Interview with Yesh Gvul


Yesterday I had a meeting in Tel Aviv with Zohar Michgrub, a former IDF soldier, refusenik, and member of Yesh Gvul. The organization whose name literally means “there is a border” or “there is a limit” was founded in 1982 at the outbreak of the first Lebanon War by combat veterans who were skeptical of the aims of the war and refused to serve there. While there had been limited examples of soldiers refusing to serve prior to this, Yesh Gvul represented the first time such activities were organized as a political tool to influence state policy.

After the war, the focus of the organization increasingly shifted to soldiers serving in the territories, particularly during the first and second Intifadas. Members hold to organization’s charter which states: “We, candidates for service and soldiers in the IDF, men and women, as responsible citizens, hereby declare that we will take no part in the continued oppression of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, and we will not participate in policing actions or in guarding the settlements.”

The refusenik movement, whereby active duty and reserve officers refused to serve in the “occupied territories,” was long considered an internal threat to the organizational discipline of the Israeli Defense Forces and many of those who refused spent time in prison. The military has since adapted itself in most instances from punishment to accommodation, sending soldiers to alternative assignments rather than jail.

In the last few years, Yesh Gvul has also shifted focus to promoting investigations of war crimes committed by the armed forces. Their focus is largely domestic, promoting change from within the society. They do this both by spreading awareness regarding the details of the Geneva Conventions of international humanitarian law and perceived violations by members of the IDF as well as supporting domestic prosecutions and internal inquiries by the army. While they prefer that such investigations be conducted internally, they also believe that Israel often needs the threat of external involvement to spur domestic introspection.

With regard to a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the organization as a whole does not take a specific position on Zionism or Post-Zionism, one state or two states. Their position is as citizens of a democratic society, the least they can do is choose not to take part in such an “immoral, undemocratic disaster” which they believe the occupation represents. As for why they oppose the occupation, my host’s response was two fold: first, it produces a situation which is not democratic. For instance, while there are both Jews and Arabs in Hebron, they live under two different judicial, legal, and political regimes. While Arabs cannot vote, are subject to the jurisdiction of military courts, and have no right of protest, Jews can vote, have access to civilian courts, and of course are free to protest the actions of the state.

While Israel is both Jewish and Democratic, he noted, it is democratic for its Jews, and Jewish for its Arabs. This regime of exclusion leads to a second problem, that the occupation itself takes a moral toll on the state and its citizens. Yesh Gvul believes the occupation is a waste of money, effort, and lives, all of which could have been invested in other more important things than a “complete Israel” (ארץ ישראל השלמה). He believes the infrastructure and health of the state and its citizens are all more worthy investments than expanding and defending the settlement enterprise.

From here, we discussed the specific reasons for which Israelis have claimed they are opposed to a withdrawal from the territories. Beginning with the obvious theme of security, I inquired whether Yesh Gvul felt Israel’s disengagement from Gaza was a positive move. As with many on the left whom I have interviewed, my host responded that while they believe a negotiated solution would have been better, to leave was better than to stay. That said, a one-sided solution he believes is impossible. Israel could not have expected that Gaza would remain isolated nor that Palestinians would “thank” Israel for giving back land after 38 years of occupation. As an Israeli, he can understand why it might have been better for Israel to remain in Gaza for security reasons, but is also aware that the occupation is one of the main reasons for the conflict in the first place.

Not all political decisions that Israel makes should be dictated by security, but also by moral considerations. He believes that a continued occupation will eventually destroy the state of Israel as a relatively solid, one-nation state. If Israel does not withdraw, Israel will cease to be seen as an egalitarian democracy and rather as an apartheid state. Additionally, he believes that both Israelis and Palestinians need a separation in their own states where each can pursue their own national ambitions before the two parties can event think of living together. Here he points to the relative quiet in the West Bank over the last few years as evidence that the Palestinians really are interested in living peacefully side-by-side with Israel.

In terms of the demographic argument, Yesh Gvul also does not take a position here. However, he believes that Israelis and Palestinians are two peoples whom are not yet ready to live together. The Palestinians need self-government while the Jews need time to get over their history of conflict and their “holocaust trauma.” Yet looking at the political and geographic situation, he fears it may be too late to separate.

Observing how passionately settlers speak about wanting to remain in their homes and how Palestinians speak so passionately about wanting to return to Yafo and Haifa, he is not sure either side is ready to make such a compromise or territorial division. He does not know why the Israeli right has only in the last two or three years begun to openly discuss a single state solution, but it may be a result of people realizing what a critical situation they are in. For those on the left, he is of the opinion that they are so fixated on arguing about what the end solution to the conflict should be that they are failing to come together to fight the occupation.

