HERZLIYA, ISRAEL // The three knocks on the door made Udi Nir's heart jump. Then a loud voice bellowed: "Military police!" It was a hot mid-August afternoon, and the three military police officers - two in plainclothes and one in uniform, handcuffs hanging from his belt - came to the third-floor apartment in the seaside Israeli city of Herzliya to arrest Mr Nir. Another policeman guarded the building's main entrance in case Mr Nir decided to bolt. His offence: the 18-year-old did not show up for his scheduled army conscription a day earlier because he opposes Israel's occupation of the West Bank. "I was freaked out," Mr Nir said recently, still sounding incredulous from the ordeal. "I thought it would take time until they come for me."
His speedy arrest and subsequent three-week jail sentence was the culmination of a battle for Mr Nir against the sacred cow of his society - the military, an institution that enjoys a national consensus on its importance in upholding the country's existence. In Israel, military service is mandatory for all 18-year-olds, with men serving for three years and women for two. Afterwards, many Israeli men and some women report annually for reserve duty until age 40. Those released from duty include ultra-orthodox Jews, Arabs, people deemed as having psychological or medical problems and - at times - conscientious objectors, or those who refuse to bear arms or participate in military service on the basis of religious or moral principles. Among the latter, activists said the ones who are typically released are pacifists, which Mr Nir insists he is not.
Mr Nir, joined by a handful of other youngsters, is battling to crack the national consensus. Their group is unique because in Israel, 18-year-olds facing conscription only rarely openly protest against policies relating to Palestinians. Such dissent in Israel usually came in the past from reservists and sometimes from active duty soldiers. That included a petition in 2003 signed by 27 mostly reservist air force pilots - including one of the state's most decorated fighter pilots, who took part in Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor - that condemned air strikes in the West Bank and Gaza as "immoral". Later that year, 13 reservists of an elite commando unit signed a letter accusing Israel of depriving Palestinians of human rights and stating their refusal to serve in the Palestinian territories.
The current rebels said they wanted no part in a military they claimed oppressed the lives of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, an area Israel captured during the 1967 war and has since occupied. "Israel technically controls every aspect of their lives," Mr Nir said. Just weeks after he was released from prison, the peace activist relaxed in a cafe near Tel Aviv, his fingers fiddling with the straw in his iced lemonade. "There is no job that you do in the army that does not contribute to this occupation," he said.
Their fight is exacerbated by Israel's intensifying efforts to curb draft-dodging. Indeed, officials are concerned as the number of conscripts this year dropped to 64.3 per cent of the total eligible to join as compared to 71.2 per cent of the total in 2003, army data show. As a sign of these efforts, Israel's attorney general in September ordered a police investigation into two websites suspected of incitement against the draft. One of them, New Profile, run by a group of feminist women and men aiming to demilitarise Israeli society, denies the allegations and claims it provides those who refuse to serve with legal and practical advice and preparation for imprisonment. "We tell people what their options are and guide them," said the activist Dorothy Naor. She added that during Israel's war with Hizbollah in 2006, the group was "swamped" with some 900 inquiries from soldiers who did not want to fight. Indeed, New Profile's tips on its website for one seeking a service exemption include faking head- and backaches, appearing unmotivated and marking down wrong answers on psychological tests.
New Profile does not lack critics among Israelis. Shivyon, a group founded last year by soldiers' parents aiming to curtail draft-dodging among youngsters amid dropping enlistment rates, accuses New Profile of violating Israeli law on mandatory military service. "Our reality forces us to have a strong and stable army," said Zohara Tzoor, a spokeswoman whose son serves in the navy. Young people who do not want to join because they oppose the occupation "sit home and play with ideology while others go out and risk their lives for Israelis' security".
But Sahar Vardi, 18, from Jerusalem who, like Mr Nir, refuses to serve because she disagrees with the occupation, said she felt less safe due to Israeli soldiers' presence in the West Bank. "I don't see what they do as protecting me," she said. "I have no doubt that, at the end of the day, the army's operations lead more Palestinians to want to commit terror acts against Israelis." Ms Vardi, encouraged to become an activist by her father - a university lecturer and activist in a group promoting Arab-Jewish co-operation - participated in her first peace protest at age 12. Since then she has been arrested by police five times in demonstrations whose causes ranged from Palestinian rights to animal protection and teachers' rights. Her activism on Palestinian issues made her realise she does not want to join the army.
"The more time I spent in the occupied territories, the more I encountered soldiers from their not-so-friendly sides - including shooting at us protesters - the more I realised that this wasn't a system I wanted to be part of," she said. Ms Vardi and Mr Nir believe they will be exempted in the end. Judging from others who fought a similar battle before them, they will most likely spend anywhere from several weeks to a few months in army jails or confinement before obtaining a release on grounds of psychological problems or simply an unsuitability to the military, activists said.
They hope others will follow their lead, possibly helping to pressure Israel to retreat from the West Bank. "If others do the same, then we'll have the power in our hands," Ms Vardi said. "After all, this country can't afford not to have an army." firstname.lastname@example.org