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Fund Fights Charge of Aiding ‘Deserters’

A left-leaning Jewish charity that funds two organizations supporting Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in the territories is fending off accusations from Israeli rightists that its contributions “finance desertion” from the Israeli army.

The charity, the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, allows donors to earmark tax-deductible donations to two Israeli groups that back soldiers who refuse orders to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. About 500 reserve soldiers have openly stated their refusal to serve in the territories during the last two years, and more than 100 have been charged with disobeying orders, typically drawing sentences of three to four weeks in military prisons.

The charge of “desertion,” technically a capital offense, was raised in a mass e-mail sent out December 6 by the Israel Resource News Agency, a tiny Jerusalem news agency operated by a West Bank settler, David Bedein.

In his message, titled “Jews Who Finance Israelis To Desert IDF Must Be Stopped,” Bedein, a native Philadelphian, called the Shefa Fund’s activities “political,” claimed its Israeli beneficiaries were paying soldiers to “desert their units” and urged action by supporters of Israel to “bring the tax authorities down on their back.”

Since Bedein’s Internet dispatch, which has been followed up by mass e-mail attacks from other Israeli rightists, the Shefa Fund said it has received more than 300 e-mail messages, many hostile but some supportive. Some messages were sufficiently “inflammatory” that the fund decided to alert local police as a precaution, said a fund official, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling.

The Israeli Supreme Court this week dismissed an appeal by eight soldiers who claimed their refusal to serve in the territories qualified as conscientious objection. The court ruled that since the eight were willing to carry out most military duties, their refusal constituted only “selective conscientious objection,” which is not recognized in Israeli law.

In a statement, the Shefa Fund’s president and board chairwoman, Jeffrey Dekro and Debbie Fleischaker, criticized the Israeli rightists’ “extremely inaccurate and highly inflammatory e-mail campaign that challenges our fundamental right to exist.” The statement said the charges that its Israeli beneficiaries encourage desertion were false and called the suggestion that the fund’s grants violate its non-profit status “outrageous nonsense.”

The fund’s statement said that more than 800 individuals had earmarked donations to support the two Israeli groups, Yesh G’vul and Courage to Refuse. Liebling said that the fund has given approximately $42,000 to Yesh G’vul since June and $30,000 to Courage to Refuse since July for “their educational work… to inform the Israeli public about what their beliefs are.”

Yesh G’vul was founded in 1982 by Israeli soldiers who objected to serving in Lebanon. Courage to Refuse was started last January by eight army reservists who object to Israel’s current military activities in the territories. In a founding statement, the group declared: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.”

According to the Courage to Refuse Web site, 511 reservists have joined the campaign, pledging not to serve in the territories.

Bedein told the Forward that the Shefa Fund was “fomenting a rebellion among Israeli soldiers” with its support for Yesh G’vul and Courage to Refuse.

“This is crossing a red line, and a very serious red line, in terms of encouragement of desertion from the Israeli army,” he said. Bedein has cited a translation of a Yesh G’vul leaflet that accused the Israeli army of committing “war crimes” against the Palestinians and offers assistance to soldiers who decide to refuse to serve in the territories.

Yesh G’vul activist Ram Rahat-Goodman, however, called Bedein’s assertion that his organization promotes desertion “an outright lie.”

Rahat-Goodman and Courage to Refuse spokesman Amit Mashiah said that their organizations do not encourage soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories, instead encouraging them to make their own decisions. Rahat-Goodman said his group encourages soldiers who have already decided to refuse to serve in the territories to show up for their army call-ups and simply refuse assignments to the territories. Mashiah said that reservists involved with Courage to Refuse “believe that Israel needs a very strong army,” remain attached to their units and continue to serve in assignments within the Green Line.

Mashiah said that of 115 soldiers affiliated with Courage to Refuse who have been imprisoned so far for their actions, all had been charged by the army with refusing an order, not for desertion.

Chaim Gans, a Tel Aviv University law professor and director of the school’s Minerva Center for Human Rights, said that what members of Courage to Refuse and Yesh G’vul are doing “is clearly not desertion, since they are not absent from service. They refuse to comply with the particular command to serve in the territories.” Gans is a signatory to a faculty petition supporting Courage to Refuse.

Bedein said that he would take the same aggressive stance toward organizations that encouraged soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements. Several prominent West Bank rabbis have spoken publicly in favor of such disobedience, but no efforts are known to have been made to target their American supporters.

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