TEL-AVIV – The court room at the central military court here was packed with families, friends and others in solidarity with the five conscientious objectors, who had been dragged to stand trial on June 24.

But instead of being accused, the defendants became accusers and called the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as a brutal, human rights-violating policy. Knesset Members of the (Communist-led) Hadash Front and one of the Zionist Meretz Party (a left-wing party), and other prominent personalities were seated in the court’s front row. The media was there too. Many waited outside, staging an impressive vigil with such slogans as “Occupation is terrorism – The Objectors are heroes!”

The five objectors are the first of a group of sixty-two teenagers who were indicted after signing a letter to Prime Minister Sharon and the army’s General Staff in 2001. They refused to serve in an army, which was violating human rights and occupying territories. Instead of serving as army conscripts, they announced, they would do alternative civilian service. Now, hundreds more have joined that movement.

Israeli law allows only religious women to serve in civilian service. Tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Talmud “students” are also exempted from army service, but not pacifists or other conscientious objectors.

In his opening for the defense, attorney Dr. Dov Khenin said, “This trial is not about some technicalities or obscure legislation points, mentioned in the indictment sheet. It is a trial about a major constitutional issue, which until now no Israeli court has dealt with.”

He explained that the conscience was the most basic part of human dignity, which if broken, would break one’s personality entirely. It is the contention of the defense that “Freedom of Conscience” is already enshrined in the Israeli legislation. Ever since the Knesset passed the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty over a decade ago “freedom of conscience” is guaranteed, Khenin said. He added the army brass and the prosecution of the objectors are defying this basic law.

Following the opening remarks, three defendants took the witness stand. (The other two will be heard at the next session in July.) Each of the three related, in dramatic and moving words, why they have come to the conclusion that their conscience would not allow them to serve in an army. They told about their personal experience and meetings with Palestinian victims of the occupation army’s brutality. Some defendants also witnessed armed, ultra-right Jewish settlers attacking peaceful Palestinian olive pickers, pointing out the settlements help perpetrate the criminal occupation policy.

In a press statement, Gush-Shalom Peace Bloc, which is organizing solidarity actions with the conscientious objectors, said it should be noted, that precisely at the same time these five objectors were indicted, an army committee, granted discharges to some other conscientious objectors.

It seems that while the court martial proceedings are on, which is drawing much public sympathy and solidarity with the accused, the army is trying to get rid of that wave of support, the statement said.

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the FTAA

The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) treaty has been described as NAFTA on steroids. NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – has resulted in huge economic, agricultural and social problems amongst the three signers: Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The School of the Americas Watch, Jobs with Justice, Latin America Solidarity Coalition and many local groups and coalitions are calling on people to vote “No on the FTAA,” as part of a Hemisphere-wide effort. The AFL-CIO is collecting the ballots, which will be presented to trade ministers and elected officials during the FTAA ministerial meeting in Miami, Nov. 20-21.

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