Leehee is one of the few Israeli conscripts who not only objected to serving the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine but refused to carry out her obligatory national service at all. Instead she actively campaigns against the illegal occupation.
Could you tell us a bit about your personal reasons for refusing to do your national service?
L.R There was a broad range of reasons. It was a combination of what the Israeli army represents and what it does. It is the main tool that sustains the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I believe that the fact that it is an army of occupation means that one must refuse to serve in it and the fact that it regularly commits war crimes according to any international treaty is another reason. I believe that refusing to serve in the occupied territories isn’t enough because the person that does the secretarial work in Tel Aviv and the person who does the intelligence gathering are all responsible in some way for what the army does in theWest Bank and Gaza-they are all enabling this machine to function. So not serving in the occupied territory is just a way to clear your conscience when in fact you are contributing just the same to the occupation.
You seem to have known from a young age about the conflict. It seems very difficult to access truthful information about the illegal occupation. How did you become fully aware of what was going on?
L.R At that point I obviously knew much less than I know today but in 2000/2001 there was quite a lot of discourse about it in the media and in the public because of the Second Intifada and because certain methods of communication (facebook etc) had just started to be used so the information was more accessible. Once I realised something was wrong, once you open your eyes it is much harder to shut them and you see more and more that is wrong. As soon as I started hanging around in leftist circles I was exposed to more information, I got on B’Tselem’s list and started to get regular reports. I started getting the reports of ICAD (International Committee Against Home Demolitions) and so on and I started participating in meetings and seminars in which the issue was being discussed.
How big is the activist movement within Israel?
L.R. Tiny. The radical left is very very small. There are people who are active but they are not active for the cause that I support. I think that almost everyone in Israel has some sort of political opinion but at the same time many of those people just repeat clichés and keep on saying the same things they see in the media without applying any critical thought. But while on one hand there are only 200-300 activists one the other hand with Lebanon in 2006 there was a demonstration where 10 000 people took to the streets and during Gaza attacks there were the same 200 people out every day for two-three weeks, three times a day.
Do you think it would ever be possible to try and mobilise support inIsraelthrough educating people of the truth in Israel?
L.R. Some of us are trying but it’s very hard, you have to tear down so many metaphoric walls that people have built around themselves. People have to unlearn so much to get over everything they have been brainwashed to believe. So it’s very very difficult to totally re-educate people. It is possible to educate people about certain things, you can tell people some stories and they would say ‘Yeah right that is wrong’ but to get them to connect the dots and say that Zionism is wrong, that the entire concept of this country is wrong- that’s really hard.
Who do you think is responsible for the brainwashing in Israel?
L.R. The media, the education system, the popular culture, all the big institutions and the army. Once people join the army they undergo another period of intense brainwashing. The conscription is two years for a girl and three years for a guy and that’s unless you join any special courses or take part in specific units or study through the army. Quite a lot of people do much more than the two or three years.
Do you think being forced into conscription army affects peoples attitudes to the occupation?
L.R. Yes I think so. Also a great deal of the discourse in Israel surrounds security and defence and the military so a lot of conscientious objectors are told ‘you didn’t serve in the army you don’t know what it’s like, you can talk about it’. Firstly I think that it gives people a sense of power over other people and secondly I think that it changes people in some way because being in uniform with that sort of influence over other people’s lives together with the treatment that the people who wear the uniform get- it’s a sort of hero status with automatic respect. That coupled with the influence they have over other people’s lives if they are in combat units or in the occupied territories in general, or in the intelligence services knowing you can point your finger at a certain point and knowing the drone will fall there. I don’t think you can do that without being changed. And I believe that once you’ve gone through that you also have to justify to yourself what you did or you will have to live with what you did. I’ve recently read this book called ‘My Holocaust Thief’ by Noam Chayut he’s served in the occupied territories and he talks about how he grew up in Israel as the perfect Zionist little boy who wants to be a combat soldier, he goes through all the holocaust ceremonies and believes that we are the greatest victim and we are so lucky to have a state now and a strong army that can protect us. He narrates his military service and how at some point in some Palestinian village he ran into a little Palestinian girl and he tried to smile at her and the look that he saw in her eyes and the way that she ran from him made him understand that for her he was the pure evil that the Nazis were for him. And he felt he could no longer own that feeling of victimhood and powerlessness and legitimise what the army and the state is Israel is doing. And I read that and the narrations he gave and the testimonies he got from other soldiers and I just felt sorry for my friends who had served cause I have no idea how you live with yourself and I wondered how many people undergo such a change and how many can really cope with doing what they did. Probably not many.
I was shocked at your description of how separate the Palestinians and Israelis are kept. Could you talk a bit more about this?
