Hilel Garmi’s phone is going straight to voicemail and all I’m hoping is that he’s not back in prison. I’ll soon learn that he is.
Prison 6 is a military prison. It’s situated in the Israeli coastal town of Atlit, a short walk from the Mediterranean Sea and less than an hour’s drive from Hilel’s home. It was constructed in 1957 following the Sinai War between Israel and Egypt to house disciplinary cases from the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF.
Hilel has already been locked up six times. “I can smell the sea from my cell, especially at night when everything is quiet,” he tells me in one of our phone conversations. I’m 6,000 miles away in Chicago, but Hilel and I have regularly been discussing his ordeal as an Israeli war resister, so it makes me nervous that, this time around, I can’t reach him at all.
A recent high-school graduate with dark hair and a big smile, he’s only 19 and still lives with his parents in Yodfat, an Israeli town of less than 900 people in the northern part of the country. It’s 155 miles to Damascus (if such a trip were possible, which, of course, it isn’t), a two-hour drive down the coast to Tel Aviv, and a four-hour drive to besieged Gaza.
Yodfat itself could be a set for a Biblical movie, with its dry rolling hills, ancient ruins, and pastoral landscape. The town exports flower bulbs, as well as organic goat cheese, and notably supports the Misgav Waldorf School that Hilel’s mother helped found. Hilel is proud of his mom. After all, people commute from all over Israel to attend the school.
He is a rarity in his own land, one of only a handful of refuseniks living in Israel. Each year roughly 30,000 18 year olds are drafted into the IDF, although 35% of such draftees manage to avoid military service for religious reasons. A far tinier percentage publicly refuses to fight for moral and political reasons to protest their country’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The exact numbers are hard to find. I’ve asked war resister groups in Israel, but no one seems to have any. Hilel’s estimate: between five and 15 refuseniks a year.
“I’ve thought the occupation of Palestine was immoral at least since I was in eighth grade,” he told me. “But it was the March of Return that played a large role in sustaining the courage to say no to military service.”
The Great March of Return began in the besieged Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018, the 42nd anniversary of the day in 1976 that Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel as they protested the government’s expropriation of land. During the six-month protest movement that followed in 2018, Israeli soldiers killed another 141 demonstrators, while nearly 10,000 were injured, including 919 children, all shot.
“I couldn’t be a part of that,” he said. “I’d rather be in jail.”
However, after 37 days in prison, it was the letter Hilel received from Abu Artema, a key Palestinian organizer of that march, which provided him with his greatest inspiration. It read in part:
“Your decision is what will help end this dark period inflicted on Palestinians, and at the same time mitigate the fears of younger Israeli generations who were born into a complicated situation and a turbulent geographical area deprived of security and peace… I believe the solution is near and possible. It will not require more than the courage to take initiative and set a new perspective, after traditional solutions have failed to achieve a just settlement. Let us fight together for human rights, for a country that is democratic for all its citizens, and for Israelis and Palestinians to live together based on citizenship and equality, not segregation and racism.”
“This letter excited me a great deal,” Hilel said. “It’s Palestinians like Artema who have the true courage, the kind that can only come from the moral authority of those resisting occupation and violent oppression. This type of authority is much stronger than the forces that occupy Palestine.”
After trying yet again to reach him by phone, I send Hilel a Facebook message:
“I hope everything is all right. Call me when you can. By the way, I was listening to this song and it reminded me of you. Stay strong, brother.”
I attach a YouTube video of “The World’s Greatest” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy:
I’m that little bit of hope
With my back against the ropes.
I can feel it
I’m the world’s greatest…”
War resister to war resister
As a war resister myself while serving in the U.S. Army – I was protesting America’s unending wars across the Greater Middle East – I’ve wondered a lot about what it means to be one in Israel, a country where an antiwar movement is almost non-existent. My friends in the U.S. who are familiar with the militarization of Israel and the population’s overwhelming support for their country’s still-expanding occupation respect what Hilel is doing, but wonder about the political purpose of an essay like this one about a war resister who lives in a country where such creatures are rarer than a snowy day in Jerusalem.
A valid point: the Israeli antiwar movement (if you can even call it a movement at this moment) is a long, long way from making a dent in the occupation, no less ending it, and I wouldn’t want to convey false hope about what such refuseniks mean to the larger question of Palestinian liberation.
