Photography by Dubi Roman
Chen Alon is a theatre director, facilitator and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Chen served for four years in the Israeli army and then for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Later, he became a refusnik and as a result served time in jail.
My grandfather immigrated to Palestine before the Second World War because he was a Zionist. He was the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers of Poland, and so I was brought up with the belief that Zionism literally saved my family. It was not a theoretical concept. I believed that our Jewish state was surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy us and that men like my father, who fought in the 1967 war, were there to protect us. However, when my father came back from the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he was deeply psychologically damaged and from a very young age I was exposed to his trauma. I went into the army wishing to fix things, but instead I got locked into the same cycle.
I was drafted in 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada. I call myself an ‘occupation scholar’ because I was sent everywhere and did everything. The most difficult thing of all were the arrests. One night I remember we had to meet an agent from the security forces to find a wanted terrorist. My men surrounded a house and as we entered with our flash lights I saw people sleeping on mattresses all over the floor. Then I saw the agent wake someone up and take them to the jeep. It was a 10-year-old child. ‘Can this be the wanted terrorist?’ I asked myself.
Then, in 2001, came the Second Intifada, when Palestinians used arms, not stones. I knew as a reservist I would now be called to respond with tanks, not batons. The strategy was to siege and block everything. The Palestinian villages became like prisons, with one main exit in and out. On one occasion I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? My children were human, and yet we had dehumanised the Palestinian children. I began to realise that in the de-humanising of the other, you begin to de-humanise yourself.
That night we got the order to demolish a Palestinian house. I presumed it must belong to a terrorist, but in fact we were demolishing it because the owner had built an illegal balcony. This is how a civil legal mission becomes a military operation. We came with two platoons, a bulldozer and three tanks, and not surprisingly the operation deteriorated into a fierce battle, with the local Mosque calling people to defend the house and to rise up against the Israeli invasion. It was a crazy situation. I knew from then on that this was the last time I could do such a thing. And when I heard about reservist officers and combatant soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, I signed their petition. Over the course of two years we became very active trying to convince Israeli society that the occupation was wrong. We wanted to initiate civil disobedience.
When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik, I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.
Then one day I was in Ramallah telling my story to Palestinians and a person in the audience asked me directly, ‘Are you asking us to forgive you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t forgive myself, nor do I ask for forgiveness.’ For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions – it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression. Israelis need to take responsibility for the Nakba of 1948, just as the Palestinians need to take responsibility for the crazy strategy of suicide attacks.