Life in Israeli military prison, it turns out, is a lot like life in the Israeli military.
“We get up at 5 every morning and we have a morning roll call,” says 19-year-old Natan Blanc, a chronic prisoner at Prison Six, along the northern coast of Israel. He has spent almost two months at the military prison since refusing to join the army on Nov. 19, partly because of his horror at Israel’s recent actions against Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense.
“We are yelled at a lot, and we always have to notice that our shirt is tucked in, our hat is on, we have to be shaved, etc.,” Blanc wrote in an e-mail. “There is a constant threat that we will get more days in prison if we don’t behave ourselves.”
Conscientious objectors who refuse to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for political reasons are not allowed to be interviewed by the press while incarcerated, says an IDF spokeswoman who refuses to give her name. But Blanc — the latest in a long line of “refuseniks” who have chosen to protest the IDF’s military actions by dodging mandatory service — does what he can to answer this reporter’s questions in his few hours of freedom between stints at Prison Six.
Blanc is caught in a strange loophole in Israeli law: Each time he reports to the IDF recruitment center, he declares his refusal to serve. And each time he refuses to serve, he is arrested and sentenced to roughly 10 to 20 days in military prison. Yet each time he is released, he is summoned back to the IDF recruitment center within a couple of days, where he redeclares his refusal — and so the cycle spins.
“The government in Israel isn’t even trying to end this conflict [with Palestine],” Blanc explains upon arriving to the IDF recruitment center — for the fourth time — on a drizzly Sunday in January. “They’re not willing to give up on any land or anything to get peace, and I don’t think we will get peace without compromises.” Specks of hazel add warmth to his ice-blue eyes.
While the 19-year-old is receiving blog shout-outs from activists around the world, an avalanche of supportive messages in his inbox and dozens of protesters demonstrating in his honor on the hilltop overlooking Prison Six, he says that many fellow countrymen remain hostile to his decision. “There is a lot of anger in Israel against people who don’t ‘share the load’ and ‘contribute to the military effort,’ ” Blanc explains.
As he presents his draft notice to the IDF guards outside the recruitment center, Blanc appears shy, but not nervous — he’s done this before.
The center is situated on a desolate army base about one half-hour east of Tel Aviv — a harsh plot of sparse trees, broken-down gates and dirt inroads, with the constant buzz of an army loudspeaker giving orders to Israeli youth in Hebrew. Reporting for duty here is something of a rite of passage for young citizens, who today march past Blanc and through the front gates with their papers in hand and their gaze toward the floor.
To passers-by, Blanc looks just like any other army kid: He’s on the brink of his 20s, with a close-shaven head and a backpack twice as thick as his torso.
But this teenager’s bag is packed for prison, not the territories.
His father, David Blanc, a math professor at the University of Haifa and the mirror image of his son a few decades on, has driven Natan to the recruitment center from their home in Haifa this morning. The first drop-off in November was emotional, David says, but his son’s big statement has become somewhat of a routine. Two months in, the repeated gesture feels a little anticlimactic — 19-year-old Blanc says he’ll be waiting inside the center for hours before he gets taken into custody and hauled back to Prison Six — but at the same time rhythmic, and resolved. Every couple of weeks, when the young protester is released from jail and told to re-report for duty, he gets another opportunity to look IDF officials in the eye and tell them he doesn’t agree with their aggressive handling of the Palestinian territories.
Blanc wrote in his initial public statement that “after four years full of terror ... it is clear that the Netanyahu government, like that of his predecessor Olmert, is not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it.”
By sticking to this stance, the activist has signed himself up for the IDF’s infamously long and messy court cycle for conscientious objectors — one that has been criticized by rights organizations such as Israel’s New Profile as arbitrary, unpredictable and probably illegal under international law.
“The IDF’s policy was always to try somehow to find a solution, because there were very few conscientious objectors,” says Mordechai Bar-On, former chief education officer for the IDF. “They were jailed, and released, and jailed again, and then they somehow let them go.”
Blanc, too, has observed that typically, “The cycle of refusing, being sentenced and being assigned to another unit goes on for a few months. Then one of two things happens. Either the army gets tired of it and releases [the protesters] from service, or they get tired of it, and they fake a medical issue or a mental issue in order to get out of the army.”
There are many well-known ways to avoid serving in the IDF that do not end in prison time. Orthodox Jews, up to this point, have been excused from military service; many non-Orthodox Jews have claimed religious conflicts as well. Other draftees who don’t wish to bear arms are allowed to work IDF desk jobs instead. And although the IDF won’t reveal the methodology used by its Conscientious Objection Committee, the committee does indeed dismiss some proclaimed “pacifists” from duty — but usually only the ones who define themselves as vague peacenik types without any specific objections to the IDF’s actions, according to Israel Ministry of Justice documents published by the U.N. Refugee Agency.
One of the most popular excuses, though, is mental instability. Convincingly fake a psychological disorder, many young folks say, and you’re almost guaranteed an out.
In fact, that’s what Moriel Rothman, another conscientious objector who was released days before Blanc was admitted, resorted to after almost one month in jail and two rounds of this absurd dance with the IDF’s court system.
For Blanc, that’s not the point.
“It’s very difficult for me to refuse to follow the law,” the 19-year-old admits over the phone on his one day at home between prison spells. “But there’s something basically wrong about being in this kind of war.” He says he will not lie to army officials for a pass out of prison.
According to Tel Aviv University history professor Gadi Algazi (who was himself sentenced to one year behind bars for the same act of protest), anywhere from 600 to 1,000 refuseniks have shunned their IDF duty since the movement began in the early 1970s. Blanc is the only refusenik currently serving time at Prison Six for turning down IDF service in all capacities due to his political beliefs.
Blanc, for his part, first started considering the alternative path during Israel’s bloody Operation Cast Lead in 2008. He remembers sitting in front of the TV, watching the death toll in Gaza tick upward in real time. “The numbers of the people who died kept rising in the news,” he says. “And every time they went up, my friend said, ‘Look, now it’s more.’ He kept saying, ‘Very good, that’s the way.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to become like this?’ ”
His father, who describes himself as politically liberal, says he watched Natan “suddenly see the way they just start wars for no reason. In the books is one thing, but when you see it happening, it can change you.”
Beneath an article about Blanc published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, some online commenters have admired his bravery. But others call him nothing more than a draft dodger, and one writes: “If this traitor refuses to fight Arab occupation of Jewish land then he should rot in jail ... .”
Blanc says he will gladly do so to further his cause.
“As representatives of the people,” he wrote in his public statement, “members of the cabinet have no duty to present their vision for the futures of the country, and they can continue with this bloody cycle, with no end in sight. But we, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game.”