I couldn't believe I was doing this
October 22, 2002
This article originally
appeared in The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,816551,00.html.
couldn't believe I was doing this': Last year Rami Kaplan was a loyal
commander in the Israeli army. Now he is going to court to prove that
the occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal. Here he tells
Jonathan Steele how the destruction of an orange grove led him to lay
down his gun.
It was in Gaza that Major Rami Kaplan, a 29-year-old "veteran"
of Israel's prestigious Armoured Corps, began to feel that he had had
enough. He was increasingly uneasy about the orders he was given, and
the next time he was called up for his annual reserve duty, he said
no. Now, after a month in a military prison, he has gone on the attack.
Along with seven other refuseniks, he is taking an unprecedented petition
to Israel's supreme court. Their case is not that they have a right
to conscientious objection. They are going further. They claim that
Israel's occupation of Palestinian
territories on the West Bank and Gaza is illegal, and that as soldiers
they have a duty not to take part in an illegal enterprise.
This marks another leap forward in the story of the refuseniks, who
first came to public notice earlier this year when some 200 reserve
officers signed an open letter explaining their case. The number of
signatories has now reached 491.
Michael Sfard, one of the refuseniks' lawyers, acknowledges that the
petition has a large degree of chutzpah: Israel's supreme court has
already issued judgments on the legality of various army practices,
from the demolition of houses of suicide bombers' families to the deportation
of suspected terrorists. But using the courts to strike at the whole
basis of Israel's 35-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
is unprecedented. Two things have changed, Sfard argues. Israel's reaction
to the Palestinian intifada over the past two years has involved so
many violations of human rights that it has become a systematic "mechanism
of collective punishment". Under international law, collective
punishment of people in occupied territories is prohibited.
Secondly, as an occupying power, Israel has certain rights and duties.
It is now clear, the petition argues, that Israel has failed to fulfil
its duties of care to the Palestinian population on such a widespread
scale during the intifada that the whole occupation has been rendered
Rami Kaplan was an unlikely convert to the refusenik cause. He initially
enjoyed army life, so much so that he signed on for three more years
as a professional officer after his three years of conscription, and
rose to become a tank company commander responsible for up to 100 men.
His first war service was in Lebanon, where he was briefly in charge
of a base set up inside the medieval Crusader castle of Beaufort. "Until
1997 there was a broad consensus that our presence in Lebanon was needed
to protect communities in northern Israel. I was young and didn't have
the ability to judge what was going on. Our contact with the Lebanese
population was minimal," he says.
A short posting to the West Bank during the first intifada in the early
1990s raised his first doubts. He found the army being used as a kind
of police force. "I hated it from the beginning. We were operating
in towns and were ruling the place. I hated going after kids who threw
stones. On one occasion we sent in dozens of troops just to arrest a
10-year-old kid who was on some list," he says. When he left the
army to go to university and prepare for a job in teaching, it was not
out of a spirit of refusal, he says. He was relaxed about doing his
bouts of reserve duty for a month every year. Catching up again with
his colleagues from the unit, who were also coming in for reserve duty
from civilian jobs, was like an annual reunion.
Things changed in April last year. By then the second intifada was under
way, and Kaplan's tank battalion, of which he was a deputy commander,
was posted to the edge of the Gaza strip. One of its missions was to
guard the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. The other was to protect
the access route to the Israeli settlement of Netzarim, a heavily fortified
compound with gun towers and fences in the centre of the Gaza strip.
"Guarding settlements has become one of the army's main jobs. We
had more soldiers protecting Netzarim than it had settlers," he
Kaplan witnessed no atrocities, but what he did see troubled his conscience.
He came to the conclusion that Israel was running a colonial enterprise
in which Palestinians had minimal rights. One of the Israeli army's
regular duties was cutting down Palestinian orchards, vines and palm
trees. "There was a tactical explanation. It was not to punish
Palestinians, we were told, but to make it harder for people to crawl
up to the fence and sneak through.
"Occasionally, explosives were thrown or rockets were fired by
the Palestinians, but mainly they were civilians who wanted to get jobs
in Israel. I refused to do these orchard- cutting missions, and my commanding
officer accepted it. On one occasion I had to replace him, and I regret
it very much. It was so painful to see our tanks and bulldozers going
through the orchards. I had to sit on a hillside nearby and watch through
binoculars," he says.
