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Army dissent rattles Israel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

YAKIR MILITARY POST, West Bank - In their civilian lives, the Israeli army reservists at this base are scientists, merchants, teachers. On the base, in the rugged hills 30 miles north of Jerusalem, they are the backbone of Israel's army combating the Palestinian uprising.

And now a small but growing number of reservists are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arguing that the army's presence has little to do with legitimate defense needs and might constitute a war crime.

Last month, 52 reservists signed a petition that appeared as a newspaper advertisement protesting the army's actions. Within days, the number of dissenters grew to 100. As of yesterday, 147 combat reservists, including a fighter pilot, were objecting to serving in Palestinian areas.

Describing gunfire aimed at children, bulldozers flattening homes and heavy-caliber gunfire sweeping towns, the reservists said they would not follow orders they deemed illegal and immoral. The reservists also said they objected to the army using its resources to defend Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.

"We hereby declare that we will no longer take part in the war for the settlements' safety," the petition said. "We will no longer fight beyond the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 border] with the purpose of occupying, deporting, destroying, blockading, killing, starving and humiliating an entire people. The price of occupation is the loss of the Israel Defense Forces' semblance of humanity and the corruption of all of Israeli society."

The petition has focused attention on an issue that many Israelis would prefer to avoid: whether guarding the 200,000 Jewish settlers living among 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is vital to the state's future, and a suitable task for the army.

The reservists have also touched off a debate about the conduct of Israel's armed forces and how best to respond to Palestinian attacks.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff, told Israel Radio that the fight against suicide bombers must be waged in the Palestinian cities from where they come. A soldier's refusal to go there, he said, is the same as refusing to fight to defend Israel against an invading army.

He accused the dissenters' cause of being motivated by politics, not morality, and said, "If this is the case, then this is not dissent, but a serious rebellion that the country's leaders must address."

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has depended on an army staffed by draftees who serve for three years, a relatively small number of professional officers and a large pool of reservists - men who are usually mobilized for a month every year until they reach age 45.

Until the start of the Palestinian uprising 16 months ago, draftees did most of the army's work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As the violence increased, reservists were given combat roles.

The army refuses to divulge the number of reservists, so gauging the effect of the dissenting reservists, who hope to gather 500 signatures, is difficult.

Mofaz is leaving discipline up to the reservists' commanders, and most of the dissenters have been kicked out of combat units, reassigned to other jobs and threatened with jail.

In making their complaint, the reservists have aired serious accusations about the army's conduct just as the army and its commanders are facing scrutiny from abroad.

In Belgium, a once seemingly trivial civil suit brought by Palestinians against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his actions in Lebanon in 1982 may grow into a criminal case.

Sharon was defense minister when members of an allied Christian militia massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps near Beirut. An Israeli commission later held him indirectly responsible for the slayings; he resigned as defense minister in 1983.

Belgian prosecutors, relying on a 1993 measure that allows war crimes to be tried in Belgium even if not committed on Belgian soil, want to charge Sharon criminally as an outgrowth of the pending civil suit. An appeals judge is scheduled to decide next month whether charges can be filed.

The prosecutors' actions prompted Israel's foreign ministry to warn military commanders to avoid traveling to countries with similar statues - Spain is the only country publicly identified - out of concern they might face arrest.

The dissenting reservists say they have same concern. Most who signed the petition have refused to be interviewed by foreign journalists; some of the reservists note military regulations and others say the subject is an internal issue.

Amit Bar-Tzedek, a music teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, signed the petition. He has served several tours in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and recently spent 20 days in jail for refusing to return.

"What Israel is doing now is a war crime," Bar-Tzedek said in an interview. As a young conscript in 1992, he served in the Gaza Strip. That was where he saw soldiers and Israeli authorities oversee the day-to-day lives of Palestinians. "I thought, 'Don't we have our own crime, our own issues to take care of?'"

For Bar-Tzedek, the key to peace is an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and the Jewish settlements, with or without a written peace agreement. It is only then, he said, that threats of suicide bombings and other attacks will disappear. This view is not accepted by Israeli political figures, including those on the extreme left. Virtually all of them agree on the need for a formal peace settlement.

In the newspaper Haaretz, Yigal Shochat, a former fighter pilot who was wounded in the Yom Kippur War, wrote that soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories might be guilty of war crimes. "I can imagine what it was like in Ramallah when an F-16 bombed the police station there," he wrote. "I am talking about bombing a defenseless populated city. I am talking about liquidating people on main street, from a helicopter, with three passers-by also killed.

"I think that the goal is not important enough to pay that price, especially when we are confronting not an army, but civilians," Shochat wrote. "And more especially when we are wrong. Very wrong."

Reservists serving at Yakir in the West Bank said they were angered by the petition. They said they take their role seriously and try not to abuse the rights of Palestinians.

"I hardly see monsters among my men," said Lt. Col. Yehuda Albek, a 42-year-old physicist midway through his four-week tour. "In fact, we spend a lot of time thinking of ways of doing things so we are not monsters."

The Yakir Military Post sits on a jagged hilltop with a postcard panorama - fields made green by the winter rain and a scattering of Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements.

On a clear day, the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya is visible, as are the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city. A map isn't needed for a soldier to understand the job and the difficulties; settlements and villages are in sight.

"We do not directly guard the settlers," said Albek, putting on his flak jacket and grabbing his machine gun for a quick tour. "But they'd be wiped off the map if we weren't here, and I don't want to make them second-class citizens. Protecting them is not something that we should be ashamed of."

But it is the nature of this work that is the most controversial. What Albek considers a routine hunt for troublemakers, or an ordinary patrol by jeep, Palestinians consider part of an illegal occupation of their land.

Military checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from moving from village to village or reaching work or hospitals can be a humiliating experience. Removing these obstacles tops a list of Palestinian demands.

Some Israeli leaders acknowledge that at least a handful of Jewish settlements will eventually be dismantled as part of a future peace agreement.

Various plans have proposed dismantling relatively isolated settlements and drawing a new border around those closest to pre-1967 Israel.

"Middle class Israelis have their life savings in their homes," Albek said. "They aren't going to leave. For the Palestinians, it's the same. They aren't going to leave."

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