On 6 February this year I refused to join the Israeli army in defiance of Israel’s policy of conscription. That day, as expected, I was sent to military prison.
My objection to serving in the army is grounded in reasons of conscience; I believe that in order to bring security to all people in Israel and Palestine, government policy must change and the occupation must end.
In order to bring security to all people in Israel and Palestine we need to end the occupation.Atalya Ben Abba, conscientious objector
When I was a child I would often wander the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem with my mother. I enjoyed absorbing the sounds of a different language and the taste of different sweets and dishes. Then, when I was about six years old the janitor at my school was killed in a terrorist attack. When my mother and I returned to the Old City several days later I tried to hide behind her. She realised that I was frightened and told me “there’s nothing to be afraid of – these people are like me and you and there’s no reason to feel threatened by them”. It was in that moment that I understood that we are all human beings and that everyone here – Jewish and Arab – lives in fear of this war.
In recent months I have participated in grass roots activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) alongside Palestinians. For the first time I understand the depth of cooperation between settlers and the Israeli government and have seen first-hand that government policy in rural areas of the OPT is designed to turn Palestinian life into a nightmare and force Palestinians from their land.
A Palestinian activist spoke to me about his experience with Israelis; as a kid, all he saw were foreign soldiers speaking a language he didn’t understand, entering his village and demolishing houses. He was afraid of them and was angry. Only years later did he meet Israelis who showed him a different side to our society. Listening to him made it clear to me that we live in an endless cycle – violence begets violence and is not the answer. Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians will pave the way to peace and allow us all to live in safety without fear and hatred.
My social responsibility as a member of society is important to me and my refusal to serve in the army does not stem from a desire to shirk this responsibility. Instead, it comes from an aspiration to change our present reality. By refusing military service I am in fact seeking to fulfil my responsibility to society. The Israeli army is the government’s instrument for creating and maintaining oppression, disenfranchisement, and deprivation of basic rights. In order to change the situation I cannot cooperate with the army.
Falling into hatred is easy. It’s easy to think in terms of “us” and “them”, “good” and “bad”. My partners in struggle and I may not end the occupation, but our actions are the beginning. In order to really change things we need to take the first steps – and that’s why I have refused to serve in the army, because in our current reality the only way to defend democracy is to refuse to serve.
I have now begun my third prison sentence. Returning to the military prison has been difficult because every small privilege granted can be taken away at any moment. This time I am also alone, without other conscientious objectors, and it is becoming increasingly challenging to remain positive. Despite this, I believe that my struggle is important and is larger than me and my fears.
Amnesty International has been working on the issue of conscientious objectors in Israel since 1972. The right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of conscience or profound personal conviction, without suffering any legal, physical, or administrative penalty is protected under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel has ratified. Amnesty International considers Atalya Ben Abba and others detained for refusing to perform military service for reasons of conscience or profound personal conviction to be prisoners of conscience and we call on the Israeli authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally.
At least five conscientious objectors to military service were imprisoned in 2016. On 23 March 2017 conscientious objector Tamar Ze’evi, 19, was released after spending 115 days in military prison and on 5 April 2017 Tamar Alon, 18, also a conscientious objector, was released following 130 days in military custody.