Orders are orders

Haim Watzman is the author of "Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel" and, most recently, of "A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley."

Several israeli soldiers, ordered to help evict a group of Jewish settlers from their homes in Hebron’s central marketplace, went to jail Monday rather than obey what they believed to be immoral orders.

The order was clearly lawful. After all, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the settlers were occupying the property illegally. But lawful or not, the soldiers refused to participate because they believe that it is fundamentally wrong to evict Jews from anyplace in the biblical Land of Israel.

In other words, the soldiers took it upon themselves to decide what the law ought to be, rather than enforcing it as written. But no matter how strong and sincere their conviction that the law is wrong, such actions cannot be tolerated by a democratic country. The army was right to discipline them severely.


In Israel’s early years, it was almost unheard of for soldiers to refuse orders on ideological grounds. The first time it happened in significant numbers, and in an organized way, was during the first Lebanon war in 1982, when soldiers refused to serve because they opposed Israel’s invasion of an Arab country. It happened again during the first intifada of 1987-1990, and yet again when the second intifada began in 2000: Soldiers refused to serve because they objected to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In each of those cases -- Lebanon and the two intifadas -- the soldiers who declined to serve were identified with the political left. They refused their orders at a time when Israel was led by right-wing leaders who rejected territorial compromise. Right-wing conscientious objection became significant only two years ago, when Israel, for the first time, evacuated settlements it had built in the West Bank.

In my view, these decisions are wrong regardless of whether they are made by the right or the left. I was an infantryman in the first Lebanon war and an infantry reservist during the first intifada. I strenuously opposed my country’s military actions in both cases. I believed the Lebanon war to be a foolish attempt to create a puppet state to our north. It was of dubious legality because Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan had deliberately misled the prime minister and Cabinet about the true extent of the military operation they had planned. Israel’s attempt to quell the first intifada by brute force also was misguided, in my opinion.

In both cases, I seriously considered whether I ought to obey orders to serve in these wars that I opposed. In the end, however, I reported for duty.

Were I serving in the army of a dictatorship, where I had no other way of opposing these wars, I would have been justified, perhaps even morally obligated, to refuse to serve. But a democracy’s citizens can oppose wars by using their votes, voices and pens to call on their leaders and fellow citizens to change course. That’s what I did -- when I was on leave and in civilian clothes.

The rule of law is the foundation of democracy. Without it, a democracy cannot survive. If each soldier can decide for himself what conflicts to serve in and what orders to follow, a democratic state will decay into chaos, and its democracy will die.


Of course, there are extreme cases in which even soldiers in a democracy must refuse orders. The law in the U.S. and Israel recognizes this. For example, soldiers ordered to open fire on unarmed civilians must refuse to obey and can be tried and jailed if they do not.

But the soldiers in Hebron were not ordered to do any such thing. Even if they believed the evacuation of settlers was wrong, the proper thing to do was to go ahead with the evacuation and then campaign, as civilians, for the rights of Jews to live in the heart of Arab Hebron.

By no stretch of the imagination was this order so immoral that the soldiers had just cause to disobey it. They disagreed with the law, passionately, just as I disagreed passionately with my country’s military actions in Lebanon and in the first intifada. I served then; they should serve now.