Last year Rami Kaplan was a loyal commander in the Israeli army. Now he is going to court to prove that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal. Here he tells Jonathan Steele how the destruction of an orange grove led him to lay down his gun
It was in Gaza that Major Rami Kaplan, a 29-year-old "veteran" of Israel's prestigious Armoured Corps, began to feel that he had had enough. He was increasingly uneasy about the orders he was given, and the next time he was called up for his annual reserve duty, he said no. Now, after a month in a military prison, he has gone on the attack. Along with seven other refuseniks, he is taking an unprecedented petition to Israel's supreme court. Their case is not that they have a right to conscientious objection. They are going further. They claim that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza is illegal, and that as soldiers they have a duty not to take part in an illegal enterprise.
This marks another leap forward in the story of the refuseniks, who first came to public notice earlier this year when some 200 reserve officers signed an open letter explaining their case. The number of signatories has now reached 491.
Michael Sfard, one of the refuseniks' lawyers, acknowledges that the petition has a large degree of chutzpah: Israel's supreme court has already issued judgments on the legality of various army practices, from the demolition of houses of suicide bombers' families to the deportation of suspected terrorists. But using the courts to strike at the whole basis of Israel's 35-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is unprecedented.
Two things have changed, Sfard argues. Israel's reaction to the Palestinian intifada over the past two years has involved so many violations of human rights that it has become a systematic "mechanism of collective punishment". Under international law, collective punishment of people in occupied territories is prohibited.
Secondly, as an occupying power, Israel has certain rights and duties. It is now clear, the petition argues, that Israel has failed to fulfil its duties of care to the Palestinian population on such a widespread scale during the intifada that the whole occupation has been rendered illegal.
Rami Kaplan was an unlikely convert to the refusenik cause. He initially enjoyed army life, so much so that he signed on for three more years as a professional officer after his three years of conscription, and rose to become a tank company commander responsible for up to 100 men.
His first war service was in Lebanon, where he was briefly in charge of a base set up inside the medieval Crusader castle of Beaufort. "Until 1997 there was a broad consensus that our presence in Lebanon was needed to protect communities in northern Israel. I was young and didn't have the ability to judge what was going on. Our contact with the Lebanese population was minimal," he says.
A short posting to the West Bank during the first intifada in the early 1990s raised his first doubts. He found the army being used as a kind of police force. "I hated it from the beginning. We were operating in towns and were ruling the place. I hated going after kids who threw stones. On one occasion we sent in dozens of troops just to arrest a 10-year-old kid who was on some list," he says.
When he left the army to go to university and prepare for a job in teaching, it was not out of a spirit of refusal, he says. He was relaxed about doing his bouts of reserve duty for a month every year. Catching up again with his colleagues from the unit, who were also coming in for reserve duty from civilian jobs, was like an annual reunion.
Things changed in April last year. By then the second intifada was under way, and Kaplan's tank battalion, of which he was a deputy commander, was posted to the edge of the Gaza strip. One of its missions was to guard the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. The other was to protect the access route to the Israeli settlement of Netzarim, a heavily fortified compound with gun towers and fences in the centre of the Gaza strip. "Guarding settlements has become one of the army's main jobs. We had more soldiers protecting Netzarim than it had settlers," he says.
Kaplan witnessed no atrocities, but what he did see troubled his conscience. He came to the conclusion that Israel was running a colonial enterprise in which Palestinians had minimal rights. One of the Israeli army's regular duties was cutting down Palestinian orchards, vines and palm trees. "There was a tactical explanation. It was not to punish Palestinians, we were told, but to make it harder for people to crawl up to the fence and sneak through.
"Occasionally, explosives were thrown or rockets were fired by the Palestinians, but mainly they were civilians who wanted to get jobs in Israel. I refused to do these orchard-cutting missions, and my commanding officer accepted it. On one occasion I had to replace him, and I regret it very much. It was so painful to see our tanks and bulldozers going through the orchards. I had to sit on a hillside nearby and watch through binoculars," he says.
