Itai Swirski, an Israeli reserve officer, is visiting the Triangle this week to explain why he and 490 other Israeli military personnel have pledged to no longer serve as enforcers in the West Bank and Gaza. In a country like Israel, where national security concerns are paramount and military service is nearly universal, this is a bold and controversial act.
Swirski, a 28-year-old paratrooper who now works as a lawyer, has served for almost 10 years in the Israeli Defense Forces, the first four in compulsory military service and the last six in the reserves. Last year he helped found the "Courage to Refuse" organization. The members, who are mostly soldiers and officers in the reserves, have all signed a public letter explaining that while they will "continue serving in the Israeli Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense," they will "not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people."
Like most Israeli males between the ages of 18-45, Swirski is called to active duty for several weeks a year. Last week, in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv, he updated The Independent on the "refusenik" movement and its impact on Israel's debate over the occupation.
The Independent: What has been your experience in the occupied territories?
Swirski: I've been there a lot. Altogether, I served a total of about one year in Lebanon and the occupied territories. For a long time, like most young soldiers, I learned there to see Palestinians as different, as people I only saw through the rifle sight. The government says that we are only there in order to stop terror, but I don't buy it. Your mission there is actually to make the settlers safe, that's most of what we do there. What we do there is keep the settlers project alive, and maintain the occupation for that purpose. And along the way we are punishing the entire Palestinian population. I have hundreds of pictures of this in my head, but the strongest are seeing the humiliation and frustration in the eyes of the hundreds of Palestinians we would delay and question at our checkpoints every day.
You've explained in previous interviews that it was a long series of events and decisions that finally led you to refuse to serve in the territories. What was the breaking point for you?
Well, I had seen and done a lot of things that brought me to this point. By the year 2000 I was pretty sure that what we were doing was perpetuating an unjust occupation, but I decided to go on one more mission, just to make sure that what I felt about this was right. It was in December 2000, and at one point, the Palestinians shot a settler's car, and three were wounded. We handled the situation the next day: I was asked to guard dozens of bulldozers that took down an olive plantation. It was done because they wanted to build a new road, a road which would be for Jews only. So I am there, guarding these bulldozers, and watching tree after tree, some of them almost 100 years old, being torn up. And this plantation was near a very poor village, so it was obvious that this was one of their main sources of income. So you can see the dilemma. I had this very strong dissonance, and I felt terrible. It took three or four days, and at the end of it, I decided, I'm not going back.
How has the Israeli government and military handled the refuseniks?
They still haven't decided what to do with officers like me, the refusers. So basically, I'm still in the unit I was in from the beginning, although practically speaking, I'm not really in the battalion. The first time I refused [to serve in the occupied territories], in December 2001, the person who had to make a decision about what to do with me was the battalion commander, who knew me throughout the years. He kind of respected my decision, so he didn't send me to jail. But this summer, it was different: I spent 21 days in military prison.
And what about Israeli society at large, how has it reacted to your movement?
When we published the letter, at first with 52 signatories, I think we really stunned the Israeli state. Everybody was talking about it, it was all over the television, radio and newspapers. Then, in just three weeks, we reached 200 signatories ... We define ourselves as Zionists, fully faithful to our country and willing to fight for it, so that's the reason people are willing to listen to us. But Israeli society is very militaristic, and many people feel that what we are doing is disloyal to our country, that it's dangerous. We'll just have to explain ourselves to others, probably for the rest of our lives. But I have no problem, because I chose this.