A mass wave of Israeli army refusal could be a transformative moment

Civil resistance against the government has put the Israeli military in an unparalleled crisis, presenting an opportunity for those fighting apartheid.

Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, against the government's planned reforms, February 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, against the government's planned reforms, February 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the Second Intifada, as the Israeli army was killing thousands of Palestinians in its effort to suppress the uprising, I was part of a movement of Israeli youth and soldiers who refused to serve in the army. From the age of 18 to 20, I spent 21 months under arrest and in prison, alongside many others, in protest of the occupation and its brutal policies. It was one of the largest campaigns of conscientious objection seen in Israel — one that, until recently, seemed very unlikely to occur at such a scale again.

Over the past two weeks, however, and for the first time in two decades, a new movement of Israeli army refusers has emerged in opposition to the far-right government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, as it advances a slew of anti-democratic legislation. The proposed laws, described as a “judicial coup” by opponents, will severely weaken the country’s courts, giving the ruling coalition almost unlimited power. While impacting the rights of women, LGBTQ people, secular people, and other minorities, it is Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line who will face the heaviest brunt of the legislation.

Against this imminent threat, thousands of Israeli soldiers and reservists have made public statements announcing their intent to refuse army service should the government’s legislation pass. One such statement had over 250 signatures of reserve soldiers, all from the army’s special ops unit, stating the legislation is intent on “making the judicial branch a political and non-independent branch, in other words an end for Israeli democracy.” A second, similar statement of refusal garnered over 500 signatures of reserve soldiers, all from “Unit 8200,” an intelligence unit often compared to the U.S. National Security Agency. 

Meanwhile, according to media reports, almost every Israeli army unit — including the Sayeret Matkal commandos and other elite forces — is facing a revolt from within. Internal army chat groups are reportedly flooded with rank-and-file soldiers stating they either refuse or will refuse to serve if the judicial coup succeeds. Dissent in the air force — one of the Israeli army’s most revered divisions — has been of particular concern for the military leadership, according to press reports.

IDF Armored and Engineering corps soldiers are seen getting ready for a large-scale military exercise near the Sea of Galilee, southern Golan Heights, November 9, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
IDF Armored and Engineering corps soldiers are seen getting ready for a large-scale military exercise near the Sea of Galilee, southern Golan Heights, November 9, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

In a message on an internal air force WhatsApp group quoted in Haaretz, for example, one pilot announced that instead of serving one day a week as a reserve soldier, he will now use that day to demonstrate against the government. Another new refuser said that if the legislation is approved, the army’s ability to address security threats “will be damaged, without a doubt,” emphasizing that “There are whole units, especially in the intelligence area but also in the technology area, that are dependent on reserve service year-round.” On Sunday, almost all the reserve pilots of Squadron 69, one of the air force’s most elite teams, declared to their commanders that they, too, would refuse service should the judicial plans go ahead.

Growing chance of success

Or Heler, a military correspondent for Channel 13 news who has been closely covering the current developments, warned that this historic revolt risks putting the Israeli army in an “unprecedented crisis.” He is right. And for the movement struggling to end Israeli rule over the Palestinian people, this crisis presents a moment of unprecedented opportunity.

Almost all Jewish Israelis are conscripted into the army at the age of 18, with men typically serving for 32 months and women for 24 months. Notably, though, almost all the Israelis taking part in the current wave of refusals are reserve soldiers — older Israelis who continue to serve in the army for either one month every year, or one day a week for many years, typically until the age of 40.

These reserve soldiers are called for regular training and are recruited in great numbers in times of war. But the army also relies on these soldiers for its day-to-day functions, especially in fields that require longer training and technical knowledge, such as intelligence gathering and the air force. Without them, the army cannot operate.

The new wave of refusal is unfolding amid a larger campaign of mass demonstrations and civil resistance actions across Israel against the government. Protesters have blockaded major highways and train stations in Israel’s biggest cities; surrounded and tried to nonviolently break into the Knesset during parliamentary debates on the legislation; staged a national general strike; and organized weekly marches that have brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets every Saturday.

