by Amos Harel and Mazal Mualem | Ha'aretz | 22 December 2003
Thirteen members of a top commando unit who announced their refusal to serve in the Palestinian areas will be kicked out of the army if they do not back down on their decision, the IDF Chief of Staff said Monday.
The letter - signed by Sayeret Matkal soldiers and officers - was delivered Sunday to the Prime Minister's Office, which refused to comment on the content of the letter.
Ya'alon told Army Radio on Monday that those who signed the letter could be thrown out of the army. "Each one (of the signatories) will be called in to talk to his commander, the severity will be explained to him and he will be given the chance to back down," Ya’alon said. "If he doesn't, he will be thrown out of army reserve duty."
Army spokesman Brigadier General Ruth Yaron said Monday that, although Israel is a democratic country, the reservists should not use the prestigious unit as a platform to express their views.
Among the 13 signatories are nine who still do reserve service in Sayeret Matkal, while the most senior is an officer with the rank of major.
"We say to you today, we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians," reads the letter addressed to the prime minister, " and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise."
One of the signatories, who would only give his name as "Moshe," told Israel Radio on Monday that he felt an operation he participated in to track down Palestinian militants in the West Bank served no purpose.
"I saw that nothing changed as a result of the operation and we look much worse than we did a year or two ago," Moshe said. "What should I do, just sit with my arms crossed? ... Or say, 'Gentlemen, I'm not going back there."'
Although Sayeret Matkal - the IDF General Staff's elite special-operations force - is rarely involved in operations in the territories, the announcement carries weight because of the group's standing in Israeli society.
In 1972, Sayeret Matkal commandos, led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, raided a Sabena plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. In 1976, the elite troops carried out a daring operation at Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue some 100 hostages on an Air France plane hijacked by terrorists.
Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Yuval Steinitz said Monday that the phenomenon of refusal emanates from a terrible failure by all of Israel's governments. Israel Radio quoted him as saying that had criminal proceedings been opened against the previous refuseniks, the spread of the refusal phenomenon would have been prevented.
Political figures who served in the elite army unit sharply criticized the announcement. Barak, who served as commander of Sayeret Matkal, called on signers of the letter to "immediately" retract their decision. According to Barak, it was a grave mistake, but "it's not too late correct it, and it's important to do so."
"In a democracy there's no place for refusal because it is the elected government that issues the orders to the army. As much as we are divided over the hesitant and confused policy of Sharon's government which is endangering Israel, it is essential that this battle be waged in the public sphere, and for the army to defend all of us. Every soldier has the right and the obligation to refuse an blatantly illegal order, but I am convinced that the IDF, under Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, would never lend a hand to the giving of blatantly illegal orders to soldiers, including those in Sayeret Matkal."
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who served in the elite unit, said Sunday that "if people base their military service on their political opinions, be left-winged or right-winged, we won’t have an army or a state left. It is time to stop using military service as a political axe."
MK Matan Vilnai (Labor), a major general in the reserves who served as deputy commander of Sayeret Matkal, also criticized the letter. "Refusal is a phenomenon that must cannot be accepted in any manner. It cannot be denied that we are not speaking of a few isolated instances, but rather a phenomenon that stems from the feeling of lack of purpose in government policy."
"Refusal harms society's strength," said MK Dan Yatom (Labor), a major general in the reserves who served in Sayeret Matkal. "I condemn any form of refusal. No person or group has the right to determine which missions are to be carried out." According to Yatom, "The government of Israel must be attentive to the distress expressed by such quality groups as the pilots and Sayeret Matkal, and to respond appropriately."
Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said on Monday "the soldiers infected with this 'leprosy' of refusal must be stripped of their military aura and tried for disobedience and even, I would say, incitement to mutiny. It doesn’t matter if they're pilots or extolled special unit soldiers. I think all of this credit given to elite units…we respect and appreciate all soldiers in uniform, the army marches also on its cooks, mechanics store men, and these people have no right to use their unit to receive a different sort of treatment."
"This phenomenon worries me as a citizen more than as deputy minister of defense," Boim added.
Meretz MK Yossi Sarid said on Monday "as long as the occupation and oppression persist, I suppose that the phenomenon of refusal, which I see as negative one, will become contagious among military units, especially throughout the elite forces."
"The army can enact disciplinary measures against the refuseniks," Sarid added, "The new refuseniks know by now that hard times are ahead for them, they saw the treatment that the pilots received, and yet they nevertheless decided to take a stand, which is a telling sign of their internal conviction."
MK Ophir Pines (Labor) said that in light of the letter, a serious discussion should be held on the issue.
Minister Effi Eitam, Chairman of the National Religious Party, said that he sees the letter as a break in Israeli society and that he expected the wave of refusal to grow.
Meretz MK Roman Bronfman called the letter a brave step intended to save israel from the occupation, while MK Shaul Yahalom (NRP) said that jail was the proper place for the signatories.
The Sayeret letter is the third such public declaration of reservists refusing to serve in the territories since the outset of the current intifada. In early 2002, the "Courage to Refuse" movement released a letter signed by reservist soldiers and officers refusing to serve in the territories, which to date has over 570 signatories. In September of this year, a group of Israel Air Force pilots announced their refusal to carry out air strikes in the territories.