Yeheli Cialic is the coordinator of Mesarvot, a network of young Israeli conscientious objectors who refuse to join the army in protest of the occupation and the war in Gaza, a choice that means going against everything they have been taught. For this they face months of military imprisonment. We met and interviewed him in Bologna, where he participated in an event organized by Assopace Palestina.

What is it like to live in Israel today?

It’s scary, we don’t have any kind of stability, many have lost loved ones who were on the “front line.” It’s clear that the government doesn’t care about us, of that I’m not surprised at all, but they keep going on with this war, they don’t care about the hostages, even when they had a chance to negotiate. They chose to attack the Iranian embassy, so as much as possible, it is important to say that the Iranian attack was provoked.

Of course I do not support the Iranian regime. I remember sitting with friends when the Iranian attack came and the warning that we would intercept most of the missiles. It’s like we can’t decide what’s going to happen, and then we are reminded that this is how people feel every day in Gaza, but we are not under the same threat and the balance of power is not symmetrical at all.

What changed after October 7?

I was already an activist before October 7. It’s like the world ended that day; we knew right away that something was broken and we knew that nothing was going to be the same, and it was scary, we really didn’t know what was going to happen. There was a huge increase in right-wing sentiment in Israeli public opinion. On October 7, we also lost comrades.

I was thinking what would become of this land and we knew that in the end those who would pay the price for this attack would be civilians, who had nothing to do with this. I was afraid for my fellow Palestinians.

I lived in the West Bank for four months in a Palestinian village to document the violence and human rights violations. I knew very well that my comrades in that village, who had already suffered a lot from settler and state violence, would live in a worse situation.

As a boy, I moved with my parents to Tel Aviv. There I started studying in a school and was beginning to get very good results. I still had Zionist views, but I was a little more oriented toward human rights. I began to learn about the concept of occupation and to form my political consciousness. When I was 16, I took my first test for the military, and I really didn’t know it was wrong. I didn’t understand that there was something deeply wrong with my society and I was just thinking about living quietly. I couldn’t see the racism within my society. You see the corruption and violence, you know something, but you don’t have the words to express it. I was studying physics and computer science and wanted to join the intelligence corps to get a good job and then to get out of this country. Eventually I was not accepted into the intelligence corps and went into a special program in the Air Force, where they paid me to do a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and to build weapons. My dream was to build spacecraft, not weapons. At the end of my sophomore year, I had a big crisis, and luckily I met a guy who helped me get out of the loop of homework and math equations. I started reading political articles and a lot of history books, delved into colonialism, which I knew something about, but until then had never been particularly interested in. Suddenly I acquired my own vocabulary for understanding reality, and thanks to that I realized that I was living in a kind of apathy.

I realized that being a soldier means being part of the executive brains of a government that seeks to maintain the status quo instead of giving us an option for peace and reconciliation by resolving conflict. What ultimately made me decide to refuse to join the military was reading Hannah Arendt’s work “The Banality of Evil.” That book was the beginning of the end for me. I realized that I couldn’t be a good person in a system, I couldn’t, it didn’t matter if I was just going my own little way.

What was the reaction of people close to you after you decided not to join the military?

I had a very difficult time. The real crisis came when I got an exemption from the army for mental health reasons and went to Masafer Yatta, an area in the southern West Bank that was facing a period of enormous violence from settlers and the state. There is a long tradition of Arab-Jewish co-resistance, which means not only dialogue, but also resisting the occupation together. I learned Arabic, lived there four months and documented human rights violations with video cameras, which we sometimes had to hand over to the army or the press. I realized that the situation I was in was really dramatic. With my fellow Palestinians we only had cameras in our hands in front of armed soldiers and armed Israeli settlements. When I went to Masafer Yatta my family became very concerned. They thought I was crazy.

How many times have you been arrested?

15 or 16, something like that. When I came back to the West Bank one of my comrades who hosted us in his village insisted on inviting my family so that they would understand what we were doing. My father and mother came, and that was the beginning of their attempt to understand me better. It’s still an ongoing process. After the war my mother is almost completely on my side. I have a beautiful memory of my parents in this Palestinian village, together with a comrade telling us the story of the village and my mother starting to cry.

Where do you find the strength to continue your activities?

The Mesarvot network, which I coordinate, is a community. We support each other, we provide protection and counselling to those who decide to refuse enlistment, and that helps everyone move forward.

Do you have many comrades in Palestine?

Yes, both in the West Bank, in Israel, and in Palestinian cities. Gaza is a black box and it is very difficult to cooperate with the Gazawi also because of the repression of the Hamas government.

Sometimes we tend to imagine Israeli society as a monolithic bloc that supports expansionist policies, but there are many realities struggling for peace. Is it difficult to make your voice heard?

No society is monolithic, not even Israeli society or Palestinian society. For me, as an internationalist, you always have to consider the positive part of every society. What people in Israel see of Gaza is not the same as what the rest of the world sees, there is a huge imbalance. Right now, showing that Israeli society is not monolithic, there is a big movement for the release of hostages. The movement is clearly saying that the government is obstructing the agreement, which as we all know would include a ceasefire. There are also organizations like Combatants for Peace, made up of former Israeli military and former Palestinian fighters, who are now working together with nonviolent initiatives.

People need to understand that there is no such thing as victory. We are facing a political issue, and like any political issue there is no military solution. Since this is a national issue, the only solution is to give self-determination to the Palestinians once the siege ends.

What possible horizons do you see?

As you see much of the world is now calling for recognition of the Palestinian state. Maybe, just maybe, if we exerted even more pressure, we might be able to change something. For example, 3.5 % of Israel’s arms come from Italy. The moment the arms shipment stops, the war will stop. The moment the war stops we can reach a hostage agreement and ceasefire. The moment that happens, the dilemma is who will take sovereignty over the Palestinian territory. I think there is broad support in the world for the Palestinian Authority. We will have to move for the PLO to take sovereignty and rebuild Gaza and have Gaza and the West Bank united again under the same political power.

We must try to reach a diplomatic solution that guarantees security, equality, prosperity and self-determination for all people living in Palestine.

Why do you call what is happening in Gaza genocide?

Many researchers call it that. I talk about genocide to the international community because the situation is desperate and you cannot stand by and watch. Silence is complicity. I would like people on the international left and people in the world in general not to think of the situation in Palestine in terms of supporting one side or the other, because the solution is liberation, not a flag on a mountain of corpses.

I want to urge people to understand the drama of the situation, even using the term genocide, but at the same time I am claiming concrete and achievable goals that would actually improve the lives of people currently living in Palestine. Liberation for me is electricity for my friends, it is freedom of movement, it is living free from these fascist governments. Liberation for me means not having to join the army to have a normal life.

How can we support Mesarvot?

We need to break the silence and share our stories. We can also use social media for this. It is important to stimulate debate and talk everywhere about the situation in Palestine.

It is important to make the voice of Israelis against Zionism heard, to get the full picture of what is really happening and to remember that we are all part of history, and it is up to us to fight for peace.