Ten years ago, I wrote an article for my web-based weekly newsletter BibiWATCH on the subject of my service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). My views have not changed in those years, and I reprint the article below.
WHY I SERVE – by Eric Lee
By the time you read these words, I will be in uniform. About two months ago, I received the notice in the mail. Report to a central bus station in one of Israel’s southern cities at 9:00 in the morning on Monday, 14 October. Go home on Wednesday, 6 November. The notice came from the Israel Defense Forces, in which I have served as a reservist since 1985. Some of you reading this do not live in Israel, so I guess I should explain.
Israel has always had a people’s army. Not only is the regular army based on conscription, but the vast bulk of the Israeli forces consist of reservists who are also obligated by law to serve until a certain age. Even if you come to live here when you are already an adult, well past the age of 18 when boys and girls here get drafted — even then, you still have to serve in the reserves.
I was drafted in June 1985 and have served ever since in a combat unit. Since the outbreak of the Intifada in December 1987, my unit (and I with it) has been called to serve every year, always in the occupied territories. I have served in and around Kalkilya, Tubas, Bethlehem, Beth-el, Tekoa, Jenin, Dahariya and Gaza. I mention this because I want to address two audiences who I know are among the readers of this newsletter.
There is one group which regularly attacks my patriotism and the patriotism of those who share my views. Some (okay, most) of these critics do not actually live in Israel themselves. (Their Zionism is of the “virtual reality” type.) But they are prepared to fight down to the very last Israeli soldier to preserve Israeli sovereignty over Rachel’s Tomb or some other holy site. Danny Shapiro handles these people quite nicely in his letter, in this week’s letters column.
The other group is one which questions the credentials of Israeli leftists — after all, we do serve in an occupation
army, we live on “stolen Palestinian land”, etc., etc. This view has also found expression in letters to this publication.
Recently I got a letter from someone in the United States asking if the movement urging resistance to serving in the
territories, “Yesh Gvul” (There’s a Limit/Border) had become inactive. The implication was that were it active, certainly leftists like myself would be part of it.
Well, “Yesh Gvul” is still around. I saw them leafleting a recent “Peace Now” rally in Tel Aviv. And they’ve been running newspaper ads, listing the names of soldiers who refuse to participate in the occupation.
And I should say at the outset that I respect these people. I know that they’re sincere. I know that many of them are paying a price for their beliefs — not only the price of military prison, but also the hostility of a society which looks upon them as traitors. I respect them — but I do not share their beliefs.
Tomorrow, I will put on my uniform and serve my 24 days — presumably in the occupied territories — without hesitation about what I am doing. And I want to tell you why.
I believe that Israel won control of the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the Sinai peninsula in a war of self defense in June 1967. Israel, then under a government of the democratic Left, was not interested in doubling the size of its territory or bringing under its control hundreds of thousands of hostile Palestinians — many of them refugees from the 1948 war of independence. Following its military victory, Israel held on to those territories, not annexing them (except for East Jerusalem) and most of us assumed that it would be willing to exchange them for genuine peace. Israel’s acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution
242 confirmed that belief.
Under international law, Israel is obligated to do certain things in territories it temporarily occupies — among these,
to preserve public order. It is not obligated to unilaterally withdraw from those territories. Under the Oslo accord, the Palestinian leadership explicitly recognized the right of Israeli soldiers to occupy certain parts of the West Bank until a final accord is reached. So other than a small fringe of the Israeli left, and a broader segment of the international left, no one is actually telling Israeli soldiers to disobey orders and not serve.
And what, exactly, is it that we do in those territories? I can tell you honestly that everything I have been asked to you is reasonable and I have no moral qualms about doing it. For example, I have had to sit in a jeep and accompany school children in a bus, traveling along roads where rocks and Molotov cocktails might be thrown at them. Regardless of what I think of Jewish settlements in the territories, so long as there are children there, someone has to protect them. I’m willing to do that job.
And yes, I believe that those settlements should be dismantled. I’d be delighted to help out in the redeployment of the IDF in Hebron. But I don’t get asked where I want to serve or what I want to do. I do what I’m told to do — as long as it’s not illegal and not immoral. If I were ever asked to something which is clearly wrong, I would refuse. And if I saw fellow soldiers trying to do something wrong, I would stop them or report them or both.
I have never had to fire my weapon in the army, and hope that this will never happen. The only situation in which I’m allowed to do this is when my life is in danger, or the lives of others are in danger, and in which I can clearly identify the cause of the danger. That sounds reasonable to me.
I’m going in to reserve duty at an interesting time. Israeli-Palestinian talks have resumed. The US election is
little more than 3 weeks away. Israeli politics is rife with talk of a national unity government. I wish I could stay here, at my post, and produce BibiWATCH each week during what promises to be an exciting period.
I’ll be back on 6 November, and there will be a special edition of BibiWATCH online the following day. Meanwhile, keep sending in those cards and letters. And wish me luck.