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Israelis who refused to fight

History teacher Haim Minski, psychologist Andre Dresznin, and actor Sinai Peter are among five dozen men who have become a symbol of how deeply the Lebanon war has divided Israel. They are conscientious objectors.

In this country where almost every man and woman save the extremely religious serves in the regular army, and where most men do more than a month's annual reserve duty until they are 54 years old, the Army is regarded as the symbol of the nation's safety and unity.

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Large-scale conscientious objection was unheard of before this war. Today, urged on by an organization called ''Yesh Gvul'' (There is a Limit) that was formed at the height of the Lebanon war, 59 reservists have gone to prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon and about 1,700 reserve soldiers and officers have signed a request asking not to be sent there.

On the surface such numbers may appear of little significance. But in a small country, where they reflect the feelings of many more who do serve, and of apparently sizable numbers of reservists who managed to persuade their commanders to let them serve elsewhere, they make a big impression.

When Gadi Elgazi, a soldier in regular service, refused to serve in the Israeli-occupied West Bank two years ago and went to jail, ''Most of the youths his age considered him a unique phenomenon, alien to the Israeli environment. . . ,'' wrote journalist Tali Zelinger in the pro-Labor Party newspaper Davar.

''Now, not only are we all acquainted with people who sat in Prison No. 6 (the military prison for conscientious objectors) or with people who almost did . . . (but) we aren't shocked . . . nor do we brand them with the mark of Cain.'' How come?

One reason is the lack of consensus within Israel over the necessity for the Lebanon war as opposed to previous wars in which the nation felt its survival was at stake. ''For me and my friends, Lebanon is the red line,'' said Sinai Peter, a tank crew member in the reserves. ''We want to raise the alarm by our refusal, to show those responsible for this policy that there is no consensus.''

Haim Minski, the first member of Yesh Gvul to be sentenced for refusing to serve, adds, ''We are not pacifists; we took part in many combat actions and shall probably continue to do so in the future. The evil here (in the Lebanon war) just doesn't filter through our moral strainer.''

Objectors come mainly from the reserves, and most are well-educated men in their 20s and 30s who have clearly defined political views. Many have family considerations.

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Some critics of Yesh Gvul have charged that objectors are simply afraid. Psychologist Andre Dresznin does not deny the ''component of fear.'' He says, ''Family men are more aware of the danger. . . . I support the argument of fear for one's life.''

Opponents also note that COs receive very light sentences, usually about one month, about the time they would have spent in the reserves. They are kept together and prison conditions are good.

There are indications that the Army may begin stiffening the penalty. Two Yesh Gvul members recently released from prison were immediately called up again to serve in Lebanon, thus confronting them with the option of going back to jail.

The impact of objectors on the Army has been mitigated by the continued willingness of many men to serve even though they strongly object to the war. The need for a strong army for self-defense is a basic tenet of Israeli society, and open political debate within the ranks is allowed and even encouraged, thus helping to let off steam.

Reservists who have served in the same units for years - and with whom they have often fought several wars by their mid-30s - feel a deep loyalty to their comrades.

One battalion commander who opposed the war but fought anyway recalled heading off potential objectors by telling them, ''I myself would have been willing to refuse. But somebody must do the job. How will you look your friends in the eye?''

So far objectors have caused more of a psychological problem to the Army - by casting a shadow on its image of unity - than a threat to its immediate military performance. But these small cracks in the Army's solidarity, especially coming as they do in many elite reservist units, raise important questions about what kind of wars Israelis will be prepared to support in the future.

''The only way to avoid such phenomena is to avoid such wars as Lebanon,'' said the battalion commander who served despite his opposition.

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