conscientious objectors
© Tatyana Gitlits
Haggai Matar, right, refused outright to serve in the Israeli army
When Adam Maor was released from prison after refusing to serve in the Israeli army as a conscientious objector, he left his native land for an eight-year stay in Europe.

"I really felt a need to get away for a while," said the 34-year old, who served 21 months in various forms of incarceration between the winter of 2002 and September 2004.

"I started my studies in Geneva, Switzerland - and I also lived some time in Paris, before returning home to Israel."

Maor was part of a publicised group of five "refuseniks" who defied Israel's compulsory military service laws and refused to serve as a stand against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Back in November 2003 - two years before Israel "disengaged" from Gaza - Al Jazeera reported: "The Israeli organisation, Courage to Refuse, claims that there are 1,000 Israelis who are refusing military duty for one reason or another, and a further 562 have pledged not to sign up."

Today, Maor, whose total refusal to serve in the army inspired a high-profile court case that led many to believe that both he and his fellow objectors were being made an example of in order to deter others, is a newly married man and works as a composer.

But, for the current Jaffa-resident and many other past objectors, their decision to defy the land of their birth remains a stark memory that has faded little with the passing of time.

Fast Facts
  • Conscientious objectors are socially ostracised and often jailed for refusing to serve
  • Israelis view military service as a family obligation or moral duty
  • Most Israelis see it as a positive experience - a prerequisite to a successful career that gives young Israelis the opportunity to network
Some 15 years on, Maor counts his fellow objectors among his closest friends. They include Haggai Matar, who was also part of the five-strong group of conscientious objectors whose decision to go public with their protest brought the wrath of the Israeli authorities upon them.

Matar is today executive director of Israeli-based 972 Magazine, which opposes the occupation and provides first-hand reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine.

Despite a "few rough months mentally" after his own prison release, the political activist and journalist told Al Jazeera that his past helps him connect with Palestinians.
"To have this background of having refused - and especially of having been to prison - plays a role with people, especially with Palestinians, when it comes to credibility and a willingness to work together and to be interviewed," said Matar.

He added: "I can say to Palestinians, 'Look, I'm not your average Israeli with the army - I've spent time in prison', in order to tell them that I'm not a part of the system that's oppressing them."
'It is very difficult for me to serve'

While both Maor and Matar refused outright to serve and spent prison time as a result, others came to their decision after time in the army.

Ron Gerlitz, 44, is today the co-executive director of Sikkuy - an Israel-based organisation that aims to promote equality and partnership between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. He served in the Israeli navy for six years before becoming a selective objector in 2001.

Gerlitz, who signed the 2002 Courage to Refuse Combatant's Letter, continues to serve as a military reservist - but describes the occupation as "immoral" and will not serve in the occupied West Bank.

The letter was created by soldiers who realised, after time in Gaza, that serving in the army "had in fact nothing to do with the defence of the State of Israel".

"On a personal level, it is very difficult for me to serve in the Israeli army," said Gerlitz.

He walks the "delicate balance" of believing that Israel's policies towards the Palestinians are profoundly "unjust" and that, as a sovereign nation, the 8.5 million-populous state has a duty "to protect itself".

Ron Gerlitz
© Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz describes the Israeli occupation as immoral
Ofer Shorr, 50, also signed the letter.

He started in the army at 18, believing that the "occupation was bad but necessary".

He later signed the letter from the US.
"It was easy to do it from the United States where I did not have to pay a personal price," he said.

"For me, the big break was looking back and realising that I had done things that I would never have believed," said Shorr, who lives in New York.

"And it wasn't even something extreme - I did not kill anybody or torture anybody - just the everyday misery that I was a part of in contributing to the suffering of these poor [Palestinian] people."
Shorr, who calls Israel "an apartheid state", admits that his beliefs have seen him lose friends.

But the teacher is looking forward to permanently returning to Israel in the summer with his wife and two children with the mindset of "trying to undermine the entire structure of the occupation".

Biggest Achievement of my Life

So what kind of future do the men see for their restive region?

Matar is pessimistic about any settlement that will see the rights of Palestinians recognised.

He laments what he sees as an "ongoing political shift more and more to the right" in Israel and "an international community that is less and less involved".

Yet, as Israel continues to build settlements in the occupied West Bank and continues to subject the Palestinian people of Gaza to a blockade, so the country's objectors, who are seen by many Israelis as traitors, keep coming.

Indeed, while their decision to refuse was painful and unpredictable, Matar, Gerlitz and Shorr have no regrets.

Maor, whose musical compositions include political pieces inspired by the Middle East's travails, also derives a strong sense of pleasure from the bold decision he took as a younger man.

"There is nothing I'm more proud of in my life than what I did," said Maor, who deplores US President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to Al Jazeera. "It is definitely the biggest [achievement] of my life up until now."