Sunday, October 14, 2001 Tishrei 27, 5762 Israel Time: 03:45 (GMT+2)
The price of regret
By Yossi Klein
In a cell measuring two meters by three meters with a bunk bed, two prisoners are incarcerated. In a cell with one bunk bed and two single beds arranged in an L shape, four prisoners are incarcerated. Cells like these barely provide room to stand and they're used only for sleeping. You go to sleep at ten and get up at five-thirty. Four times a day, there's an inmate head count.
About 15 prisoners, from the regular army or the military police, are generally to be found in the officers' section of Military Prison No. 6 serving terms for some kind of misconduct. Two showers are available, usually without limitation. There's a hot water faucet and a cold water faucet and a niche for a bar of soap. The prisoners clean the toilets themselves.
There's also pampering of a sort: "Eating is one of the sole pleasures," notes the "Prison handbook for conscientious objectors" published by New Profile ["The Association for the Civilization of Israeli Society"]. The food is standard Israel Defense Forces fare: mainly bread, white cheese and plenty of plum jam. Extras include meat and pasta flakes (p'titim) or rice. The only eating utensil is a metal tablespoon, taken away after every meal. The handbook also mentions "the noise created when an entire dining hall has to produce avocado puree from unsliced avocados and hard-boiled eggs."
Prisoners spend most of their time sitting around under an awning. They're permitted to see their families once a week, for 40 minutes, seated beneath a light gray pergola. They have the use of a pay phone and a television that gets only Channel 2. The inmates are well versed in the lyrics and tunes of all the ad jingles, which they sing aloud periodically. They get newspapers (Ma'ariv and Yedioth Ahronoth) every day, but there are no political arguments here: You never know with whom you might be arguing, or what his response might be. They play backgammon; they talk soccer.
The prisoners' shoes are neatly laced and their trousers belted; there's no odor of Lysol, and the bulb that provides a little weak illumination in each cell is turned out at 10 P.M. The wardens treat the prisoners well. This is not some jail in Turkey; it's not "Midnight Express."
Bringing along a lot of books is recommended. Prisoner Dan Tamir, for example, has two papers on the Baha'i faith to write for submission in October, so his luggage includes two books on the subject. He also has "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" by Thomas Friedman, and Edward Said's "Orientalism." Dan Tamir is 26. He's a major in the reserves and a third-year student of history and Middle East studies at Hebrew University. He's tall and thin, with an angular face framed by a light beard, and light eyes behind square rimless glasses.
Dan Tamir refuses to serve in the territories and intends to pay for it. He has twenty-four hours before the hearing that will decide his fate and prison is one of three possible outcomes. Ideally, those judging him will understand what is motivating him and he'll be sent home to finish his paper on the Baha'i faith. Another possibility, also not bad: They'll understand what motivates him: "Okay, that's fine," they'll tell him. "Go serve on the Egyptian border" or "Go serve on the Golan." The third outcome is also the most likely: "This time they'll stick it to me."
The 24 hours that precede a fateful turning point sometimes encompass more than just a single day. Dan Tamir's 24 hours began at the end of February when he was called up for reserve duty to help prepare, in his words, "a plan to conquer and partition the territories." This, he says, is a euphemism for "organizing ghettoes for the Palestinian population."
Shocked, he has reached his "breaking point," one of many he's encountered since completing his compulsory military service. Had he been engaged in preparing ghettoes for Palestinians as an officer in the regular army, perhaps he'd be less shocked now. Two months after the working discussion on this plan, he is asked to undertake a routine action: to send two soldiers to guard a base in the territories. This may actually be the point at which the countdown truly begins, the countdown that is to end in court.
As soon as he receives this notice, he makes a phone call to Yesh G'vul [the organization supporting selective conscientious objection to military service; the name is a play on words signifying both "there's a limit" and "there's a border"]. With assistance from Yesh G'vul, he composes a letter to his commanding officers: "... As a person who believes in democracy and Jewish values ... I will not take part in military actions the aim of which is to preserve the Israeli occupation in Judea and Samaria ... As an IDF officer, I will not order my officers or soldiers to perform missions which I am unwilling to perform myself. Hence I will not order officers or soldiers under my command to report for such a mission."
Dan Tamir is not a pacifist. The way stations he has passed through en route to that letter prove just the opposite to be the case. His military record is a consistent line of positive service on behalf of people and country. The only exception actually stems from an excess of motivation: Right after his induction, he wanted to volunteer for the paratroops. When he was rejected, his protest took a creative form ("they told me to walk, I ran; they told me to sit, I stood") and he spent a week in jail.
Indeed, the Major Dan Tamir who is now awaiting trial is an outstanding soldier. His service record includes an officers' course, a stint as an intelligence officer with the paratroops, and another as an intelligence officer with the Duvdevan [undercover commando] unit. Whoa! just a second - Duvdevan? A conscientious objector and Duvdevan? Today he attributes his service in Duvdevan to his being "a professional" and "part of the system."
He places his family's political views within the "dovish wing of the Labor party." His mother, Hadas Tamir, a social worker, "took it hard" when he joined Duvdevan. Today she attributes it to her son's desire "to contribute wherever he finds himself" and to his youth. His sister, Rona, studying history at university, used to plead with him to "go AWOL."
