JERUSALEM — For 28 days in October, Noam Kuzar sat in Military Prison No. 4.
The bespectacled 19-year-old soldier had violated one of the most vaunted principles of the Israeli experience. He refused an army command--orders, in this case, to deploy in the West Bank.
Since the start of Israel's deadly confrontation with Palestinian stone-throwers and gunmen three months ago, a small but growing number of Israeli soldiers is refusing to serve in the mostly Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip. Like Kuzar, several have ended up in jail, having turned against the deeply entrenched, half-century-old duty to serve in their besieged country's army.
"My whole life I've been against the Israeli army and the state being in the occupied territories," Kuzar said. "What right did I have to be there? I couldn't do something I so strongly object to."
Once out of jail, Kuzar was reassigned to a military base where he cleans toilets and performs other menial tasks. He was removed from his unit--the other young men with whom he had performed a year of post-high school community service and with whom he had hoped to graduate from the army in three years' time.
The resistance of a handful of regular soldiers and a larger number of reservists reflects changes in the way Israelis see their once unassailable army, and in the role the army plays today.
In a country where almost everyone is required to perform military service, many Israelis regard the resisters as traitors or cowards. Despite peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel remains a country surrounded by enemies, a fact dramatized in the new outburst of violence. A strong army is essential to the nation's survival, most Israelis believe.
But some are uncomfortable with the kind of duty increasingly thrust upon infantry soldiers confronting riots and demonstrations where Palestinian minors are on the front line.
Ishai Menuchin, a paratrooper in the Israeli army and a veteran of the Lebanon war, spent much of the last month pounding the sidewalks in search of young soldiers. On Friday mornings at Jerusalem's central bus station, where soldiers congregate to go home for the weekend, Menuchin handed out pamphlets urging the recruits to think carefully about whether they really wanted to serve in what he calls an occupation army.
A war to protect Jewish settlements, the pamphlet declares, "is not our war!"
"Hey, soldier. Where are you headed?" the pamphlet continues. "On your way to serve in the occupied territories? . . . Maybe to prevent the Palestinian people from declaring independence? Maybe to put down the new intifada? Or could it be for all-out war?"
Reaction has been mixed. Most soldiers accept a pamphlet, maybe read it, occasionally comment on it. A few have gotten angry, Menuchin said, and torn it up.
All in all, however, the reception is in marked contrast to that of the 1980s, when Menuchin first embarked on his mission as guru of the conscientious objector. Leading resistance to the war in Lebanon, he was beaten by right-wing "patriots" and ended up in the hospital.
"Occupation by definition is an undemocratic act," Menuhin said. "There is no solution but a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I am not willing, and more and more Israelis are not willing, to take part in a military solution."
Being a conscientious objector in a country like Israel is a unique manifestation. Most people have no problem with serving in the army, and if Israel was threatened by war from, say, Syria or Iran, they would not hesitate to report to duty.
The problem is wars of occupation, said Menuchin. He was jailed in 1983 for refusing to return to duty in Lebanon, which had been invaded by Israel for the stated purpose of rooting out Palestinian guerrillas. Today, like almost every Israeli male, he continues to perform his reserve duty of 30 days a year.
But the 42-year-old psychologist refuses to be sent to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where more than 350 people have been killed since Sept. 28 in near-daily clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
Menuchin runs a left-wing organization called Yesh Gvul--"There Is a Limit"--that helps conscientious objectors. He said he has been inundated with calls and letters from disgruntled soldiers.
During the war in Lebanon, Menuchin said, 170 soldiers were imprisoned and more than 3,000 signed a petition of protest. During the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, about 2,500 declared their refusal to serve, with about 200 landing in jail, he said.
During the current Palestinian revolt, Menuchin said, more than 30 reservists and seven regular soldiers have refused duty. Five of the seven regular soldiers were put in jail for terms ranging from one to 28 days; no reservists were imprisoned.