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Occupational Hazards

An Isreli army "refusenik" speaks his peace in Vermont


On March 27, 2002, a Palestinian militant walked into a public Passover seder in the Israeli seaside town of Netanya with 22 pounds of explosives strapped to his body. In an instant, he killed 29 people and injured more than 100 others. It was the deadliest bombing since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. To most Israelis, this vicious attack was just one more reason for Israel to keep its troops stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But to Stav Adivi, a Reserve Major in the Israel Defense Forces who is visiting Vermont this week, it was a tragic reminder of why his country needs to withdraw from the Palestinian territories -- and why he refuses to serve there anymore.

This year, as Jews everywhere celebrated Passover, the holiday marking their liberation from slavery and their return to the Promised Land, Adivi has been living in a self-imposed exile. For the last six months he's been in North Carolina with his wife, a computer expert beginning a three-year work assignment in the United States. But Adivi's exile status isn't just geographic. His actions have also made him an outsider in Israeli mainstream society.

Adivi is the highest-ranking military officer to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war. In February 2002, Adivi joined hundreds of other reservists and active soldiers who signed a public declaration stating their unwillingness to "continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people." In the last year, 1095 other Israeli soldiers have signed their names to this "Combatants' Letter."

Like the other members of Ometz Le'Sarev ("The Courage to Refuse"), Adivi has risked his military and civilian careers, ostracism from family and friends, and prison time to oppose an occupation he believes is illegal, immoral and unjust. He argues that, far from promoting Israel's safety and well-being, the oppression of Palestinians within their own territories actually weakens Israel's security and fuels the ongoing spiral of hatred and violence against innocent civilians on both sides.

For the last six months Adivi has been traveling the United States in an effort to convince Americans -- particularly American Jews -- that the best way to promote peace in the Middle East is by getting Israel out of the Occupied Territories. This week Adivi brings his message to Burlington and Montpelier.

Adivi is by no means anti-Israel. He firmly believes in the principles of Zion-ism and the right of the State of Israel to exist and to defend itself from its enemies. "I want always to contribute my share to the army, to the country," he says in a thick Israeli accent during a phone interview with Seven Days. "But after the year of the Intifada when the Camp David talks collapsed, we didn't know what to think, all the peace lovers in Israel."

Even in Israel's ubiquitous military culture, no one could brand Adivi a coward or a draft dodger. The 46-year-old decorated officer enlisted in the army when he was 18. At 20, he enrolled in Israel's equivalent of West Point. For 12 years he served as a communications officer in a tank brigade, including six months on the Lebanese border and eight months in the Sinai Desert. During his 24 years as an army reservist, he's been to both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank several times.

But when Adivi received a phone call last year ordering him to relocate his soldiers to a military checkpoint in the Jordan Valley, he said no. His refusal was greeted with a "Don't ask, don't tell" response. "She said, 'The line is not very good. I cannot hear you. I understand that you are ill and cannot come,'" Adivi recalls. "She did not want to mess with me."

Adivi was lucky. Not all Israeli military commanders turn a blind eye to such insubordination. At least 200 soldiers have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Currently, 11 are serving jail time -- five reservists and six active soldiers. Still, the military has been very reluctant to court-martial reservists, especially officers, preferring instead the more subtle coercion of a disciplinary procedure. The reason? During a court-martial, a soldier is represented by an attorney who might try to argue that the occupation is illegal, that the treatment of Palestinian civilians violates the military's code of ethics and international law, and so on. Moreover, a court-martial is open to the press, while a disciplinary hearing is not.

But Adivi's refusal was not without consequences. At the time, he was the head of the business and industry school at Afula North College, a position from which he has since resigned. "My employer was a friend of Likud [Israel's ruling conservative party] so I kept it a secret. I never discussed this," he says. "And I hoped he would never see the Web site or the ads in the newspapers because I didn't want my workplace to know. It was not easy for me."

Nor did Adivi discuss his refusal with his fellow officers. Israeli law, which allows conscientious objection for women, makes no similar accommodation for men. Male conscientious objectors are often subjected to humiliation and vindictive behavior, even forced to choose between prison time and a consultation with a mental-health officer.

By and large, Adivi's family has supported his decision, though he had a falling out with an uncle who helped raise him. "The general sentiment in Israel was very much against us," Adivi recalls. "We were accused of being traitors. Further-more, we were traitors at a time of war." One prominent Israeli rabbi even suggested that all the refuseniks be court-martialed and sentenced to the death penalty. "The important thing was, we made a lot of noise," says Adivi. "We got a lot of media, both for us and against us. Most of it against us."

It's important to understand why the Combatants' Letter was so incendiary. At the time, Israelis were suffering through the "year of shock," when suicide bombings were occurring at unprecedented levels. Just weeks after the letter was published, the Passover bombing in Netanya occurred. Israel's peace movement, which had once been able to draw tens of thousands of protestors into the streets, had all but disappeared into the shadows.

Opponents of the refusenik movement -- and there are many in Israel -- claim that conscientious objectors represent only a tiny fraction of Israel's total fighting forces. But Adivi says those numbers belie a much deeper opposition within the military. "For every refusenik who comes out of the closet and signs the public petition, there are another 20 soldiers who find a way not to do their service in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he says. Some get notes from their doctors saying they are too sick to serve. Others, Adivi notes, purchase plane tickets and conveniently leave the country before receiving their orders. "People are finding their ways," he says simply.

Adivi emphasizes that in no way does he condone the violence being perpetrated by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups. Nevertheless, he believes Israel's efforts to defend some 200 Jewish settlements with 3000 miles of roads between them have put the nation in an untenable position. Military checkpoints and roadblocks, he says, only make the lives of Palestinians intolerable by denying them such basic human rights as the ability to earn a living, attend school, vote, seek adequate medical care, etc., he says.

"The Israeli army has turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a huge prison where three and a half million Palestinians are jailed. This is something that the human being should not do. And we decided not to do it."

Thus far, Adivi's message has been well received by American audiences, even those who disagree with his position. Though most of his presentations have not been before mainstream Jewish groups, that's beginning to change. "The problem is, during the last few years the traditional belief was that the Jewish community here should support the present prime minister of Israel, no matter what his beliefs and deeds are," says Adivi. "Therefore, criticism of Israel is something that you don't do in public."

Another problem, he believes, is that many Americans either don't understand or choose to ignore the complexities of the crisis. "Many American people love Israel, and I'm happy they love Israel," he says. "But mass media tend to tell stories as black and white. So the people think it's black and white and the president thinks it's black and white. The picture is a lot more colorful."

Adivi hopes American Jews will engage in a more spirited debate about the Occupation, in part because they have the political clout to influence Congress and the White House to pressure Israel. Ultimately, he hopes Israel's supporters in the United States will recognize that supporting an end to the Occupation is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. And perhaps, when it's time for Adivi and his wife to return to their homeland in three years, the situation between Israelis and Palestinians will have improved, he says. "That's our blueprint for peace.