At the end of 1997, after four and a half years service, he is discharged as a first lieutenant. He hikes through Burma, Laos and Thailand, enrols at Hebrew University and does about 100 days of reserve duty before signing the letter. The cracks in the wall of political indifference he has constructed around his military service begin to appear following his discharge. The first breach is the Rabin assassination. From his terrace at home, across from Ichilov Hospital, he sees Eitan Haber read his note about how "the government of Israel announces with dismay ..."
Then there are the spontaneous vigils at the corner of Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv, in which he participates, and left-wing activism at Hebrew University. On Friday afternoons he stands with Women in Black at Paris Square in Jerusalem. He brings this political baggage with him to the working discussion about "conquest and partition."
About a day after the letter is sent, his immediate superior notifies him that he "has finished his role with the brigade" and asks to meet with him. The meeting takes place in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel and "the tone of the discussion," as Tamir describes it, "is pleasant." The conversation revolves around "the nature of democracy" and "the meaning of following orders." Because this meeting happens to come on the morning of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the extermination of the Jews is also discussed. The upshot: He will receive a call-up notice. If he refuses, he'll be tried. Before the meeting ends, Tamir's superior officer observes thatTamir's letter arrived at the brigade HQ on the same day that one of its fighters was buried.
About two weeks after that talk, he is summoned by the divisional commander. His friends counsel him to "wear a steel helmet and bring heavy fortifications." The conversation, according to Tamir, is "formal and very angry," encompassing the following terms: "democracy," "accepting majority rule," and "defense of home and hearth."
Tamir mentions the suffering of the Palestinians, and the divisional commander remarks that he, too, suffers. His daughter, for instance, is afraid to go to shopping malls lately. He asks Tamir whether he sees himself as a "part of the Zionist revolution." He clarifies whether Tamir's objection might be "in response to a religious imperative." He says he'll even be satisfied with a declaration by the objector that he sees himself simply as "doing his part in building a just civil society." He can make any statement he chooses, says the commander, so long as he serves in the territories.
The conversation ends with the divisional commander casting doubt on the objecting soldier's Zionism. He finds Tamir's responses unsatisfactory. He declares that officers like Tamir are unfit to serve under his command. A week later, in the middle of July, Tamir receives a call-up notice for the 20th of August, for two weeks of "guarding structures." He notifies the liaison officer that he'll appear but will not serve.
Meanwhile, he telephones the soldiers under him and explains his motivation. Some tell him, "Right on!" Two say, "You're making a mistake." His girlfriend Karin and his sister believe he's doing the right thing. So does his mother, but she wonders about how effective this heroic act will be. She reminds her son that he is planning to go to Switzerland in mid-October to study at the University of Zurich as part of a student exchange program, and what will happen to his protest then?
Dan Tamir is trying to persuade himself that prison isn't so bad. He begins to prepare himself for the possibility. Along with the books, his backpack will contain some clean underwear. And shampoo - in a transparent bottle because opaque containers are forbidden. What's worrying him? Being away from his family and his girlfriend. What's he afraid of? The indifference with which his detention might be received, that it won't have an impact, won't make waves.
He's to report on Monday at 9 A.M. at the Beit El base. On Sunday, 24 hours beforehand, he goes to Mt. Scopus, to his room at the dorm. He clears out the room and packs his bag for the "worst-case scenario," meaning a month in jail. He runs into one of his instructors, professor of German history Moshe Zimmerman, and tells him about what is in store 24 hours hence. The professor responds "very sympathetically." At 3 P.M., he goes to a cafe to meet the Swiss student who is his counterpart in the exchange program. She is still recovering from the trauma of the suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizzeria, which is not far from her apartment. He tries to calm her.
Toward evening, he goes to his girlfriend's apartment near the YMCA tospend the night. The next day, Monday, he awakens at quarter to seven, says goodbye to his girlfriend (who tells him to "take care of himself" and gives him a farewell kiss). With a pair of army boots dangling from his backpack, he arrives at the Hizmeh checkpoint near Pisgat Ze'ev north of Jerusalem.
The Hizmeh checkpoint embodies all the ugliness that a border checkpoint can possibly offer. Reserve soldiers lounge in boredom while they wait for a ride. Settlers nervously stroke the butt of the pistol they carry shoved inside the belt of their trousers, under their T-shirts. Signs in blue and green say "To strengthen and be made strong." Soldiers sitting behind sandbags look on vacantly when someone goes to piss behind the low hills of rocky gray. Pisgat Ze'ev, across the wadi, is a row of white rectangles bisecting the defining contour of the rocky hills.
At ten to nine, Dan Tamir gets on an armored yellow bus belonging to the Benjamin Region Development Company. At nine-ten he checks in with the reserve duty officer and announces that he's here, reporting for duty. He is asked whether he'll go to the territories and he replies in the negative. He is asked to wait. He sits for two hours under a large fig tree, reading. The deputy division commander calls him over for another conversation. Immediately thereafter, at about ten after one, he is called in for the hearing.
In brief military proceedings, Major (Res.) Dan Tamir is charged with refusing to obey an order. He is found guilty and sentenced to 28 days' detention. He is released after 26 days, and this week he is supposed to leave for Switzerland to study at the University of Zurich.
©Copyright 2001, Ha'aretz