JERUSALEM – It began with a modest act of defiance: In newspaper ads, 52 Israeli reserve soldiers declared last month they would no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Their number has since more than quadrupled, and has sparked a passionate debate in Israel about the limits of legitimate protest.
For many Israelis, the soldiers' accounts of acts of random brutality toward Palestinian civilians have also added a new urgency to resolving Israel's most burning problem — what to do with the territories conquered in 1967.
The protest has reinvigorated an Israeli peace camp cast adrift by the collapse of peace talks and almost 17 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. It is now regrouping under the slogan "Get out of the territories," with many advocating a unilateral Israeli withdrawal rather than waiting for a peace deal that may never materialize.
On Saturday night, thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to call for a pullout in what appeared to be the largest peace rally since fighting began in September 2000. "Get out of the territories!" they chanted.
Conscientious objection has been rare in Israel as long as the consensus held that the country was fighting for its survival. But Israel runs a citizens' army, leaning heavily on reservists who can spend up to a month a year in uniform, and it cannot be isolated from the national mood as a whole. So every time the consensus has wavered, small groups of soldiers have refused to serve — most notably after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The army has usually opted for a low-key response, jailing offenders for a few days or weeks, then transferring them out of the line of fire.
The latest objectors, who include a deputy brigade commander, refuse to talk to the foreign media, saying they don't want to air Israel's dirty linen abroad.
But Israeli newspapers and TV broadcasts have become virtual confessionals for soldiers haunted by their experiences in the Palestinian areas.
The Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir recently published statements by 40 reservists recalling events that led them to join the protest, including what they described as unwarranted killings of unarmed Palestinian teen-agers and the routine humiliation of Palestinians at the Israeli checkpoints throughout the territories.
Artillery Lt. Ishai Sagi said he was alarmed by the order given to his entire battalion last December: "Shoot anyone who picks up a stone." The army says soldiers are told to fire only when their lives are threatened.
Some reservists cite two watershed events last month: the army's destruction of dozens of houses in a Gaza Strip refugee camp that left many Palestinians homeless, and the killing of a West Bank militia leader at a time when a truce ordered by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appeared to be taking hold.
Confronted for the first time with an armed uprising and a wave of suicide bombings, Israel's military response has been the harshest in 35 years of occupation. But some of the reservists cite experiences from long before the current round of violence broke out.
David Zonshein, a paratroop lieutenant, wrote that in May 1996, his unit accompanied Shin Bet security service interrogators on a nighttime search for a suspected arms cache in a West Bank house.
"For two hours, the two interrogators tormented a 14-year-old boy with severe blows all over his body, with threats and abuse," Zonshein wrote. No arms were found, he said.
The military has not answered each specific charge, but the armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, says few armies facing a foe blended into a civilian population follow an ethics code as strict as Israel's.
As of Sunday the fighting has claimed 936 lives on the Palestinian side. However, bombers and gunmen have killed more than 269 people on the Israeli side, and the conscientious objectors have met strong opposition, not just from army brass, but from dovish politicians.
Many Israelis view them as a danger to Israel's deterrent ability and say a unilateral pullout would make it look weak.
About 200 other reserve officers published a letter criticizing the "dangerous and undemocratic initiative of refusing to serve."
Nahum Barnea, a leading liberal columnist, agreed. Writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily, he warned that "such actions poison the army internally ... and abandon it to those with a light trigger finger."
Mofaz has accused the dissenters of inciting other soldiers to rebellion and has threatened disciplinary action.
Others, including former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, say the soldiers should continue to serve but refuse orders they deem illegal. They note that the Israeli army was not built on blind obedience and that soldiers have not only the right but the obligation to question a possibly unlawful order.
However, in their declaration, published Jan. 25, the reservists said they were not just resisting individual orders, but occupation itself.
"We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people," they said.
The main points of friction between soldiers and civilians are the roadblocks crisscrossing the West Bank to enforce travel bans through the patchwork of autonomous zones.
Human rights organizations have logged countless stories of beatings and other abuses at the barriers, many of which are manned by reservists.
Israel Channel 1 TV quoted an internal military document as saying the roadblocks have little security value. They can usually be evaded via back roads.
Ruchama Marton, an Israeli psychiatrist with Tel Aviv-based Physicians for Human Rights, said violations of the army's rules of conduct are seldom reported because soldiers troubled by bad behavior generally try to transfer out, or succumb to peer pressure and join in the abuse.
She said she believes Israeli society is being poisoned by the occupation. She noted that many of the incidents cited by the protesting reservists happened years ago but only now are coming to a head.
One reason, she said, is the escalation of the conflict into airstrikes, tanks in cities and blockades of Palestinian towns on an unprecedented scale. Another is a sense that a peace agreement which would allow an orderly withdrawal from the territories is nowhere in sight.
The Palestinians a year ago rejected the previous government's proposals for a Palestinian state in almost all the West Bank and Gaza, with a foothold in Jerusalem. They held out for more land and the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to move back to Israel — a nightmare to most Israelis.