Israeli teen jailed for refusing draft: ‘I’m willing to pay a price for my principles’

Ben Arad, 18, is the third conscientious objector imprisoned since October 7. He tells +972 why Israel’s assault on Gaza propelled him into action.

Conscientious objector Ben Arad, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)
Conscientious objector Ben Arad, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)

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“Since the war began, I understood that I have an obligation to make my voice heard, and to call for an end to the cycle of violence.” These were the words of Ben Arad, an 18-year-old Israeli conscientious objector, shortly before he reported to the Israeli army’s recruitment center near Tel Aviv on April 1 and declared his refusal to enlist in mandatory military service, in protest of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the long-standing occupation. 

Arad is the third Israeli teenager to publicly refuse the draft for political reasons since October 7, and was tried and sentenced to an initial 20 days in military prison. He follows Tal Mitnick, who has served 105 days in prison across three sentences, and Sofia Orr, who has served 40 days in prison across two sentences — neither of whom have yet been exempted from military service, meaning they may still be sentenced to further stints in prison.

Born in Ramat Hasharon not far from Tel Aviv, Arad has spent the past few months volunteering at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh in the Negev/Naqab desert, where he worked with youth from the kibbutz and in schools in the nearby Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj. Like many other Israeli teens completing what is known as a “year of service” before the army this year, Arad was informed that the program had been cut short due to the war, and that he would therefore have to enlist in the army in April rather than December. 

In an interview with +972 Magazine and Local Call prior to his sentencing, Arad explained that he never defined himself as an “activist” until now, and that watching Israel’s destruction of the Gaza Strip — which he described as “an unprecedented murder campaign not only against Hamas but against the entire Palestinian people” — convinced him of the need to refuse. 

“The killing of civilians in Gaza, the hunger, the disease, the destruction of property, [in addition to] settlers’ crimes in the occupied territories — they all add fuel to the flame of hatred and terror,” he said. “Fighting will not bring back the hostages. It will not resurrect the dead. It will not liberate the Gazans from Hamas’ control, and it will not bring peace.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Conscientious objector Ben Arad says goodbye to friends and family as he enters the Israeli army recruitment center near Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)
Conscientious objector Ben Arad says goodbye to friends and family as he enters the Israeli army recruitment center near Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)

How did you arrive at the decision to refuse? 

I didn’t grow up in an environment that talks about these things, but I was raised to think critically and question everything. I took a rather different path from the average Israeli leftist, who starts with the occupation and only then thinks about global issues such as capitalism and colonialism. I was concerned from an early age about global warming and the environment. This line of thinking led me to an anti-capitalist ideology, which brought me to anti-colonialism, and from there to the struggle against occupation.

Before the war, I already felt less suitable for military service, but I never went to many demonstrations and was not an activist. Since the beginning of the war, I have felt obligated to act. I felt that I owed it to myself and to the world.

How did your friends and family react to your decision? 

I come from a family where everyone enlisted. My brother, who is two years older than me, is a military officer right now. A lot of my friends are soldiers. Those around me disagree [with refusing], but sometimes agree on certain points. Most of the people around me respect the decision, and appreciate that I’m fighting for something that I think is right and that I’m willing to pay a price for my principles.

After October 7, many on the left went through a process they describe as “sobering up,” or shifting further to the right. With you, the opposite happened. 

The barbarism of Hamas’s brutal attack sought to eradicate any hope for peace and a common future, and the impact of that attack on the Israeli people is still pervasive. Many people saw the shocking things that happened on October 7 and their immediate reaction was that there was no other choice but to destroy Hamas by force. I believe that’s a kind of oxymoron: I don’t believe violence can be destroyed by force. Attacks and ground incursions only create a harsh reality for people in Gaza, spread hunger and disease, and this reality only contributes to support for Hamas and produces the next generation of people who have nothing to lose. Hence the resistance to the occupation, which only strengthens the cycle of violence. The fight against terrorism must be a political struggle.

Do you think that in the current climate it is possible to convince other teenagers to refusal? 

I’m not really calling on anyone to refuse. The only thing I can emphasize is for people to examine their perceptions, to question, and to think as critically as possible. That’s all you could ask for. Those who enlist should try to think deeply about the implications and significance of military service. In my opinion, serving in the army is a political act, but people don’t perceive it as such. They enlist because it’s the law, because there’s mandatory conscription. I want them to examine their actions and perceptions under a microscope.

Conscientious objector Ben Arad says goodbye to friends and family as he enters the Israeli army recruitment center near Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)
Conscientious objector Ben Arad says goodbye to friends and family as he enters the Israeli army recruitment center near Tel Aviv, April 1, 2024. (Oren Ziv)

Is your refusal also an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza?

Totally. I think we must stand in solidarity with Gazans, and with the Palestinians in general. We can only move toward peace if we work to de-escalate and stand side-by-side. Without that, we won’t move forward.

Are you afraid of going to jail in the current public atmosphere? 

The fear is less of potential political or legal persecution, or of prison itself. But there is no doubt that there is alienation in Israeli society now. When you speak in terms that the public refuses to hear in the current climate — when you talk about 13,000 children killed in Gaza, for example — it creates a sense of alienation, and that’s what I’m afraid of.

Have you spoken to the refuseniks who are currently imprisoned in preparation for  entering prison yourself? 

Yes, I spoke with Sophie about her experience in prison, and how she handles the reactions to her refusal. I asked her how she answers when someone asdraftks her what she suggests as a solution. It’s a bit of a difficult question, because it takes a lot of imagination to picture what needs to happen when the war ends. She told me she responds that we are teenagers not world leaders who know everything, and that we can only speak from our knowledge: in order to think of possible  solutions, we must first stop the war and clear the smoke, which makes it difficult to see beyond the present.

The army doesn’t allow military prisoners to bring many items in with them, but you are permitted to take a CD player and certain books. Which CDs and books will you take? 

I planned to take “A Clockwork Orange” — the book and also the soundtrack on CD. I hope they let me, because it’s a book with violent content, so they might confiscate it. Apart from that, also  “The Communist Manifesto,” philosophy books, and a lot of CDs: Pink Floyd, some Beatles, and Radiohead.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew in Local Call. Read it here