"You could see Palestinians coming out of very poor and miserable
houses. A soldier shouted out, 'They've got guns,' but when I looked
through the binoculars I saw they only had bags with straps over their
shoulders. It wasn't a rifle strap. They wanted to pick as many oranges
as possible before the trees were destroyed. It tore me up. I couldn't
believe I was doing this. No one thought of cutting trees on the Israeli
side of the fence. If we had, we would have had to pay compensation.
No one thought of compensating the Palestinians."
Kaplan found it appalling that decisions on whether to cut the trees
to a depth of 200m or 500m—an issue that affected the livelihoods
of several families - were routinely taken by low-ranking officers.
"It was completely arbitrary," he says.
He also noticed that officers tried to bend the rules of engagement
as much as possible. "Instructions from the chief of staff prevented
you killing people except in extreme circum stances, but I got the impression
that at the regimental level officers tried to give themselves more
freedom. They overinsured so as to protect their soldiers and so that
they could fulfil their missions easily. Commanders became very flexible,"
Kaplan lost his belief in the justice of the cause. "If you're
a commander, you have to be very spirited and charismatic to your men.
I didn't feel I had the drive any more. I was sucked out, a shadow of
myself. I couldn't get up in the morning and do what I was expected
to do. The whole mission seemed stupid and a waste of time and money,"
His commander was not happy either, but like many other senior officers,
according to Kaplan, he hoped the government would end the intifada
and get the troops out. In the meantime they had to do their duty. "I
asked him: 'What happens if we have to cut the orchards to a depth of
5km rather than 500m on the grounds that the Palestinians are getting
longer-range rockets?' "
Back at university, his reserve duty over, Kaplan decided he wanted
to write to get his painful experiences off his chest. Cautiously, he
put them in a fictional context. "It was very difficult to go against
the system. I wasn't yet thinking of refusing to serve. I didn't want
to abandon my fellow officers and soldiers," he says.
His article in an Israeli newspaper caused a minor sensation, and he
was invited to speak at campuses. Then came the decision this year by
a group of officers to refuse to serve on the West Bank and Gaza and
draft a letter for signature. Kaplan hesitated for 10 days before putting
his name to it.
Taking the plunge, however, meant committing himself to involvement
in politics. Israel has been affected as much as any other western society
by the liberal "end of ideology" culture of individualism
and consumerism, he says. In Israel there is an extra factor. Under
the weight of the suicide bombing, he argues, Israeli society has become
passive and withdrawn. People retreat into themselves and their families,
and stop listening to and watching the news on radio and TV.
"In a way, the settlers and the refuseniks are similar. Our political
views differ, but we are the only groups in Israeli society that are
willing to take action in the name of something bigger than ourselves,"
Buoyed up by the strength of the refusenik movement, Kaplan's views
on the occupation have become more radical. "People ask why I am
not defending Israel against the suicide bombers. But if I'm in the
army in the territories, I'm not protecting people here in Tel Aviv.
On the contrary. It's the army's role in the territories that is the
cause of the bombings in Tel Aviv. Being a soldier increases the danger
to my family here," he says. "You have to be blind to think
that people under oppression won't rebel. Suicide bombing is a new phenomenon.
It happened after 30 years. This just shows how bad the situation in
the territories has become."
Kaplan still calls himself a Zionist, and he is proud of the tolerance
of Israeli society. Refuseniks in other armies are not treated so well,
he says. "When I decided to refuse, none of my family, neighbours,
or friends denounced me. Their tone varied between respect for my views
and outright support. An officer in my battalion who is himself a settler
told me, 'I respect you, but keep loving the Jews and the nation of
Israel.' I was surprised but very happy."
In the military prison from which he has just emerged, Kaplan had no
complaints. The group of around 10 refusenik officers doing time with
him were treated correctly. He was dismissed from his unit when he signed
the refuseniks' letter, but he did not lose his rank.
He also believes that the refuseniks are getting wider, if still silent,
support among Israelis than the media suggests. The army has admitted
that only a third of reservists turned up for duty last year, though
most found medical or other excuses for failing to appear. As the economic
situation in Israel worsens, Kaplan thinks more people will begin to
criticise the occupation.
Tomorrow the supreme court will hold its first oral hearing on the refuseniks'
case. The government is taking their argument seriously and is preparing
a highly detailed rebuttal. Even if the court rejects the case—to
do otherwise would be a judicial earthquake—Kaplan and his colleagues
are confident that by criticising the very
legality of the occupation, they will help to bring its end nearer.