"You could see Palestinians coming out of very poor and miserable houses. A soldier shouted out, 'They've got guns,' but when I looked through the binoculars I saw they only had bags with straps over their shoulders. It wasn't a rifle strap. They wanted to pick as many oranges as possible before the trees were destroyed. It tore me up. I couldn't believe I was doing this. No one thought of cutting trees on the Israeli side of the fence. If we had, we would have had to pay compensation. No one thought of compensating the Palestinians."
Kaplan found it appalling that decisions on whether to cut the trees to a depth of 200m or 500m - an issue that affected the livelihoods of several families - were routinely taken by low-ranking officers. "It was completely arbitrary," he says.
He also noticed that officers tried to bend the rules of engagement as much as possible. "Instructions from the chief of staff prevented you killing people except in extreme circumstances, but I got the impression that at the regimental level officers tried to give themselves more freedom. They overinsured so as to protect their soldiers and so that they could fulfil their missions easily. Commanders became very flexible," he says.
Kaplan lost his belief in the justice of the cause. "If you're a commander, you have to be very spirited and charismatic to your men. I didn't feel I had the drive any more. I was sucked out, a shadow of myself. I couldn't get up in the morning and do what I was expected to do. The whole mission seemed stupid and a waste of time and money," he says.
His commander was not happy either, but like many other senior officers, according to Kaplan, he hoped the government would end the intifada and get the troops out. In the meantime they had to do their duty. "I asked him: 'What happens if we have to cut the orchards to a depth of 5km rather than 500m on the grounds that the Palestinians are getting longer-range rockets?' "
Back at university, his reserve duty over, Kaplan decided he wanted to write to get his painful experiences off his chest. Cautiously, he put them in a fictional context. "It was very difficult to go against the system. I wasn't yet thinking of refusing to serve. I didn't want to abandon my fellow officers and soldiers," he says.
His article in an Israeli newspaper caused a minor sensation, and he was invited to speak at campuses. Then came the decision this year by a group of officers to refuse to serve on the West Bank and Gaza and draft a letter for signature. Kaplan hesitated for 10 days before putting his name to it.
Taking the plunge, however, meant committing himself to involvement in politics. Israel has been affected as much as any other western society by the liberal "end of ideology" culture of individualism and consumerism, he says. In Israel there is an extra factor. Under the weight of the suicide bombing, he argues, Israeli society has become passive and withdrawn. People retreat into themselves and their families, and stop listening to and watching the news on radio and TV.
"In a way, the settlers and the refuseniks are similar. Our political views differ, but we are the only groups in Israeli society that are willing to take action in the name of something bigger than ourselves," he says.
Buoyed up by the strength of the refusenik movement, Kaplan's views on the occupation have become more radical. "People ask why I am not defending Israel against the suicide bombers. But if I'm in the army in the territories, I'm not protecting people here in Tel Aviv. On the contrary. It's the army's role in the territories that is the cause of the bombings in Tel Aviv. Being a soldier increases the danger to my family here," he says. "You have to be blind to think that people under oppression won't rebel. Suicide bombing is a new phenomenon. It happened after 30 years. This just shows how bad the situation in the territories has become."
Kaplan still calls himself a Zionist, and he is proud of the tolerance of Israeli society. Refuseniks in other armies are not treated so well, he says. "When I decided to refuse, none of my family, neighbours, or friends denounced me. Their tone varied between respect for my views and outright support. An officer in my battalion who is himself a settler told me, 'I respect you, but keep loving the Jews and the nation of Israel.' I was surprised but very happy."
In the military prison from which he has just emerged, Kaplan had no complaints. The group of around 10 refusenik officers doing time with him were treated correctly. He was dismissed from his unit when he signed the refuseniks' letter, but he did not lose his rank.
He also believes that the refuseniks are getting wider, if still silent, support among Israelis than the media suggests. The army has admitted that only a third of reservists turned up for duty last year, though most found medical or other excuses for failing to appear. As the economic situation in Israel worsens, Kaplan thinks more people will begin to criticise the occupation.
Tomorrow the supreme court will hold its first oral hearing on the refuseniks' case. The government is taking their argument seriously and is preparing a highly detailed rebuttal. Even if the court rejects the case - to do otherwise would be a judicial earthquake - Kaplan and his colleagues are confident that by criticising the very legality of the occupation, they will help to bring its end nearer.