On April 15, five more young men joined the growing ranks of Israelis who refuse to enlist in the military because of their conscientious objection to the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and to the actions by which the army enforces it. The Israeli Communist Party (ICP) has issued a special appeal for solidarity with all the conscientious objectors (also known as “refuseniks”) who refuse military service because of the occupation policy.

The five – Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Shimri Zameret, Adam Maor and Noam Bahat – are among some 300 young men and women who have signed the “high school seniors letter” to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Charged with refusing to obey orders, they face up to three years in prison. Their attorney, Dr. Dov Khenin, is a member of the Israeli Communist Party’s Political Bureau.

The arraignment of the five followed the March 11 court-martial of a pacifist, Jonathan Ben Artzi – the first time since the 1970s that a conscientious objector was court-martialed. On April 15, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to return his trial to a civil court. “We are very concerned with the court-martialing of objectors,” the ICP said. “Indeed, they should not be considered as military as they precisely refuse to wear the uniform.”

The ICP is asking for petitions, demonstrations and letters to Israeli embassies and consulates, urging immediate and unconditional release of objectors and dropping of all charges against them, recognition of the right of conscientious objection by establishing an independent and impartial committee to examine the cases, and Israeli government conformance with international declarations on human rights and human rights defenders, including covenants ratified by Israel.

The five young men base their refusal to join the Israeli Defense Forces on the occupation and IDF actions stemming from it, rather than on pacifist convictions.

The trial was devoted to an intense discussion of the definition of “conscience,” and who has the authority to determine what is a decision of conscience. The court was packed with family members, friends who also signed the “high school seniors letter,” and many activists from left organizations, creating the atmosphere of a public political trial.

Military prosecutor Capt. Yaron Kostilitz argued that reasons of conscience can only be recognized when conscientious objection is total, and not when it is “selective and stems from political and ideological claims.” Of some 400 hundred requests processed by the “Conscience Committee” in the last eight years, the army has issued only seven exemptions. In a preliminary plea, defense attorney Khenin argued that since the defendants were never mobilized into the army, “they are not soldiers and the military court has no jurisdiction over them.” Under principles of natural justice, Khenin argued, the five have not committed any military or civilian offense, and he demanded that the case be referred to the Conscience Committee for a preliminary hearing.

The five have been sent to “open detention” in different army units pending the continuation of their trial. They have full support of their families. Kaminer’s father served earlier in the Golani Scouts and was imprisoned twice for refusing to serve during the Lebanon war.