Boycotts don’t work. At least that’s what we are told by Israel’s apologists whenever the topic of a cultural, academic or trade boycott is mentioned. It was with great interest, therefore, that I read an obscure little article in the Daily Telegraph: “Israeli army calls for boycott over model’s refusal to serve”. Apparently the model in question, one Bar Refaeli, has thus far avoided service in the Israeli Defence Forces, something that is compulsory for all men and unmarried women over the age of 18 (she married a neighbour and divorced him with indecent haste); men serve for three years, women for two and all stay on the reserve list until their mid-forties. According to the Telegraph, Major-General Avi Zamir wants Israelis to boycott the goods that Ms. Refaeli models (Passionata lingerie, if anyone’s interested) because she has also applied for ex-patriot status so that she doesn’t have to pay Israeli taxes. Tut, tut. Isn’t it amazing how some boycotts are desirable?
However, Ms. Refaeli’s non-military inclinations, whilst admirable, are not the main reason for bringing this to your attention. The Telegraph article highlights the fact that Israel’s is a militarised society. Although there are some exemptions from military service – notably “religious ultra-orthodox Jews”, for whom there are alternative modes of national service – everybody, even immigrants, of a certain age have to serve. Indeed, some people migrate especially to spend time in the army, navy or air force. The IDF website carries details of Estelle Tabenkin, whose great-grandfather was a major Zionist leader, and her migration “from Canada to serve in an IDF combat unit”. Imagine, if you can, British citizens migrating to a foreign state specifically for military service; now imagine British Muslim citizens doing the same thing. Now imagine the furore.
An unknown number of British Jews serve in the Israel Defence Forces at any one time; it is staggering that the British government is unable to provide any accurate figures; indeed, the records aren’t even kept. However, on 6th January 2009, the BBC’s Ben Brown interviewed “Captain Elie Isaacson of the Israel Defence Forces”, who claimed that the IDF had had “major operational successes” in the assault on Gaza and had obviously been put up for the interview because he spoke with an impeccable English accent. This aroused the curiosity of at least one journalist who discovered that Captain Isaacson is from Manchester and has, apparently, lived in Israel since 1999. After spending some time on a kibbutz, he enlisted in the IDF and following his release from military service in 2003 he gained a BA degree in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya. Captain Isaacson served in Lebanon with his reserve paratroop unit and at the time of his service in Gaza last was a fellow at the Knesset. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, non-Jews can and do serve in the IDF, including some who are not even Israeli citizens; in any other country they would be called mercenaries.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper claimed in 2007 that nearly 30% of eligible males do not serve in the country’s armed forces, for varied reasons, including medical problems, religious study and overseas residence. A phenomenon of the past 8 years is the number of soldiers who are refusing to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories, the so-called “Refuseniks”; in 2002 two officers in an elite military unit formed “Courage to Refuse” because the two “realised that the missions confided to them as commanders in the IDF had in fact nothing to do with the defence of the State of Israel, but were rather intended to expand the colonies at the price of oppressing the local Palestinian population. Many of the commands issued to them were, in fact, harmful to the strategic interests of Israel.”
In February last year, Israel’s ex-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described her country’s invasion of Gaza as “Israel [going] wild – a good thing”. A few months later, Breaking the Silence “an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers” published a collection of statements from soldiers who had served during the Israeli invasion earlier in the year. The group claims that the evidence it has about “abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property” which “have been the norm for years, but are still excused as military necessities” is proof of “the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military”.
Evidence of misdemeanours and possible war crimes has been gathered by a number of external agencies and published over the past year, including the UN’s Goldstone Report. All have been dismissed by Israel’s politicians and military establishment as one-sided. The testimonies offered by the courageous members of Breaking the Silence and Courage to Refuse (and it must take a lot of courage to criticise the military in a state like Israel) are not so easily dismissed, although that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
The Israeli armed forces have for years nurtured what would now appear to be a myth, so-called “Purity of Arms”: The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor [sic] and property. That, believe it or not, is part of the IDF’s Code of Conduct and many serving and ex-soldiers, sailors and air force officers are proud of it. No wonder, though, that the members of Breaking the Silence “demand accountability regarding Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories perpetrated by us and in our name.” David Miliband, Ivan Lewis and others who want to change Britain’s laws to allow Israelis accused of war crimes to get away – literally – with murder, please take note.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.