Three Israeli Army Reservists Explain Why They Refuse To Continue Serving in Gaza
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Author: Liza Rozovsky
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When Tal Vardi, a civics teacher from Jerusalem, was absent for a prolonged period from the high school where he teaches because he was called up for reserve duty, his students were surprised. He was one of the only members of the school faculty who disappeared for a long time, from the start of the war until the end of December, although he was considered the most left-wing of them all.

"Indeed, I'm a very political teacher," admits Vardi, 28, in a conversation with Haaretz. "My students know my political stances on most issues. I believe that I share them in a thought-provoking way which gives rise to a healthy discussion in class."

At the end of last month, Vardi, along with 41 other reservists who have served in the military since October 7, signed the first letter of refusal published by reservists since the beginning of the war in the Gaza Strip.

'A friend told me: 'I was in Shifa with my tank ... and four months later they sent me another emergency call-up to return to the same place, to occupy places that I'd already occupied.'

"The six months during which we participated in the war effort proved to us that military activity alone won't bring the hostages home," wrote the signatories to the letter, 10 of whom signed with their full name and the others with initials.

The writers then referred to the invasion of Rafah: "This invasion, aside from endangering our lives and the lives of innocents in Rafah, won't bring back the hostages alive… It's either Rafah or the hostages, and we choose the hostages. Therefore, after the decision to enter Rafah rather than to bring about a hostage deal, we, male and female reservists, are declaring that our conscience doesn't allow us to lend a hand to forfeiting the lives of the hostages and torpedoing another deal."

The signatories include 16 in Military Intelligence and seven in the Home Front Command. The others serve in infantry, engineering and tank units. Two of them serve in elite units, the Commando and Lotar units. One of the seven from the Home Front Command noted that many reservists serving in his command were assigned after October 7 combat missions such as serving on the line in the West Bank, to replace the many conscripts redeployed to Gaza. Most of the signatories told Haaretz that they're aware that their views are an exception among reservists.

Vardi, a Tank Corps commander, is one of three signatories who agreed to be identified in this article. His reserve brigade was first sent to the war in the north to replace the battalions of conscripts who were sent to the south. He was engaged there mainly in teaching younger reservists, who were trained to fight in state-of-the-art tanks, but now had to learn how to operate older tanks.


An X post with the first letter of refusal published by reservists since the beginning of the war in the Gaza Strip.

"I grew up in the north and I spent the summer vacation between fifth and sixth grade, during the Second Lebanon War, running to the safe room," he explains. "I didn't have any doubts about doing so. I felt that I was doing my small part in the effort to protect the country's citizens."

Even now, he says, if called up again for reserve duty in the north, he'll report, but if he's summoned to a job related to the fighting in Gaza, he'll refuse. "When I returned from reserve duty I started to question where this thing was going," he recalls. He says that after October 7 he had no doubt that Israel would begin a ground operation in Gaza, that it would last for a few months, and that in the end they would bring back the hostages. But the more time passed, the stronger were his doubts, in part after conversations with friends serving in the career army and the reserves.

"A friend told me: 'I was in Shifa [in Gaza] with my tank. I felt that it was right and important, and four months later they sent me another emergency call-up to return to the same place, to occupy places that I'd already occupied,'" he says.

For Vardi, the turning point came when Israel opted for a ground operation in Rafah over signing a deal to release the hostages and end the war. "The moment the operation began in Rafah I felt it was beyond what I could feel right about ethically, stand behind and justify."

'We're just chasing after heads in order to demonstrate some kind of achievement, without any strategy and direction.'


A general view shows the site of Israeli strikes on houses at Al Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, June 22, 2024.  (Photo credit: Ayman Al Hassi/Reuters  //  Haaretz)


Crossing a red line

Yuval Green, a 26-year-old student and a reserve paratrooper, stresses that even before October 7 he was long undecided about continuing doing reserve duty, given his opposition to the occupation and to Israel's policy in the West Bank. "The guys I serve with in the reserves were with me during compulsory service too, so we have a very significant relationship," he says.

"We've been friends since 2018, I'm their paramedic, and even when I already realized that leaving the reserves is the right thing, it's not an easy decision." On Sukkot he finally decided to stop doing reserve duty, and even wrote a letter about it to his comrades. He intended to send the letter on October 8, the first day after the Simhat Torah holiday. But he never sent the letter.