Just as important are the economic actions taken under the banner of this movement: Israeli citizens and companies have publicly divested from the Israeli economy, selling their Israeli currency and stocks and buying foreign ones. The ripple effect has been effective: during February, the Israeli shekel plunged 10 percent against the dollar, and many observers are warning of further economic damage and capital flight.

As a researcher on civil resistance — the use of strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and other nonviolent actions to withdraw cooperation from oppressive regimes — in global justice campaigns, I can safely say that this level of involvement in civil resistance campaigns is unparalleled in Israeli history.

Israelis participating in the weekly protest against the government's judicial plans, Tel Aviv, February 4, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
Israelis participating in the weekly protest against the government’s judicial plans, Tel Aviv, February 4, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

According to media estimates, 2 to 4 percent of Israel’s population (between 200,000 and 400,000 people) have participated in at least three of the peak protests and strike days across the country. Never before has an Israeli movement included such a scale of participation, and at the same time used civil resistance as its primary tactic.

With such levels of active participation often indicating higher chances of success, this is important news. Campaigns of civil resistance can have a transformative impact, as examples from recent history show: the ousting of President Slobodan Milošević by Serbian citizens in 2000; the revolt that led to the restoration of democracy in Nepal in 2006; the overthrow of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011; the blockades of the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and G8/G20 summits; and the actions of climate justice movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and the Sunrise Movement.

Starting with the small

Yet as successful as the Israeli protests have been in mobilizing people, some are also wary that they are missing a key underlying issue. Critics rightly point out that many of the individuals and groups leading the current opposition movement — including the army refusal campaigns — are primarily focusing their messaging on the impact that the government’s plans will have on Jews in Israel and the diaspora, while ignoring decades of anti-democratic and apartheid policies advanced by all prior governments against Palestinians. 

These critiques are important and legitimate. However, both strategists and experts on civil resistance movements stress that successful campaigns throughout history have often focused on “minor” or “symbolic” demands that helped make the greater injustice visible to larger parts of the general population. For example, the Indian anti-colonial movement’s most widespread campaign was centered on fighting a British tax on the production of salt, rather than the entirety of colonial rule. The U.S. civil rights movement also made national headlines through a campaign focusing not on voting rights first, but on segregation on public transportation.

Moreover, for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, young and old, participation in this protest movement will likely be a formative experience for the rest of their lives. And as we have seen with previous waves of army refusal, the act of defying the military — one of the most central institutions in Israeli society and national identity — can often be a major step for Israelis toward abandoning the hegemonic norms in which they were raised, eventually leading to a total reshaping of their worldview. It is telling that many in the small community of Israeli activists that today devote their lives to fighting the occupation and apartheid started as young army refusers or reserve soldier refusers in previous waves.

Conscientious objectors Shahar Peretz (left) and Daniel Peldi at an anti-annexation protest in the city of Rosh Ha'ayin June 2020. (Oren Ziv) 
Conscientious objectors Shahar Peretz (left) and Daniel Peldi at an anti-annexation protest in the city of Rosh Ha’ayin June 2020. (Oren Ziv)

So yes, it is troubling that millions of Israeli Jews are only now seeing for the first time that the country’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious forces are an existential threat to society, including to the millions of Palestinians subjected to Israeli rule. That said, later is better than never, and this wave of refusal and protest may yet create a deep change in Israeli society. While it will likely take years to reach the surface and shape long-term policies, this period of mass refusal and civil resistance could be as transformative as the Israeli movements that emerged during the Second Intifada, the 1982 Lebanon war, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Faced with this wave of refusal and resistance, the role of people around the world who oppose Israeli occupation and apartheid — including the thousands of members of the Refuser Solidarity Network, of which I am a part — is twofold.

First, while Israelis struggle from within using civil resistance, we must use parallel tactics internationally against the Israeli government: strikes, boycotts, disruption, divestment, and other nonviolent actions. We need to fight this legislation, but also make sure the campaign is leveraged to tell the story of the greater injustice, namely that of Israeli rule over the Palestinians.

Second, we should publicly endorse this wave of refusal and resistance, stand in solidarity with it, and especially support those refusers and protesters who see their actions as part of a bigger struggle for justice for Palestinians. The path ahead is neither safe nor certain, but for the first time in decades, I can honestly say that I see a realistic path toward ending the occupation in our generation.