In some parts of the United States, it seems the unrest between Israelis and Palestinians receives as much public discussion at the United States' war on terrorism. This year in Chicago, for example, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies have attracted thousands of people. A local group is now hosting a pair of Israeli soldiers, who have been telling Chicagoans why they refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories. Not everyone agrees with their position.
Ishai Sagi is a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Force. He was a fulltime soldier for four years before going into the reserves. He says he is proud to serve in what he says is one of the world's most moral armed forces. "Because the Israeli army does whatever it can to prevent civilian casualties while endangering its own soldiers. I have seen that with my own eyes," he says.
But last year, Mr. Sagi spent 26 days in a military prison because he refused to serve in the Palestinian territories. He says sending troops into the territories is making life more dangerous for people who live in Israel proper. "Our soldiers being in the territories is preventing them from actually protecting the people outside the territories," he says. "The Israeli people who are under attack from terrorists are not living in the territories and are not protected."
Mr. Sagi is among more than 450 Israeli soldiers who have signed a so-called "Courage to Refuse" letter, expressing their opposition to Israeli military action and Israeli settlements in the territories. Ram Rahat-Goodman is an Israeli army reservist who refused an assignment in Lebanon 20 years ago. Today he is a senior spokesman for Yesh Gvul, a group that advises soldiers considering refusing assignments outside Israeli borders and helps those who make that decision.
The group's work includes counseling, financial and emotional support for soldiers sent to prison, and passing out leaflets at bus stations and universities where reservists gather. "The leaflets have never said, "refuse." They have never said, "refuse," because you can not tell anyone to refuse. This is an act of personal conscience," he says.
Mr. Rahat-Goodman and Mr. Sagi were in Chicago for several speaking engagements organized by the Chicago-area "Courage to Refuse" group. It also opposes Israel's military presence in the territories. The auditorium was filled to capacity for one recent appearance, though not everyone in the room supported the refusers.
Rahat-Goodman: "There was a ceasefire that was meticulously observed by the PLO."
Audience Member:"Oh right, they are meticulous."
Among those occasionally shouting out his disagreement with the soldiers was Jerry Dichter, who says Israeli forces do belong in the territories. "Israel did not wake up one morning and say, "Let's occupy the West Bank." We were attacked and we fought them off successfully and, as other countries who have been invaded, fought back and won, we occupied that land," he says.
Mr. Dichter says he wants peace as much as Mr. Sagi and Mr. Rahat-Goodman do, but worries that their approach could be dangerous. "If they persuade enough of their colleagues in the military to quit, to refuse, who is left to defend Israel? It needs defense," he says.
Many people in Israel also disagree with the refusers' stand. They consider the men a threat to morale at a time when the army is fighting its biggest battle in decades. Israel has sent at least 80 refusers to military prison this year.
Karen Van Slyke of the local Courage to Refuse Campaign organized this recent engagement in a Chicago suburb. She says the two refusers offer a first-person account of what is happening in the Middle East. "Because they have served in the military and proven their commitment to the State of Israel, that their criticisms of how the military is being used and policies of the government have a lot more credibility that someone like me who is a distant observer," she says.
Throughout the evening, several people who had loudly disagreed with the two refusers got up and left the auditorium. Supporters were in evidence, too. Both men received standing ovations from most people in the hall, and baskets passed to collect money to support refusers back in Israel quickly filled with $5, $10 and $20 bills.