On October 8, Green set aside his ethical doubts and was drafted into the reserves. After a few months of training exercises and missions in the north, the squad was sent to the Khan Yunis area. That was in early December, a few days after the deal through which over 100 hostages were released, blew up. By late December, he understood from radio reports that Israel was vehemently refusing the conditions set by Hamas to implement a new deal – an end the war.

Green couldn't understand the operational reason for torching a residential building. 'Do we know it's the home of a Hamas combatant? I had a feeling it was self-evident to him that we were torching them.'

"That was a red line I had set for myself, but I crossed it. The squad was important to me," says Green. Another red line was crossed when the company commander ordered the squad to torch one of the houses in which they had been staying, when the time came to leave it. The team had burned down houses before, but it was done in areas designated for demolition due to their proximity to the border.

This time, Green couldn't understand the operational reason for torching a residential building. "I spoke to the company commander, I tried to understand why," he recalls. "Do we know it's the home of a Hamas combatant? I had a feeling it was self-evident to him that we were torching them."

Green says the company commander explained that the house had to be torched so they wouldn't leave military equipment there and reveal army combat methods, but Green wasn't convinced. He says the equipment can be removed, and there are no special combat methods revealed by looking at a house where soldiers stayed. "I said if we're doing that, I'm going," he says. "And they really did burn down the house and I left. I went up during the next leave and didn't return."

That happened after almost four consecutive months of reserve duty and a few days before the unit in which he served was due to be discharged. His commanders and friends understood, and so far there haven't actually been any consequences.

He hasn't received an emergency call-up since then. He stresses that he has no intention of reporting for reserve duty again if called to do so. He hasn't given any thought to the question of how he would deal with the likely sanctions for refusing to serve. "When I believed I had to be in the army, I was there and I took risks," he explains. "So here, I'm not risking my life but rather my social status, and this risk is worth it to spare human lives and to do what I believe in."


Yuval Green during his army service. He hasn't given any thought to the question of how he would deal with the likely sanctions for refusing to serve.  (Image:  Haaretz)

Killing without a logical reason

Michael Ofer Ziv, 29, from Tel Aviv, also signed the letter of refusal to do more reserve duty. During most of his compulsory service, he was a combat soldier in the Kfir Infantry Brigade. He served later as an operations officer in the 16th Brigade. In October, he interrupted a vacation in Turkey to report for duty. During the fighting, he was appointed the brigade control officer.

From brigade headquarters, he kept track in real time of films of drones, which also documented Israel Air Force bombings in Gaza. "It's far from you and the feeling is that it isn't real," he says. "You see them taking down vehicles, buildings, people. And every time a building falls, everyone goes 'Wow!' Many people, including me, have the experience of 'Wow, it's insane,' and there are those who say, 'We're showing them, screwing them, taking revenge.' That's the vibes you hear in the war room."

He says that it took a week or two before he realized that "every time you see it, it's a building that's falling. If people were in it, then they're dead. And even if there aren't any people inside, everything that's there – televisions, memories, pictures, clothing – is gone. It's high-rise buildings. In the war room, they know what the level of evacuation is."

He notes: "They keep saying, for example, 50 percent were evacuated from the area. I remember a day when I heard '50 per cent were evacuated from northern.' That same day, I saw a building in the area fall and I thought to myself: '50 percent were evacuated from the area, but 50 percent are still there.' At the same time there are also bombings in southern Gaza, and we know nobody was evacuated from there. On the contrary, everyone fled to there."

When his brigade entered Gaza and the responsibility for the shooting and the bombing in the area was theirs, says Ofer Ziv, permission to fire was given with relative ease. "There are areas where it's forbidden to fire without approval of the command, for all kinds of reasons. For example, it's forbidden to bomb buildings that are near humanitarian areas. In the end, sometimes we fire of course. You get exceptional permission. Attention is paid to the hostages, but there isn't a feeling that there's particularly strong oversight," he explains. "When a commander asked me at some point if we'd get permission to fire somewhere, I told him: 'We'll get permission, the only question is when.' In other words, the vibe is 'You can fire wherever you want. You have to get permission, but there will be permission. It's only bureaucratic.' I can count on one hand the times when we were told: 'You can't fire there.'"

