Thursday, May 15, 2014

Prisoner of Conscience

OMAR SA'AD refuses to swap his viola for a rifle to maintain the Occupation

WE were sitting in the garden restaurant at Tamra that night when the two young men in green fatigues came in, guns at their sides, and glancing around them before choosing their place. Our party were exchanging looks, and remarks about the "arrogance" of the Israelis. The friend from Deir al Assad who was acting as our guide turned to me and confided wryly "they're actually two of ours".
The men were Druze Arabs, serving in the Border Police.

Although well clear of the border, this was Western Galilee. Perhaps by deploying its armed Border Police here the Israeli state recognised that the region was designated part of Arab Palestine in the UN's 1947 Partition plan, and remains home to many Arabs who albeit Israeli citizens, consider themselves, not without reason, Palestinians.

It was in Galilee in 1976 that six young people were killed while demonstrating against land expropriation and plans to "Judaise" the region. This is remembered each year on March 30, yawm el ard, Land Day.

Although they don't meet the criteria for Binyamin Netanyahu's "Jewish" state, members of the Druze minority are not just equal citizens on paper but entitled to some privileges that go with serving in the armed forces. In practice they still come up against discrimination.

Omar Sa'ad was not prepared to serve for this dubious status. After he turned 18 in November 2013,  Omar, a Druze from Maghar in the Galil, was called-up for the military for 4 December 2013. A musician by profession, he declared publicly his “refus[al] to take an assault rifle and point it at another human being.”

Omar Sa’ad, like a growing number of Druze Palestinian citizens of Israel, does not want to be a part of the Israeli army because – in his words - “the Israeli government is responsible for the occupation [of the Palestinian Territories]. As an Arab Druze I consider myself part of the Palestinian people - so how can I be part of the army that occupies my people? I won’t sell all my beliefs and my identity to anyone.”

The right to reject military service on grounds of conscientious objection is protected under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Israel has ratified.

Since December 2013, Omar Sa’ad has been in and out of prison, where he has spent 149 days, generally serving sentences of between 14 and 20 days at a time before being released and called up to serve the next day. Most recently, on April 13 he began, a seventh prison sentence of 40 days. At the beginning of May, he was denied medical attention by the military prison authorities for three days despite the seriousness of his condition, which apparently relates to a virus affecting his liver.
He was eventually transferred to hospital in Haifa where he remained for over a week before being allowed home to recuperate.  He may be returned to prison after 28 May to serve the remainder of his sentence.

A number of Israeli, Palestinian and international organizations have joined forces to declare Omar and others imprisoned on such grounds, such as Uriel Ferera, to be prisoners of conscience and call on the Israeli authorities to release them and any other conscientious objectors immediately and unconditionally.

They point out that several Israeli teenagers go to prison each year because of their moral objection to serving in the army.

'Since 8 March 2014, over 100 high school seniors have written to Prime Minister Netanyahu saying that they will “refuse to serve in the occupation army”, apparently the largest group of such “refusers in the history of Israel”.

The students said they were protesting “the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories where … human rights are violated and acts defined by international law as war-crimes are perpetuated on a daily basis.“

Their letter came amidst the Israeli government’s plans to broaden army conscription and Israel's Supreme Court decision to overrule the Tal Law, which allowed special deferrals of military service granted only to ultra-Orthodox Jews, resulting in most of them not serving at all.

Although the Israeli army’s Conscience Committee can decide to allow a conscientious objector exemption from military service, it is only empowered to do so on grounds of pacifism. While Omar's refusal is based on ideological grounds that includes pacifism, he was not allowed to see the Committee.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee no discrimination is permitted “among conscientious objectors on the basis of the nature of their particular beliefs” - i.e. whether they are religious or otherwise (General Comment 22, para. 11).

Excerpts from Omar Sa’ad’s Refusal Declaration

"I refuse because I am a man of peace and I hate all forms of violence, and the military institution represents for me the peak of physical and psychological violence. Since I received the notice to appear for tests, my life has changed, I became more nervous, my thoughts were distracted, I remembered thousands of cruel images, and I couldn’t imagine myself wearing military uniform and participating in the suppression of my Palestinian people or fighting my Arab brothers. I oppose the recruitment to the Israeli military and any other military for conscience and nationalistic reasons. I hate the injustice and oppose the occupation; I hate intolerance and restriction of freedoms. I hate those who detain children, the elderly and women."

“I am a musician, I play the Viola , I have played in many places, I have musician friends from Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Shfa’amr, Eilabun, Rome, Athens, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Oslo, and we all play for freedom, humanity and peace, our weapon is the music and we shall not have any other weapon."

This petition is endorsed by:

Amnesty International -

New Profile -

Connection e. V. -

War Resisters’ International -

Coalition of Women for Peace -

Refuser’s Letter 2014 -

Orfod-Refuse, Your nation will protect you campaign -

Union of Youth National Democratic Assembly -We will not serve in your army
Communist Youth Union in Israel -

Student Department of Communist Party of Israel (CPI) & Democratic Front for Peace & Equality (DFPE)

Baladna Arab Youth Association -
Yesh Gvul -

Gush Shalom


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