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Some Israeli Reservists Refuse to Serve in West Bank, Gaza - 2002-01-31

Nearly 90 soldiers in the Israeli army reserve say they will refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because the military's occupation forces are humiliating the Palestinians who live there.

Israeli army reservists, including soldiers and officers serving in front-line units, are signing a petition they say is meant to eventually force the Jewish state to withdraw from the Palestinian territories.

The petition, which has been published in Israeli newspapers and on an internet Web site, condemns Israeli military actions since the violence with the Palestinians began 16 months ago.

The petitioners say they would carry out any mission in Israel's defense, but say "the mission of occupation and repression does not serve this goal." Therefore, the reservists say, they will no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli soldiers have occupied the Palestinian territories since they were captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

After their compulsory military service, most Israeli men serve about a month of reserve duty each year until they reach their mid 40s.

The petitioners say they will not fight in the occupied territories "in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire population."

The reservists say they do not want to continue to obey orders that have included demolition of homes, shooting at stone-throwing protesters, and firing heavy machine guns into residential areas in response to Palestinian mortar fire.

The petition has prompted a sharp backlash and heated debate inside Israel amid a recent wave of suicide bombings and shooting attacks by Palestinian militants.

Some 200 reserve officers from elite units responded with their own letter stressing their "strong reservations regarding the dangerous and undemocratic initiative of refusing to serve."

A spokesman for Jewish settlers in the territories branded the petitioners as "cowards who identify with the enemy."

While acknowledging that "differences of opinion are allowed," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer chastised the reservists for airing their views in public instead of to their military superiors.

Organizers say they hope to collect at least 500 signatures and form a grass-roots movement reflecting their concerns about how the Israeli military is treating the Palestinians.

Members of the group have declined interviews with foreign journalists, saying their goal is to stimulate discussion inside Israel without hurting the image of the Jewish state within the international community.