Ofer Ziv says he felt confused when he watched the air force bombings from headquarters. "At first it's very hard to say what's justified and what isn't," he says. "From a distance it's easy to say: 'That's how it is in war; people get killed.' But in war there aren't 30,000 people killed, most of them buried beneath the ruins when they're bombed from the air. The feeling is of indiscriminate firing."

He adds that at the time when he served, the open fire regulations didn't pass from the command via the brigade headquarters to the field. "From my service, I'm familiar with a document of open-fire instructions that comes down from the areal division, to the areal battalion, from there to the brigades, to the company commander and the soldiers. I never saw such a document – I didn't get such instructions from the division. I'm sure there were briefings on the ground, but because I know what changes the open-fire instructions undergo when making their way from the division to the soldiers, I can imagine what happens when this framework is lacking."

A., a 26-year-old reservist in Military Intelligence who also signed the letter and asked not to be named, describes similar feelings. He volunteered in early October for reserve duty and served for about two and a half months. Because he was responsible for finding assassination targets, he participated in lethal activities. He realized over time that he was a partner to acts that violate his conscience.

"At first, there was a sense of mobilization," he says. "They give you a list of five to six people who are important enough, and if we get them, we'll harm Hamas' capability. You can argue with this strategy, but that's the strategy. Slowly but surely, you realize we're unable to hit a specific important person and begin to look for other targets, whom nobody has every heard of, and suddenly we tell ourselves they're also important."

Garbage piles up next to a makeshift tent camp for Palestinians displaced by Israel's air and ground offensive in Nuseirat refugee camp, Gaza, Thursday, June 20, 2024.  (Photo credit: Abdel Kareem Hana/AP Photo  //  Haaretz)

He says: "They justify it with a hundred reasons – 'Maybe that'll deter them, maybe here, maybe there,' and start chasing after this person as though he's the most important target in the world, and in the end, when you blow him up, you say: 'We have no problem that he's now in the house with the entire family,' although there's no indication that the killing of this person really has any military rationale. I felt that what I'm doing is useless. We're just chasing after heads in order to demonstrate some kind of achievement, without any strategy and direction."

In one case, in early November, A. received intelligence to the effect that an assassination target was home with his family and other families. When such intelligence arrives, the military system considers whether the threshold of "collateral damage" is low enough for carrying out the assassination.

About a month after October 7, says A., this policy was very permissive. The house was bombed. After the attack, it turned out that the target was outside and survived, but two women staying there were killed and several other people were wounded. "You feel you're doing something without any military rationale, with a risk of causing very serious harm to people who are undoubtedly innocent, only because you have to demonstrate an achievement."

"In the end, refusal is a political act," sums up A. "Neither I nor anyone else in the army, including the lieutenant general who approves the bombings, is responsible for the policy in Gaza and isn't fighting the war individually. The fighter is the IDF as the emissary of the government, which represents me as an Israeli. The fighter on the ground, the pilot and the person in Home Front Command, everyone's service is politically significant, as is their refusal, which means objecting to what is being done in our name in Gaza. What's being done there is a crime, one reason being its uselessness, and it's personally harming my future as a citizen of this country."

The army responded: "The IDF is working to achieve the war's goals, including dismantling Hamas and returning the hostages. Every operational activity is conducted in light of these goals. The open-fire instructions were given to all soldiers as part of their entry into combat. These instructions reflect international law, to which the IDF is obligated.

"The torching of buildings that isn't for essential operational reasons contravenes the army's instructions and IDF ethics. Blowing up and destroying buildings is done by approved and suitable means, and in accordance with the relevant orders.

"Senior sources approve attacking targets in general, and inhabited buildings in particular, in accordance with the General Staff firing policy, while restricting harm to the uninvolved as much as possible. The IDF is committed to international law and acts according to it, attacking military targets only. The IDF also provides warnings prior to attacks in various ways, in an attempt to limit harm to civilians as much as possible. In the event that we receive details about a case that deviates from the orders, the issue will be examined and dealt with accordingly. The IDF takes a severe attitude towards calls to refuse to report for reserve duty, and commanders examine and hanlde every case individually."

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