Gaza march leader to conscientious objectors: ‘Turn your words into weapons’

The leader of Gaza’s Great Return March holds a rare conversation with Israelis who refuse to serve in the army because of the occupation. ‘Those who refuse to take part in the attacks on the demonstrators in Gaza — they stand on the right side of history.’

By Edo Konrad and Oren Ziv

Israeli activists, including past and soon-to-be conscientious objectors hold a phone conversation with Gaza Return March leader Ahmed Abu Artema at the Hagada Hasmalit, Tel Aviv, December 19, 2018. (Oren Ziv)
Israeli activists, including past and soon-to-be conscientious objectors hold a phone conversation with Gaza Return March leader Ahmed Abu Artema at the Hagada Hasmalit, Tel Aviv, December 19, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

It is difficult to imagine today, but meetings between Palestinian and Israeli activists used to be routine. The younger generation of Palestinian and Israelis, however, were born into a world of walls, fences, and segregation, where even a simple conversation can be complicated, and at times, impossible.

That stark reality was on display two weeks ago when dozens of Israeli activists, including past and soon-to-be conscientious objectors held a rare conversation with Ahmed Abu Artema, one of the main organizers behind Gaza’s Great Return March. For many of the younger conscientious objectors, the Great Return March served as an inspiration for their personal reasons to refuse enlistment in the Israeli army.

“It is very nice to meet people who decided to take a stand, listen to their conscience and refuse to be part of the oppression of others,” Abu Artema began, his often-flowery Arabic translated by Israeli activist Neta Golan, one of the leaders of recent solidarity protests on the Israel-Gaza fence. “Those who refuse to take part in the attacks on the demonstrators in Gaza, who express their natural right to protest against the siege, those who refuse to take part in the attacks on Gaza’s citizens — they stand on the right side of history,” Abu Artema told the crowd.

It was the first time that Artema had ever spoken in front of a crowd of Israelis. For many of the younger activists, it was their first time speaking to someone from Gaza.

Last September, Abu Artema exchanged letters with conscientious objector Hillel Garmi, who served 107 days in military prison for refusing to serve in the occupation. “Your decision is what will help end this dark period inflicted on Palestinians, and at the same time mitigate the fears of younger Israeli generations who were born into a complicated situation and a turbulent geographical area deprived of security and peace,” Abu Artema wrote to Garmi in a letter published on both +972 Magazine and Local Call.

Among those present at the event at Hagada HaSmalit, a political space in central Tel Aviv that hosts various left-wing groups, were Adam Rafaelov, who was released from military prison just days earlier, sentenced for refusing to join the IDF due to his opposition to the occupation. Also present was Yasmine Eran-Vardi, 18, who has declared her intention to refuse her conscription in January.

“You may be few in numbers, but you are strong in your principled stance,” Abu Artema continued. “The power of an individual or a group is not measured in numbers, but in their morality.”

Abu Artema also displayed a genuine, empathetic understanding of the reality that conscientious objectors are born into. “We are all born into a particular society. Over time, we become part of that society and internalize its values. The biggest challenge is to be able to stand up to the immoral things that take place and be able to refuse to take part in society’s immoral demands,” he told the crowd.

Conscientious objectors Yasmin Vered-Levy (left) and Adam Rafaelov. (Oren Ziv)
Conscientious objectors Yasmin Vered-Levy (left) and Adam Rafaelov. (Oren Ziv)

Abu Artema further stated that ending the occupation and siege is in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians. “We need a solution that works for everyone, to liberate not only the weak side, but also the side that discriminates. The situation as it is today does not allow for stability or security for anyone. We need to build a life based on equality — for all our sakes.”

Following his remarks, Abu Artema, who was speaking to the crowd from Jordan, answered questions from the crowd. Every time a conscientious objector got up to ask a question, Abu Artema began his response by thanking them for their bravery. Asked what Israelis could do on their end to change the situation, Abu Artema opted for more general propositions: “We must knock down the walls of discrimination. Without a different reality, we won’t have security or a real solution.”

“People must be able to turn their words into weapons. Their weapons must be their words or nonviolent actions. To take a stand and use it as a tool,” he told the crowd.

Eran-Vardi, who was also inspired by Abu Artema when she decided to refuse last year, said she grew emotional listening to him speak. “I read Hillel and Ahmed’s letters while I was already thinking about refusing. They helped me come to my final decision and understand all the complexities.”

“They say we don’t have a [Palestinian] partner, but we see people there who want to live in peace and equality with us,” said Rafaelov following the meeting. “It gives me hope that things can change and that the occupation will one day end.”

Earlier this month, an IDF disciplinary body sentenced Rafaelov to a seventh prison term for his refusal to be conscripted. Rafaelov, 18, from Kiryat Motzkin in northern Israel, has served a total of 87 days behind bars.