Still, I talk to Hilel because I know how much it would have meant to me if someone had contacted me when I was still resisting the Global War on Terror within the 2nd Ranger Battalion nearly 15 years ago. If I had known that there were others like me or at least others ready to support me, it would have made my own sense of isolation during the six months I spent on lockdown inside my barracks less intolerable.
There’s more, though. Each time Hilel and I speak, I feel like I’m the one being energized by the conversation. He’s smart, reads a lot of the books I also read (despite the 22-year age difference between us), and has a passion for rock climbing in the Shagor mountain range. More than anything else, though, he has a kind of energy that I identify only with those who are standing up for a principle, whatever the repercussions for their own future. He exhibits no misgivings about what he’s doing, but somehow remains remarkably grounded in reality.
“It’s hard being rejected by friends and family who have never questioned the occupation,” he tells me in one of our phone conversations. (His English, by the way, is superb.) “Very few in my class agree with what I’m doing. But I believe in what I’m doing. That is the most important thing. Although, who knows, my decision to resist may have a positive ripple effect in a way we can’t appreciate at this point in time.”
He tells me all this in a tone that feels both light and confident, the very opposite of what you might imagine from a teenager who had at that moment been jailed six times in a single year and expected more of the same. His voice is authentic. It’s all his and draws strength from a self-possessed sense of the truth.
Like many, I’ve been exhausted and depressed by Donald Trump’s presidency. His administration represents a dark step back when it comes to social-justice issues around the world and makes me question the time I still spend organizing against America’s endless wars. The ship appears to be sinking, no matter what I do, and since the election I’ve found myself asking why I shouldn’t try to just shut out the world.
In such a context, talking with Hilel has been a tonic for me. After our conversations, the all-too-familiar feelings of depression and hopelessness fade, at least briefly, while his courage and optimism energize me. So part of my urge in writing this piece is to convey that very feeling, hoping others will be energized, too. It’s a tall order these days, but worth a try.
The adventures of a teenage refusenik
After a week in which my calls frustratingly keep going to voicemail, I finally hear back. “They arrested me again,” he informs me. “I expected it, but wasn’t sure they would come back a seventh time.” Surprisingly, he’s still in good spirits.
The Israeli government distinguishes between pacifists who reject the use of force for any reason and those with “selective conscience,” or those who specifically refuse to fight in protest over the occupation of Palestinian territory. The latter are treated far more severely and are significantly more likely to find themselves in prison.
Hilel’s public declaration – which has been circulating in left-leaning outlets in Israel – on why he continues to refuse military service couldn’t be clearer on where he stands and helps explain why the Israeli government has sent him back to prison so regularly:
“I cannot enlist, because from a very young age I was educated to believe that all humans are equal. I do not believe in some common denominator which all Jews share and which sets them apart from Arabs. I do not believe that I should be treated differently from a child born in Gaza or in Jenin, and I do not believe that the sorrows or the happiness of any of us are more important than those of anyone else… As a person who was born into the more powerful side of the hierarchy between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, I was given the power as well as the obligation to try to fight that hierarchy.”
Refuseniks like Hilel generally spend 20 days in jail. They are then released for a day or two and immediately reprocessed back into prison.
“There is a lot of sitting around in prison. I read a lot. It’s a military prison so I’m in with people who are in trouble for a variety of things while serving in the IDF.” There are different cellblocks (A, B, and C) designated for various infractions – A being the “easiest,” C the “hardest,” according to Hilel:
“I started in A, but worked my way up to C because I continue to refuse to fight. C is where those who commit assaults of varying degree within the IDF are housed. C is used as a threat by the jailors. I was in C for a short time because I wouldn’t tell a group of demonstrators protesting my arrest to disperse. After they left on their own, they sent me back to B.”
I ask him how many protestors there were. “About 50,” he replies, “But they gave me a lot of strength. Altit, where the jail is, is not a very big town, so to have anyone out there at all was encouraging.”
An increasing number of Israelis oppose the occupation and some have formed groups to help support war resisters. Yesh Gvul, an organization that backs refuseniks like Hilel (and to which he belongs), for instance, first put me in touch with him. Palestinians like Abu Artema are also reaching out to refuseniks. Palestianian and Israeli activists are working to overcome the barriers that divide them, searching for creative ways to connect and organize against the occupation. In December 2018, Israeli activists, including conscientious objectors, held a video meeting with Artema. “Those who refuse to take part in the attacks on the demonstrators in Gaza, who express their natural right to protest against the siege, those who refuse to take part in the attacks on Gaza’s citizens – they stand on the right side of history,” Artema said during the call.
