Omar Sa'ad and conscientious objectors imprisoned in Israel for refusing to bear arms against Palestinians
With tensions high in Israel, this is a particularly difficult time to be a conscientious objector in a country where military service is compulsory for almost all of its young men and women.
Omar Saad, a Druze viola player from Galillee in Israel, has always been quite clear that he will not partake in the occupation of the Palestinian people. The Druze are an Arab minority group in Israel but, unlike Palestinian citizens of Israel, must carry out military service. When he was called up in 2012, Omar sent a letter to the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with the Defence Minister explaining his refusal to serve in the Israeli Army.
"I, Omar Zahr Eldin Mohammed Saad, will not be the fuel to the fire of your war and I will not be a soldier in your army," Omar writes. "I oppose the law of conscription imposed on the Druze community. How can I bear arms against my brothers and people in Palestine? I refuse because I am a man of peace and I hate all forms of violence."
There is no exemption from military service for conscientious objectors who refuse to join the army because they do not suport Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, and the classically trained musician and teenager was sent to military prison as a result. After 200 days total imprisonment and seven refusals of the draft, Omar was finally declared unfit for military service in June this year. Omar’s situation gained international attention when his poignant and heartfelt letter went viral online. He was supported by Amnesty and other NGOs and activists who wrote to the Israeli government on his behalf.
Omar is part of a growing movement of "refuseniks" in Israel - conscientious objectors from Jewish and Druze backgrounds who refuse to elist in the army. On 28 July 19 year old Udi Segal was imprisoned for his refusal. He made a video explaining "I think right now, specifically, it is important, not just to refuse but to act against the occupation. Especially now when the destructive effects of the occupation can be seen on TV right before our eyes."
It's a brave position to take in a country which has been at war since its creation in 1948 and in a society which is becoming increasingly militarised. Peace and human rights NGOs operate in a restrictive legal and political environment with laws limiting funding and freedom of speech for these organisations. There have been worrying reports of peace activists protesting against Israel's current military operation in Gaza being targeted in Israel as anger runs high in the streets.
For Omar, one of the most difficult parts of his imprisonment was being unable to practise his viola and play in the Galillee Quartet, the classical string quartet he plays in along with his two violinist brothers Mostafa, 16, and Gandhi, 13, and sister, Tibah, 15, who plays the cello. Having finally gained the exemption from military service, Omar's ordeal is now over and the Galillee Quartet are playing concerts and making music together as a family again. The are enjoying it while it lasts because 16 year old Mostafa has already received his papers to report for military service. The Saad family know that next year Mostafa will go to military prison for refusing to take part in the military oppression of the Palestinian people, and the Galilee Quartet will be silent again.
The Galillee Quartet will be appearing in concert and conversation at Amnesty's Human Rights Action Centre and at various events in London and South England between 30 September and 8 October 2014.
You can find out dates and venues and the concert programme in our events calendar.
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