Military service in Israel is commonly seen as a rite of passage. At the age of 18, young men and women are conscripted into the army, the men for 3 years and the women for 2 years. If you take any form of public transport around Israel, the sight of a 20 year old laden with a backpack and a gun is common. Unlike other countries, where the sight of an armed soldier boarding your bus or train would give you a moment’s cause for concern, in Israel no one raises an eyebrow.
As well as being a rite of passage, military service is seen to have benefits beyond learning the skills of combat. While employers cannot officially discriminate based on whether a prospective candidate has done military service or not, human rights groups in Israel claim that this regularly occurs. Many employers unofficially give preferential treatment to those who have done military service, leading to discrimination as it is immediately obvious from a candidate’s CV if they have served or not. In addition, interviewers are allowed to question candidates about their military service record in interviews. In 2009, over 130 Palestinian citizens of Israel (who are exempt from military service) almost lost their jobs when the Israel Railway Company announced they could only employ railway guards who had performed military service. After two employees sued on grounds of discrimination, the company changed their policy.
In addition, the government has proposed giving more money to schools that show a higher number of former students enlisting in elite units while some universities have been accused of favouring those who have done military service in regards to scholarships or campus accommodation. There are even housing and educational grants for former soldiers who suffer from poverty after they leave the army.
However, many sections of Israeli society are exempt from compulsory military service, meaning they will not receive these advantages and benefits. Palestinian citizens of Israel (apart from members of the Druze community , an Arab religious minority in Israel and who have served since their religious leaders made an agreement to serve in the 1950s), members of the Ultra-Orthodox community and women who live a devoutly religious life, are married or are pregnant are all exempt from military service. Ultra-Orthodox men receive exemptions if they choose to study in a yeshiva, a religious seminary, straight after high school, although the Israeli government has recently ruled that Ultra-Orthodox men should no longer be entitled to exemptions . Although one can apply to be recognised as a pacifist and receive an exemption, these are rarely granted.
Yet when one looks at the figures, it seems that the common narrative of young Israelis being proud to serve their country by performing military service is not quite true. According to the Israeli Defence Forces, in 2007 27% of males and 35% of women eligible for military service avoided conscription, with the women mostly claiming an exemption on religious grounds, while 11% of the males were members of the Ultra-Orthodox community. In 2014 fifty youths signed an open letter to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu stating their refusal to carry out military service. In this letter, they stated they were refusing to serve on the grounds that they did not support the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. On 29th September 2014, two young Druze men were sentenced to prison for refusing to perform military service , while others have resorted to deliberately failing the mental assessment tests required for the army . Failing these tests leads to the candidate being classified as ‘Profile 21’ and being deemed unfit for military service. One can also be classified as ‘Profile 24’, which signifies the candidate is temporarily unfit and will be retested in a year.
When one researches this topic in greater detail, it becomes clear that military service is a cause of conflict for many citizens of Israel. Ultra-Orthodox men and religious/married/pregnant women choose not to serve from religious or social beliefs. However, a Druze citizen of Israel who identifies both as Israeli and as Palestinian is forced to question his or her identity when faced with military service. A survey by the University of Haifa found that more than 66% of Druze Israelis would not serve in the military if it wasn’t compulsory, while another survey by MADA revealed that 71% of young Palestinian citizens of Israel opposed military service as they believe it legitimises inequality and discrimination. These current negative associations are not helped by the Israeli government’s attempts to introduce compulsory military service for Palestinian Christians in Israel . With tensions already rising between the Palestinian Muslim and Christian communities in Israel, forcing Christians to serve in the military could have a serious effect on intercommunal relations as well as cause mistrust between Palestinians in Israel and their compatriots in the Occupied Territories. It is estimated that roughly 3000 Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens of Israel have performed military service but it is thought most of them did this so as to receive financial benefits or to enhance their integration into Israeli society. Additionally, the exemptions received by Ultra-Orthodox Jews cause tensions amongst Jewish society in Israel, as many think it is unfair that such a large section of society should automatically be exempt, particularly as they receive exemptions on the grounds of religious studies and will receive financial support from the State during this time. In addition, many Ultra-Orthodox live on settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and therefore require the protection of the Israeli Defence Forces, leading to accusations that they do not contribute to Israeli society.
Even if a Palestinian citizen of Israel manages to reconcile both his identities to feel comfortable with the concept of serving, the realities of life on the frontline can have a long-lasting effect. One only has to read the testimonies of members of Breaking The Silence to realise that Israeli youths can be faced with very difficult decisions at a very young age, decisions which may come back to haunt them in later years. Additionally, the recent conflict in Gaza has had tragedies beyond those killed in combat, with 3 soldiers who fought in Gaza this summer committing suicide in recent weeks, forcing the army to offer counselling to those who participated in Operation Protective Edge.
Thus the question must be asked: is compulsory military service actually benefiting Israeli society? On the face of it, it seems to be a source of tension, which will only escalate as more young people refuse to serve and if the government continues their efforts to recruit Christian Palestinians. However, for as long as Israel considers herself in danger from her neighbours (particularly those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories), there is little or no chance of compulsory military service ending. While one could suggest that youths be asked to undertake civil service instead, the overall climate of fear and suspicion towards Israel’s Arab neighbours means that Israel will only feel safe as long as they have a continuous supply of well-trained young people. Therefore it seems that a solid peace process with Israel’s neighbours and a subsequent reduction in the need for militarily-trained young people is the best solution to this problem.
For more information on Breaking The Silence, please visit their website: www.breakingthesilence.org.il
A. Ní Shéamus is a MA International Relations graduate who specialised in the Middle East and has worked in the West Bank. She is currently working in Israel for a human rights NGO.
Written by A.N..S. and published on 14-October-2014