And now, having grown strangely attached to Hilel, I feel a small flood of relief that he’s on the phone with me once again. I ask if we can Skype so that I can actually see him and he promptly agrees. It’s December and he’s wearing a ski hat. He’s sitting in his parent’s kitchen and his eyes glimmer. As he talks, I’m taken back to my own 19-year-old self, to the Rory Fanning who was still trying to fit in, get decent grades, and have fun. I certainly wasn’t taking on my government, which only makes me more impressed that he is.
He and I chat more about his family and his town. Yodfat was once a place governed by a group of people called the Kibbutz (from the Hebrew word kvutza, meaning “group”). Inspired in part by Karl Marx, the Kibbutz movement strove to live communally and maintain deep connections to agriculture. “It’s still a progressive town,” he says, “and most people, at least as lip service, will say they oppose the occupation. However, they see obedience to the current law and general support for the military – even though some of them may admit it’s an undemocratic one – as far more important.”
I ask him about the Boycott Divestment Sanction, or BDS, movement. BDS is Palestinian-led and inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. It calls on others globally to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end the occupation of Palestine.
“The people of Israel feel isolated from the rest of the world,” Hilel responds. “The government and media constantly remind them how Iran and so many others want to destroy the country. The effects of anti-Semitism echo in everyone’s head. I think BDS only reinforces the idea that the government promotes that Jews are rejected by the world.”
I remind him how an earlier BDS-style movement helped end apartheid in South Africa and ask if he thinks it might be an effective way to end Israel’s system of apartheid, too. “Maybe,” he responds hesitantly. “I haven’t thought about it too much. I could certainly see how it could.” I don’t press the issue, but as ever I’m struck by how open he is, even on a topic that the Israeli government clearly feels deeply threatened by.
As I can see via Skype, the sun is going down behind Hilel. It’s still morning here in Chicago, but six in the evening in Yodfat, so I let him go back to his embattled teenage life.
And I wonder yet again how I’ll write about that life, his dilemmas, and the unnerving world both of us find ourselves in. Then, I’m reminded of how encouraging it felt to have many active-duty soldiers reach out to me over the years after hearing my own story of war resistance. I know that there are surprising numbers of people in the U.S. military who question America’s endless wars, trillion-dollar national security budgets, and the near-robotic thank-you-for-your-service patriotism of so many in this country, because I’ve met or talked to many of them and even seen a few over the years break ranks as I did (and as, in a very different situation, Hilel has done). And obviously there must be many others out there I know nothing about.
News travels fast these days. Support networks like Veterans for Peace and About Face continue to be built up in this country to support soldiers who question their mission. And I know that, in Israel, there are others who think the way Hilel does and are just waiting for an atmosphere of greater support to develop so that they, too, can begin to resist the injustices of their moment and their country. That, of course, is what Hilel has helped accomplish. Stories like his create openings for others to act. Sooner or later, those others, inspired by him and perhaps by similar figures to come, will inevitably follow their lead.
Just as I’m finishing this piece, he suddenly calls to tell me that he’s been released – for good! The Israeli Defense Forces have freed him from his military obligation. At first, a ruling against releasing him came down from a committee of civilians and officers controlled by the IDF, because his refusal to fight stemmed from reasons that were “political” rather than from “conscience.” Later that day, however, a higher-ranking officer overturned that group’s decision and, after his seventh imprisonment, Hilel was suddenly free.
He isn’t sure why the decision was overturned, but perhaps the higher-ups finally concluded that he simply wouldn’t break under their pressure. Quite the opposite, a determined 19-year-old resister might only get more attention if they kept sending him back to jail. His courage might, in fact, motivate others to resist, the last thing the IDF wants right now.
I look forward to staying in touch with Hilel. He tells me he plans on working with disadvantaged youth in Israel for the next two years. I know there are great things in store for him. Interacting with a fellow war-resister across continents and seas these last few months, and seeing him go from prison to freedom in a matter of weeks, has reinvigorated my own tired spirit in ways I had not anticipated when I sent my first note to him.