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Former Israeli soldiers return to occupied territories to give aid (INDEPENDENT UK) By Sheera Frenkel 06/29/03) Source: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=419942
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Thousands of Israeli military conscripts and reservists have spent time in the occupied territories, especially since the beginning of the current intifada 33 months ago. Many are disturbed by what they see while in uniform. But only a handful do what Moti Kimtel has done - return as aid workers.
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Three years ago Mr Kimtel was patrolling in Gaza with his battalion. Now he teaches irrigation and farming techniques to Palestinians, but he is constantly reminded of his service there as a soldier. While working on an irrigation project he saw a women whose house he had searched after her son had been arrested as a terrorist suspect.
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"I don´t know, maybe her son was a terrorist," he said. "It only bothers me that I followed orders I didn´t even understand at the time. Now I work for peace in ways that I can understand. I feel better about everything I do."
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The former conscript says that while he often felt "a slight guilt or doubt" while in uniform, he followed orders because of "peer pressure". It was only afterwards, when he was at university with a conscientious objector, or refusenik, that he considered joining a peace movement.
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"I don´t have the answers to all of Israel´s problems," said Mr Kimtel, "but I was in the occupied territories as a soldier and now I am here as an activist. It feels like I am doing much more good here as an activist."
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Ronen Eidelman has worked with a number of peace organisations since leaving the army 10 years ago. After his compulsory service he did another two years before opting out of a military career. "When I was in Lebanon I did things that, looking back, I regret," he said. "I was part of a greater force that may have caused injustices against the Palestinians. Now I question if it was the right thing."
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Mr Eidelman helps to organise demonstrations and "teach-ins" which try to teach Palestinians and Israelis ways to work together. He regularly enters the inner zones of the occupied territories, from which Israeli civilians are banned by law, saying that if everyone followed the restrictions nothing would get done.
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"The Palestinians do not resent my being here, nor do they judge me for once being a soldier," he said. "They understand the Israeli mentality, how army service is a part of life and often goes unquestioned. They are just happy that now I choose to work for peace."
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Israeli men are called up for three years and women for 20 to 24 months but, in most circumstances, the men also have reserve obligations, which can last until they are 50. They can spend one or two months every year back in uniform - more in times of tension. Only a small percentage of Israelis refuse to do military service at all, which usually incurs a jail sentence. Others, including some who do aid work with Palestinians, refuse to serve in the occupied territories. As a rule the army accepts this, however reluctantly though those taking this option can expect "peer pressure".
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Bob Mark, an American who came to Israel in 1977, is a teacher in Neve Shalom, a village of Arabs and Jews who live and work together as a show of solidarity. He has come to support conscientious objection. "Let´s say that I serve in the army," he said. "Even though I´m not directly involved in the occupied territories, I´m just taking the place of someone else so that they can go and serve in the territories. Either way I´m a part of what´s going on in the territories.
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"The majority of people make excuses to get out of service, but what is important is people who go to court and simply say, I won´t serve."
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That was the choice of Ariel, 21 who did not want his surname published. After his jail sentence he joined a peace organisation named Ta´ayush (Arabic for "life in common"). In his current project, Peace Camp, he is camped in front of a Palestinian village to prevent it being bulldozed.
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"There are some people here who once served in the army, but have changed their views since then," he said. "But we all respect them for having moved beyond the conditioning the army puts you through." (© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd 06/29/03)
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