L.R. It wasn’t always that way. Until 1987 and the First Intifada there were many more Palestinians coming from the West Bank to work in the centre of Israel, people from Tel Aviv would get their cars fixed in the West Bank or do their shopping or such things so the older generation did get to meet Palestinians but still these Palestinians were doing certain jobs-gardeners, carpenters, car engineers, construction etc. But ever since 1987 most Palestinians don’t get work permits so Israel has started importing migrant workers from Asia and Africa. So the segregation inside Israel increased even more so since then. There is very strong segregation even inside mixed cities but I suppose someone living in Haifa or Akka would meet more Palestinians than someone living in Ramat Gan or Tel Aviv but the sad thing is that aside from that the segregation is almost complete- the school are separate, neighbourhoods are separate, people don’t mix. My brother wouldn’t just go and hang out in Jaffa and certainly not in Ludd, someone from Tel Aviv would not go randomly to visit a Palestinian city, maybe they would stop to have hummus on the way back from Jerusalem but nothing beyond that. This lack of interaction makes it much easier to paint the Arabs as some different race and Palestinians as the enemy. People don’t get to have a conversation about music or sport with a Palestinian, and then they grow up and they are soldiers and all of a sudden they meet these Palestinians in theWest Bankwhen they have these helmets and uniforms and guns.
So it sounds as if the low-paid jobs are taken on by Palestinians or migrant workers? Is there ever Israelis working in these jobs?
L.R. In general those jobs are not done by Israelis, almost never. The employers of these places are always looking for the cheapest workforce, a workforce they wouldn’t have to pay according to work laws and so previously the Palestinians, and now the migrant workers, never get paid the minimum wage, sometimes closer to half. Employers don’t need to give them holidays or health payments, overtime, breaks or that sort of thing and that’s why it’s very interesting to see how they treat the migrant workers now is how they treated the Palestinians back then and it’s all related to the fact that they are non-Jews so they deserve less. Palestinians that do get work have to adhere to any conditions they are offered because that’s the only job they are going to get and Israel is in total control of the Palestinian economy. They are told they should just be grateful they have a job and that they could be easily replaced. When it comes to migrant workers today it’s even worse. Most of them pay tens of thousands of dollars to get into Israel because there are companies that pretty much traffic people into the country and get their work permit then demand incredible sums of money. People sell everything they have to make this money, they get into debt with their neighbours, family, friends, everybody in order to come over. They are promised they will make all this money very fast then they come over and find out they are underpaid. They are tied to their employer and cannot change their job even if they don’t pay them or deprives them of sleeping hours or food. Most of them are not aware of their rights. They cannot leave even if they are being sexually assaulted which happens to a lot of the women of course but they can’t change work place because once they leave or are fired they become automatically illegal and once they are illegal they can be hunted down and sent away and if they haven’t made all the money they owe people they could find themselves not only in severe poverty but in life threatening situations. This is without even mentioning the fact that if a woman worker ever gets pregnant she automatically becomes illegal and the child is automatically born illegal because they don’t want her to give birth to a child inside Israel that isn’t Jewish.
Do you think the best way for activists here to have an effect is to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?
Yes and I believe that what really harms the Israeli economy is that on the one hand most of the Israeli economy is based on the occupation and the oppressions of Palestinians at the same time it means most of the economy of Israel is invested in the military budget and in sustaining the occupation. The entire system is very neo-liberal, very capitalist so it is not only impoverishing the Palestinians but also ordinary Israelis as well.
What media sources do you believe is most reliable in terms of giving an honest account of the occupation? What do you use?
I use a combination. I follow Haaretz and Ynet (the Israeli news sources) not because I think they’re reliable – both are very Zionist both are from the IDF government spokesperson , but I think it is important to know what they are reporting and what they want you to think. I think it is important to read them as long as you read them critically and also think what sort of discourse they are trying to build. Also specifically Amirah Hall – she is the best news reporter in Israel and she writes for Haaretz so in her case she doesn’t just report from the IDF spokesperson she gives the best reports in Hebrew about Gaza. I follow some international news, I agree with you that most international media is pro Israel but you do sometimes get good articles in the guardian or the BBC and Russia Today and Al Jazeera give good reports but have their own problems politically in their own countries – but they are good sources. News agency, the Palestinian news agency is a good place to follow. 972 magazine have got some very good reporters, they’ve also got some Zionist reporters that I’m not very fond of but some of their reporters are doing a really good job. I use Facebook and Twitter quite a lot, the Gaza Youth Breakout page and Facebook and Gaza TV are the most reliable sources for bombings of Gaza. Which often goes unreported but these people tell where and whom and how many and so on. Also knowing people who live in the West Bank or who are travelling around the West Bank somebody is always reporting on Twitter and information is always circulating around Facebook and Twitter. So I just combine all these sources and together and get a more or less comprehensive overview.
How are you and others you know that have refused to do national service treated, on a day to day basis, in Israel? Is their a stigma attached to it?
Most of my social circle is compromised of activists so it is either people who refused themselves (to do military service) or people who had wished they had refused so they highly support me. My family has dealt with it by now, mostly. Those trends that aren’t activist were people who were close enough for it not to stand between us. It sometimes comes up in different situations and conversations. There are various stigmas from; we are people who are careless and wouldn’t want to contribute to the view we are ‘Traitors who go against the country’. Most of the stigmas go along with being an activist in general. Sometimes people would experience problems in tabloid interview, I didn’t but it is just a matter of luck.