Letter From an Israeli Jail

The Chief of Staff has announced that the Palestinians constitute a cancerous threat and has commanded that chemotherapy be applied against them. The brigadier has imposed curfews without time limits, and the colonel has ordered the destruction of Palestinian fields. The division commander has placed tanks on the hills between their houses, and has not allowed ambulances to evacuate their wounded. The lieutenant colonel announced that the open-fire regulations have been amended to an indiscriminate order "fire!" The tank commander, in turn, spotted a number of people and ordered his gunner to launch a missile.
I am that gunner. ...
But as Bertolt Brecht wrote:
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.
(Yigal Bronner, Letter to the General)

By Yigal Bronner

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts as I pass the long hours peeling bags of onions, washing dozens of large oily pots, or when I am asked to explain myself to those around me, people who find it difficult to understand my motives. Why does a man of my age--married with two children--"need all this"? Why is it worth my while to refuse serving in the occupied territories?

Such questions have forced me to examine my actions from the perspective of the other prisoners. Here is a man, 36 years old, who is imprisoned with soldiers half his age. He is separated from his family, forbidden to take off his hat (even when sitting in his cell or while eating), to use a pillow or sheets, to wear a watch, to eat in the dining hall (rather, he eats on a folding table in the hallway near his cell, all the while behind bars) and to speak while working or eating. He is forced to work fourteen hours a day (in the kitchen or cleaning the bathrooms on the base), to stand at attention and yell "Attention!" every time an officer passes and to obey a long list of other commands and prohibitions, whose sole purpose is to humiliate him. Why would anybody in his right mind subject himself to this?

In order to answer the above question seriously, one has to recall the alternative, what it was I refused to do. There is indeed an effort to humiliate me through a variety of regulations. But I believe that humiliating another human being is more humiliating by far. To look, for example, into the eyes of a Palestinian at a checkpoint and prevent him/her from reaching work, school, or the hospital. To look into the eyes of the residents upon whom I have just imposed another day of curfew--a curfew that seems to have no beginning and no end. To look into the eyes of a farmer whose orchards I am ordered to uproot--or in the eyes of a family whose house I am about to demolish. And to see my reflection in the eyes of these people: a despised soldier in front of trembling people who beg for his mercy. This, to me, is much, much more humiliating.

There are, of course, those who claim that the presence of people like me in the occupied territories can make the occupation more humane. Indeed, it cannot be denied that one can uproot an orchard politely, demolish a house quietly and in a civilized manner, and perhaps even expel an entire population from their village--as has been done in South Hebron--in an organized and less violent way. It is possible, it seems, to calmly dispossess and oppress an entire people. The question, however, still arises: Can a person who wishes to retain his humanity carry out such actions?

For me, the answer is clear: No.

So when we, the refuseniks, declare that there are certain things that a just person simply does not do, we do not mean working in a kitchen, since such work is dignified. We mean actions that humiliate and deny the humanity of the Other. There is no doubt that it is better to sit in jail, isolated, wearing a hat, silent, washing dishes and peeling onions.

I prefer--by far--to shed tears when I cut bag after bag of onions over the tears that arise whenever I conjure up images of the occupation.


Dr. Yigal Bronner, 36, a father of two, lives in Jerusalem. He teaches Sanskrit and Indian studies at Tel-Aviv University and is an activist in Ta'ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership and a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press). On October 28 he was sentenced to twenty-eight days in prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

(c) The Nation (

3. Dezember 2002


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