"Right now, people have the tendency to define themselves in extremes. You are either pro-Israeli and looking for excuses to justify the occupation. Or you are pro- Palestinian, and you try to find excuses to justify terrorism. I am not in either of this categories." This is how Elad Lahav, a 27 years old Israeli began a talk at a recent Palestinians and Jews United (PAJU) organised conference in Montreal.
Lahav grew up in a kibbutz, two kilometres north of the Gaza Strip. He participated in pilot inter-ethnic projects which brought together both Palestinians and Israelis. In the mid-90s, he did his obligatory military service at a time when, thanks to the Oslo accords, both sides thought peace was on the horizon. His baptism by fire, Intifada-style, came in January 2001 when he was called up to serve in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
He recounts how every Friday a handful of Israeli soldiers would receive orders to disperse thousands of protesters who would assemble for their weekly ritual. "When the sky is turning black with all the stones that are being thrown at you, you are scared for your life, so you start throwing teargas grenades and rubber bullets." Gradually, fear fades into reflection. "There was no reason to break up the demonstrations." For him, the army had no business being there. "I do not blame the soldiers, but the government and the army, who put us in impossible situations," he rages.
February 2002 - the Intifada continues and he is once again called to defend the flag. He has, by now, heard about the 52 refuzniks. Elad Lahav hesitates. "My values conflicted with my loyalty to my unit." He explains. When he finally makes his decision, he finds a sympathetic ear in his major; the officer understands his reasons, but nevertheless replies that in democracy one has to succumb to the will of the majority. The reservist replied: "Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority, but of an ideal based on the values of freedom, equality and fraternity. How can we talk about democracy if in Greater Israel / Greater Palestine - call it how you want - there are 9.5 million inhabitants, with 6 million Israelis having the right to vote while 3.5 million Palestinians are denied the same right."
Brought before a military court, Lahav spent the next 28 days in prison. During his imprisonment, the already bleak situation turned catastrophic. After the Passover attack in Netanya, the Israel army invaded Palestinian cities and refugees camps. Lahav deplores the wave of patriotism that overtook his country. "The dissidents went from being mere curiosities to full-scale traitors."
Hope of peace?
Elad Lahav does not think it is realistic to expect peace negotiations to resume any time in the near future. "What these two peoples need is time and distance. It will take at least two years, maybe more, before they will be able to be good neighbours." Lahav is in favour of an immediate withdrawal from the territories and for the creation of a Palestinian state. For him, a cease-fire, accompanied by an international peace-keeping force, is urgent.
Lahav is uncertain what he will do upon his return to Israel,"I’m a techie not an activist… Returning to a normal life" would be enough. Nevertheless, he will participate in peace demonstrations in Israel, and if he is called to serve in the occupied territories, his conscience will once again send him to prison.