My sister is refusing to join the IDF — and I couldn’t be prouder

In our childhood we would fight imaginary monsters. Today the monster of the occupation is far stronger — yet Atalya continues to bravely fight on, and is willing to pay the price for her beliefs. 

By Amitai Ben-Abba

Israeli conscientious objector Atalya Ben-Abba. (Yona Benstein)
Israeli conscientious objector Atalya Ben-Abba. (Yona Benstein)

Tomorrow, Tuesday February 6, my sister Atalya Ben-Abba will refuse to join the Israeli army and will likely be sent to prison.

Atalya has seen more of the reality of our troubled region than most Israelis her age. She volunteered for a year of national service with her youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, to work with kids on the margins of Israeli society in the city of Hadera. She began to witness the occupation with her own eyes when she was 15 years old on a tour to Hebron. Over the past several months she started to volunteer with Israeli anti-occupation group Ta’ayush in the Jordan Valley, one of the various front lines of ethnic displacement in Palestine.

I look on proudly as she joins us to rebuild demolished homes in the West Bank. She says that the military cannot solve a problem that is fundamentally moral and political. “We built a wall,” she says as she picks a still-usable wooden plank out of the rubble. “But behind this wall are people who suffer, people whose reality is a prison. They don’t have the freedom to live, they don’t have things that we take for granted, their land is being taken, their houses destroyed.”

On Monday I will accompany her to her own chosen prison. She will not go alone — two other refuseniks, Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, will be there, imprisoned with her for their fifth term, after a total of 74 days on the inside. These young women are ready to take more risks for a just peace than any of their government officials.

Of monsters and men

Atalya was only three years old and I was almost 10 when she started taking on larger opponents.

I would pretend that monsters were taking over my body in order to kill her. Every monster had his own fighting techniques, and she would defeat them by figuring out their weaknesses. If she cried, the monsters would get stronger, and sometimes she would sustain quite serious blows — I confess — without a whimper.

I always let Atalya defeat the monsters in the end, even when they were really terrifying. You don’t always win in so-called real life, though. I find myself worrying about that. What if they break her spirit in prison? What risks will I be prepared to take for what I believe in?

It is that very same bravery that drives her to conscientiously object today. Atalya could avoid army service in other ways, but she wanted to make a statement against the military regime that systematically deprives Palestinians of their basic rights. She is prepared to face the consequences.

A Palestinian shepherd herds her sheep, behind her is parked an IDF armored personnel carrier, Jordan Valley, West Bank, December 8, 2016. (Keren Manor/
A Palestinian shepherd herds her sheep, behind her is parked an IDF armored personnel carrier, Jordan Valley, West Bank, December 8, 2016. (Keren Manor/

Life in military prison is boring. Days go by languidly. Prisoners are drilled and marched in circles as they wear surplus U.S. Army uniforms. The guards, soldiers often not much older than the inmates, are expected to be particularly brutal. Yet Atalya doesn’t fear them — she is used to people pretending to be monsters. No, she says she fears the resultant reaction of people she loves more than anything else. There is little support for conscientious objectors in Israeli society.

Atalya wrote the following in her statement of refusal: “I grew up in Jerusalem, so fear is no stranger to me. I know what it means not to take a bus because there’s an alert against an attack, what it means to hear gunshots and later learn of a terrorist attack on the other side of the street. That’s why I know so deeply that we cannot let this situation last.”

It is an uphill struggle against the very big monsters of well-oiled war machines and racist government propaganda. But when I see Atalya’s friends from high school and her youth movement rallying to support her, I feel a rare sense of hopefulness. Perhaps this is already a kind of victory.

Amitai Ben-Abba is a writer and activist from West Jerusalem. He can be contacted via his blog. A version of this article also appears in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.