prayers!

The Passengers and Crew on FREE GAZA and LIBERTY