Turning to a discussion of the historical, cultural, and religious elements of the conflict, he argued that those Jews who really want to live in Yehuda and Shomron (the West Bank) may do so, but they need to work with a future Palestinian government. Religious borders, he asserted, need not go side by side with political borders, and does not believe that what is sacred to you must also be under your control. In his opinion, Israeli culture is being destroyed rather than preserved by the “geographic mayhem” and the religious right is itself being destroyed by the whole settlement project.

Turning to the disengagement from Gaza, he noted that while people at the time made a huge fuss about it, once implemented, Israelis learned to live with it. This, he believes is occurring once again. While domestic opposition to a division of Jerusalem is being increasingly vocalized, once given, he believes that Israeli claims to East Jerusalem will also face the same fate.

Moreover, he asserted, any Israeli who has actually been to East Jerusalem will agree that these are neighborhoods which Israel has no real need to keep. Preserving control over these spaces is entirely arbitrary. This, he believes, is one of the worst tragedies of the occupation, its utter arbitrariness. Yet, he can understand settlers who stay because of their belief in the need for a resolute claim to Jerusalem. Here lies a fundamental paradox of Israeli territorial claims. If Israel wants all the territory, it should annex it and give the Palestinians citizenship. If it does not, then it should disengage. However, even as Israel does not want the Palestinians as citizens, it does want the land.

As for the argument which proposes that the Green Line is itself utterly arbitrary and that there is no difference between Jewish communities to the east or west of the line, he expresses some sympathy. However, to the west, the territory is already a state, to the east it is not, and according to international agreements which Israel has signed he believes the land is illegally occupied. As such, settlements in these territories is equally illegal. In this sense, he prefers the “old” line to the creation of a new one. At the very least, it dictates that there are in fact rules, even if Israel “transcends them or makes a joke of them”.

My host believes that the real issue for Israelis today is much less about the territories themselves than it seems, that there is a huge gap between where mainstream Israeli society sits and where the settlers are. Rather society as a whole is becoming more radicalized such that to be a leftist is seen as less and less socially or morally acceptable. This goes hand in hand with a heightened siege mentality where Israelis take criticism of the state or individual criminal acts as indictment of Israel as a whole. This is also paired with a feeling of betrayal by the Palestinians to whom Israelis believe they have repeatedly done “big favors” of territorial withdrawals and negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. These gestures have been answered with continued violence and more frequent international denunciations.

While those on the right have increasingly utilized the language of religion and ethnicity to justify their policy positions, he believes the left has become lost in the “matrix” of what the people want rather than what is good for the country. He offers as examples that neither leftist party, Avodah or Meretz, supported the refuseniks nor have they offered open support for more recent left-wing activism as today in Sheikh Jarrah. While the ideas of the old left, giving up land for peace, continue to spread, the leftist polity itself is increasingly fragmented between centrists catering to public opinion and radical leftists who cannot engage in fertile dialogue with the rest of society. From the outside, leftists are increasingly viewed at best as exceptionally naive and at worst as stupid and self-loathing.

A further challenge is presented by a shift in the focus of the refusenik phenomenon, from those on the left who refuse to serve in the territories, to those on the right who refuse to take part in the dismantling of Jewish communities in the territories. As noted earlier, this shift is being accelerated by the army’s tendency to accommodate rather than punish those who choose not to serve in the territories. It also seems to be the case that fewer Israelis are willing to serve time in prison. Rather, there are “huge masses” of Israelis engaging in so-called grey refusal, where they claim mental health exceptions to serving in the army at all. In the meantime, refusal on the right, as a relatively new phenomenon, has been largely public and vocal, mimicking the early days of Yesh Gvul.

While Zohar despairs some at the decreased efficacy of the political left in Israel and at what he perceives as the increasing radicalization of Israeli society, he also sees tendencies which favor Yesh Gvul’s agenda. Namely, as Israel faces increasing isolation and is backed into a corner, he believes Israel will be forced to work its way out of it. This he sees in increasing grassroots leftist activism, greater participation in the political process, and a more mature Israeli attitude toward living in the Middle East. While the average Israeli still sees the Arab world as one large and threatening mass, there is an increasing interest in engaging with it. From diplomacy and trade to a new emphasis even in the current government to increasing the study of Arabic in schools, trends toward coexistence are also evident.

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