Conal Urquhart in Rehovot, Israel
Sunday February 15, 2004
The three men sitting in the corner of a busy cafe are unremarkable as they talk among themselves, sipping coffee and blending with the rest of the customers.
But they are members of a remarkable group, the Sayeret Matkal, Israel's equivalent of the SAS. And what makes them even more extraordinary in a society that holds its armed forces in such high esteem - in fact, what has earned them damnation from all over the country - is that they told their commanders that they refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories.
They and 10 others wrote to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, saying they could no longer serve, 'out of a deep sense of foreboding for the future of Israel as a democratic, Zionist and Jewish state'. The letter stated that they would not take part in violating the rights of millions of Palestinians or provide a shield for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. It concluded: 'We have long ago crossed the boundary of fighting for a just cause, and now we find ourselves fighting to oppress another people. We shall no longer cross this line.'
Since then they have been villified and supported in the Israeli media and have received death threats.
In their first interview with the foreign media, they told the Observer that they felt compelled to act after witnessing Israeli soldiers behaving in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago. Zohar, 35, an actor when not doing duty in the elite commando unit, said: 'I could not believe three years ago that we could live in the situation that we live in today. I have seen an acceleration downwards in the standards of Israeli society. Things I thought no Israeli soldier could ever do, I have found myself and others doing.'
Avner, aged 27, a student, said he was concerned that the violence that the conscript soldiers had experienced could have a direct impact on life in Israel. 'Already violence is the default in our society. You can see it in the way people drive, the way children treat each other,' he said.
All three fought during Operation Defensive Shield which led to the heaviest fighting of the intifada. The operation was triggered by a Palestinian suicide attack on a hotel in Netanya, in March 2002, which killed 29 Israelis.
Israeli regular forces and elite units invaded all the major Palestinian towns. According to a report by Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, 27 Israeli soldiers were killed in in Nablus and Jenin, and at least 122 Palestinians, of whom more than half were civilians.
Moshe, 33, a father of three who has just qualified as a doctor, said the events of Defensive Shield were an important factor in his refusal to serve. 'It became clear that I had to do something, that I couldn't wait for others,' he said.