New Profile's legal aid and prisoner support work: Who are we doing it for?

As we were writing this piece we received a reminder of our mission – a heart-wrenching letter from a group of inmates, reporting on wide-scale abuse and mistreatment (as well as humiliation on ethnic and religious grounds) in one of Israel’s military prisons. A lawyer we are working with is on her way there (lawyers can visit prisoners in military prisons at any time), and we will do everything in our power to stop the abuse.

But who are these prisoners (about 12,000 a year, according to recent data), and why are they there? Only a handful of soldiers are sent to military prison for committing crimes in the ordinary sense of the word. Many are imprisoned for various offences against military discipline. But most reach military prison because they cannot become, or remain, soldiers.

One, small but important and conspicuous, group of prisoners is that of declared conscientious objectors, who refuse to join the military out of moral principles. And (to cite the title of an old Amnesty International report about Israeli conscientious objectors), principles have a price. Openly declaring one’s resistance to military values and policies can mean spending time in prison. In one case, a few years ago (to protect people’s privacy, we will not mention names and other identifying details here and below, but all the stories are of actual cases), we were approached by a young woman who suffered from depression and anxiety, but the army refused to grant her a medical exemption. She spent time in military prison and was hospitalized several times due to mental breakdowns she suffered. It later turned out that she was put though this ordeal because it was mentioned in her file, erroneously, that she asked to be recognized as a conscientious objector.

And the more vocal you manage to be, the riskier it becomes. The signatories of the 2001/2 collective refusal letter by high school seniors (Shministim) were able to reach unprecedented media exposure, and became the face and voice of the Israeli anti-Occupation movement. Consequently, five of them spent close to two years each in confinement – by far more than any other Jewish conscientious objector in Israel’s history. A few years earlier, another conscientious objector, then a recent immigrant from the former USSR, dared to challenge the army’s refusal to exempt him in court (only to discover the Israeli legal system is not much fairer than the army command to people like him). He was kept in prison for much longer than other COs at that time were, and then physically abused by prison guards – this drove him to attempt suicide, after which he was finally exempted on psychiatric grounds.

The very fact that he was an immigrant didn’t help either, nor the fact that he was of Christian (Catholic) faith. It is consistently the case that Druze and other non-Jewish conscientious objectors spend much longer behind bars than most Jewish conscientious objectors do. Back in the 1990s, when the army’s policy was to keep Jewish conscientious objectors in prison for a fixed number of short terms, non-Jewish (especially Druze) conscientious objectors were sent to prison again and again indefinitely, and spent periods of a year and longer in prison (this is very clearly visible when comparing the different case studies in the Amnesty International report cited above). Since then, the policy has changed, and Jewish conscientious objectors are treated as harshly as Druze conscientious objectors were in the past. But still, Druze conscientious objectors spend, on average, longer in prison than Jewish conscientious objectors do.

Why? Because most Jewish conscientious objectors go to prison knowingly, to some degree out of choice. They usually know in advance of ways to avoid military service without going to prison and choose prison also as a political statement. They also know they have the option to switch to the (perhaps less glamorous) track of obtaining a psychiatric discharge at some point and know how to. Druze objectors usually have far less access to all this information. Which brings us to our next topic.

After all, most people in military prison are not openly ideological conscientious objectors. Most are members of those social groups that don’t have the inside knowledge about how the system works, those who naively believe somebody in the army cares about them and their problems, or those who fear confrontation and try to avoid it the wrong way, or those who don’t even understand the rules. Members of the “out” groups in Israeli society – immigrants, the working class, non-Jews – end up abused by the military system. And we’re not talking necessarily about direct, deliberate bias and abuse (although this happens too – in one case back in the 1990s an ethnic Russian inmate in one of Israel’s military prisons received a savage beating from prison guards after, during a strip search they did on him, they found out he was not circumcised). It’s more about the way the system woks. A typical scenario we’ve encountered time and time again looks like this: An adolescent boy (or girl, but the military authorities are usually harsher with men in these situations) from a poor family, for one reason or other has to work to provide for his parents and younger siblings. When he reaches conscription age, he naively asks the military to show some consideration. Often he gets none; that’s the better scenario. But sometimes he’s given a special permission to work and a schedule in which he has to spend, let’s say, only a week in an army base out of every two. Alas, the chances to find (or keep) a job with such a crazy schedule are meager. The soldier ends up leaving his unit to work on a normal schedule, because his family needs the money. Then, a few months later, he is caught by the military police and put on trial before a military tribunal. The “improved conditions” the army was willing to grant him are then brought against him as aggravating circumstances in court.

Immigrant families often come to Israel only briefly, don’t settle well in the new place and move back, or on to a third country. Unfortunately, if they have children near conscription age (16 or older), these children are considered liable for conscription, and officially become “deserters” after the enlistment date set for them passes. If, some years later, such a “deserter” returns to Israel for a visit of any kind, he or she is taken straight to prison, and ends up spending several months or longer behind bars, in harsh physical and mental conditions. They often don’t even know what hit them and why, and don’t know the language well enough to somehow communicate with the outside world, to make any use of their rights as prisoners.

Other people reach military prison following abuse within the military – physical, psychological, and/or sexual. One case we supported was of a young woman soldier who was sexually assaulted by one of her commanders, asked to be moved to another unit, and ended up going AWOL after this request was denied.

For all these people, New Profile offers support, contact with the outside world, aid with legal procedures, and, not least, information that helps them escape the grip of the military system, when all the institutions they encounter refuse to realize and recognize this need.