Since 2003, Israeli photojournalist and founding member of photography collective Activestills, Oren Ziv, has documented social and political issues concerning Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. His reportage has mostly focused on popular protests against West Bank settlements, demolitions, and discrimination. Most recently, however, he published a piece in +972 Magazine about Shahar Perets. Now 19 years old, at the time of publication Perets was an 18-year-old Israeli who was imprisoned for refusing Israel military conscription.
In most countries this wouldn’t be a problem. Even the United States historically has maintained a draft at times of war. However, now enlistment for Americans is optional. In contrast, in Israel it is mandatory for all legal adults. According to the 1949 Israeli Security Service Law, conscription to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is compulsory for all Israelis who turn eighteen.
“I decided to refuse [service] after participating in a meeting in eighth grade between Palestinians and Israelis at a summer camp,” Perets recently told Ziv in +972 Magazine. After making Palestinian friends, she realized she had feelings for them. She didn’t want to enlist and possibly risk hurting them upon turning eighteen. Her thoughts on refusing conscription were formed early. She kept them silent.
Perhaps Perets’ ideas about refusing military service make sense to Americans and other countries where conscription is optional. However, in Israel it was something that was, perhaps, better left unspoken.
“There is a very large dimension of repression; people do not know or they do know and do not want to know,” Perets said, when explaining her choice to refuse enlistment.
“The repression is not always our fault, it is of the Education Ministry, of the government, of all kinds of other organizations that do not talk about [the occupation]. History lessons do not talk about the Palestinian narrative. Of course, this deters people. People get extremely defensive when I tell them that I do not plan on enlisting. They take it personally and get angry. It clearly comes from a place of unwillingness to cope,” Perets explained.
Perhaps this is an example of cognitive dissonance. When growing up in a place where military enlistment is mandatory – and grave social and legal consequences exist from refusal, such as imprisonment – many people simply choose to not think about it. Perets is not one of those people. Her decision was one she thought over very carefully. She knew very well about the potential consequences.
Testimony from the West Bank
Perets had made her decision to avoid conscription even before visiting the West Bank as a teenager. However, when she did visit, she saw the horrors that she had only previously heard in testimony. She descried the occupied territories as “crazy” after witnessing settlements where Palestinian children were attacked while walking to school. She saw the places that Palestinians cannot reach, for example, in the South Hebron Hills in Area C.
“I made the decision before I was ever in the West Bank, but seeing the soldiers and settlers standing before the Palestinians made it clear to me that I do not want to be one of those soldiers. I do not want to wear this uniform, which symbolizes the violence and pain the Palestinians experience.”
However, perhaps it’s an important question to ask: how does one say no in a country where refusing Israeli military conscription is illegal? The short answer is “no” is not an option when it comes to serving in the IDF. At the time the +972 Magazine article was published, Perets was preparing to spend a minimum 10 days in a military prison.
The Shministim Letter
When Perets initially went public with her decision to not conscript, many of her friends were surprised. Perets is from the town of Kfar Yona. Her refusal process began as she became one of 120 teenagers to sign the “Shministim Letter” – a refusal to conscript, an initiative that shares the Hebrew nickname given to Israeli high school seniors this past January. The authors of the letter explained that their refusal to serve in the army was in protest to Israeli’s policy of occupation and apartheid.
In June 2021, Perets also became one 400 Israeli teenagers who signed a letter to the Israeli leadership demanding that it halt its erstwhile plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank as part of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan. The letter was ignored.
In early September 2021, Perets was joined by Joint List MK Ofer Cassif and conscientious objector Eran Aviv – who was preparing to enter his fourth stay behind bars because of his decision not to serve. They ventured to the Tel Hashomer induction base in central Israel where they prepared to be imprisoned upon refusal and then return the induction base after 10 days (repeating the process until the army ultimately decided to discharge them).
Remarkably, Perets’ father supported her decision. “These are her choices,” he told +972 Magazine. “She does what she has decided out of awareness, care, and a desire to make a change. I support her and hope that she will succeed in not doing the things that go against her principles and refusing to be what she is not.”
Since the +972 Magazine article was published, Perets was arrested three times for refusing Israeli military conscription. “Some people call me a traitor or say I don’t care about my people, different names,” she recently told the BBC.
However, perhaps it’s important to note that under international law, the right to conscientious objection to military service is based on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.
“Obviously this is part of the system’s policy, of the same desire to separate, to create a reality of ‘enemies’ and ‘terrorists,’ instead of looking at everyone who lives here — Palestinians and Israelis — and saying let’s live and create security for everyone. Let’s not hurt each other, let’s stop killing and being killed,” Perets told +972 Magazine this past fall.
When Violence Is Normalized
In Israel seeing individuals that look like they are still just teenagers preparing for combat is commonplace. One can walk around a public mall in Jerusalem and see young women holding automatic weapons while applying lip gloss. Seeing soldiers is so commonplace that it’s difficult to imagine that another option – such as not enlisting – even exists for Israeli teenagers upon turning eighteen.
However, over the last 50 years, teenagers have published numerous letters in which they have announced their refusal to participate in military service, either in the occupied territories or in general. The first Shministim Letter was published in 1970 amid the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. The Shministim Letter published this year was signed by teenagers who are either expected to sit behind bars or have been otherwise exempted.
A Shministim letter from 2008 can be viewed here. The point is, although it’s rarely publicized in the Israeli mainstream media, Israeli teenagers have been doing this for years. Like many teenagers before her, Perets originally began the process of conscription but stopped it in the middle and chose not to apply for an exemption from the army because it was important for her “to stand by my principles and not to create the impression that I am the problem and I should be exempted [from service],” Perets said.
The Hidden Palestinian Narrative
Rather than go before the conscientious objectors committee, medical committee, or IDF mental health officer and declare a problem that doesn’t exist, Perets simply chose to not apply for an exemption from the army. She didn’t want to give the impression that there was another reason – other than opposition to harming Palestinians – that could explain why she was unable to serve.
It’s hard to imagine being eighteen, right out of high school, and being imprisoned for a political decision. But that is what Perets is doing. “I will arrive at the IDF induction base and refuse to go through the chain of enlistment. This is the initial confrontation with the system,” Perets said, when explaining the refusal process.
“From there I will be sent to all sorts of officers for all sorts of conversations and attempts at persuasion until they understand [my position]. There will be a trial in the base itself, where they will decide my sentence [usually between 10 days and two weeks]. After the trial, I will be held in detention until I am transferred to prison.”
Refusing Conscription to Protest Military Violence
“After my release, I’ll refuse again and then undergo another trial and be sent back to prison. I know that this is what I’ll be doing in the coming months. I’ll celebrate my 19th birthday in jail.”
In preparation for prison, Perets prepared literature, sudoku and coloring books. She also learned Arabic. What will she do after prison? Perhaps it has something to do with peace and bringing awareness to the stories of other teenagers that refuse Israeli military conscription.
“I chose to go to jail and take part in a campaign because I hope it will reach the most people. I hope that through my refusal, people will think about their place in this reality.” Perets said.