Opinion: Israel’s Imprisonment of Conscientious Objectors

Israeli citizen Shahar Perets, 19, was recently jailed for the third time for repeatedly refusing to join the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Stating her reason for refusal, Perets said: “[I] decided to refuse to join the army because I am not willing to take part in the oppression of millions of people who live in the West Bank and Gaza”. The imprisonment of conscientious objectors in Israel has been ongoing for decades, and Amnesty International has publicly criticised and reported on the injustice of this practice habitually adopted by Israel.

Currently, military service is mandatory in Israel for all citizens over the age of 18 who are Jewish, Druze or Circassian, with only a few exceptions. Israeli Arabs, however, are ‘exempt’, a decision fundamentally based upon the security risk that the Israeli government and Zionist agenda perceive them to pose to the Jewish character and ethnic expansion project of the state. Once enlisted, women are to serve a minimum of 24 months, and men a minimum of 32.

Perets is one of 120 teenagers who signed the ‘Shministim Letter’ in January, a document designed to publicly announce their refusal to enlist and participate in the injustices perpetrated by the IDF against the Palestinian people. A snapshot of the ill-treatment experienced by Palestinians in the hands of the IDF – as reported by Amnesty International – can include “beating, slapping, painful shackling, sleep deprivation, use of stress positions and threats of violence against family members”, as well as significant periods of solitary confinement and even refusing medical assistance for injured Palestinians. Engaging in similar activism last year, Perets was amongst 400 Israeli teenagers who signed a letter, ‘Teens Against Annexation’, targeted at Israeli officials outlining their calls for a cease to plans to annex areas of the occupied West Bank.

Earlier this year, Hallel Rabin was similarly jailed as a teenager for refusing to report for Israeli military service, spending 56 days in jail. Rabin’s grounds for refusal were similarly based on the military’s oppression of Palestinians and dangerous policies. Her decision to protest against enlisting resulted in intense backlash for her position as a conscientious objector; she even received death threats on social media and accusations of committing ‘treason’ through her peaceful protest.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 18 states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Although this does not strictly identify a right to conscientious objection, the Human Rights Committee, in its general comment No. 22 (1993), deemed that “such a right [of conscientious objection] could be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force might seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief”. The Human Rights Council also recognised the right of each individual to have a conscientious objection to military service based upon article 18 of the ICCPR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which equally emphasises the right to freedom, thought, conscience and religion.

As such, Israel should be held to account by the international community for continuing to violate, not only the rights of the suppressed Palestinian people but also the rights of Israelis who are bold enough to publicly stand against the human rights abuses that their government perpetuate, and who strive to actively promote change within their state for the better of all people.

Image: Israel Defense Forces, Alexi Rosenfeld, 2014//CC BY-NC 2.0

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