Refuseniks speak to full house

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Every pew in Westminster Presbyterian Church was full when two Israeli reserve soldiers, who have proclaimed their refusal to serve in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, spoke here May 22.

Earlier in the week, threats had forced the cancellation of their participation in a debate at the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue.

Twenty-five-year-old Ishai Sagi, who was drafted at 18, said that he had believed that the occupation was necessary to protect Israeli people in Israel, but found that the army was actually abusing Palestinians in order to protect Israeli settlers outside the borders of Israel.

“We were given a standing order to open fire at every Palestinian who picked up a stone to throw at a car, even a six-year old,” he said. However, the settlers who regularly stoned Palestinian cars could only be touched by the police, who were a good 50 minutes away, he said.

Sagi had followed orders to raid Palestinian village homes in the middle of the night, man military checkpoints, and stand guard at the Army Civilian Administration, where Palestinians must go to get permits to travel or work.

There he had seen an officer draw a loaded weapon on a man who had spoken to another person in the waiting line.

“When we order the father of a family to drop his pants in public so that we can search him at a checkpoint, we are teaching his kids to hate Israel. My deepest nightmare is that the same kid I stood guard over in 1995 is a suicide bomber today,” Sagi said.

Last year, Sagi, called up as a reserve officer, asked to serve instead at the Egyptian or Syrian border. When he refused the order to serve in the occupied territory, he spent 24 days in military prison.

Ram Rahat-Goodman, 45, is a long-time member of Yesh Gvul (“there is a limit”), an Israeli peace organization that gives support to the “refuseniks.” Rahat-Goodman refused in 1982 to go to the Occupied Territories. “I believed then, as now, that we have an obligation to defend our country, but not to use the army as a tool of oppression,” he said.

The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985 followed the refusal of 2,500 reservists to fight in that country, he told the audience. “We did it then, we can do it again.”

So far, he said, out of 1,000 “refusenik” soldiers, 110 have gone to jail, 70 in the last two months. About one-third of the “refuseniks” are officers. “If there were 500, they could force the end of the occupation,” Rahat-Goodman said.

Most Israelis know that things are being done that should not be done, he said. The recent Israeli peace demonstration of 100,000 people called for ending the occupation now, not for more negotiations. “I do believe things will get worse before they get better, but I believe we will eventually get there,” he said.

Asked about the nature of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Rahat-Goodman said that 20 percent are “ideological settlements” where the people really believe that God gave the land to Israel.

“Most of the 200,000 settlers are people who wanted a better economic situation than they could get in Israel,” he told the audience. “Now they are stuck, and many of them would go home if they could. I hope that the Israeli government would be courageous enough to give them compensation for leaving.”

The audience gave a standing ovation to each of the speakers.

The event was sponsored by the Sacramento Middle East Peace Project, and endorsed by many peace and community organizations.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org