On a warm summer evening in Jerusalem, hundreds of young soldiers gather in the plaza facing the Wailing Wall. They could be teenagers anywhere in the world only they are dressed in olive green and have huge black guns strapped across their shoulders. Posing for photographs it is the girls who stand out the most; there are not many countries where military service is compulsory for women as well as men.
Israel’s women have been part of their armed forces since the mid-90s. In combat units they can be snipers, combat doctors and pilots. They make up more than half of the Karakel Battalion that protects the borders between Israel and Egypt on one side and Jordan on the other.1
But equal rights within the army are not a benchmark for all of Israel’s demographics; around 17 per cent of ultra-Orthodox Jews are in the army or civilian national service work in contrast to 75 per cent of Jewish men overall.2 Until this week they were exempt from military service as the Tal Law, passed in 1949, excused them, a luxury that does not exist for others.3
The law was designed initially to allow a few hundred of the best rabbinical students to reconstruct the Jewish houses of learning that were destroyed during World War II, but all this is set to change. In February, the Supreme Court in Israel ruled that the Tal Law was illegal, giving the government until Wednesday to change the system. Mr Netanyahu’s committee wanted 80 per cent drafted into the armed forces by the year 2016. Those who refused would suffer a $25,000 fine.4
Now the deadline has passed, it looks likely that this change will become a reality. Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has told the army and defence officials to prepare for the new draft. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Tuesday:
“Starting tomorrow, there’s a new law about equal service. The Israeli military will decide whom to draft, how many to draft; and it will draft.”
The news sent waves of dissatisfaction throughout the community. Resistance to accepting a change in the system is high with ultra-Orthodox leader Meir Porush fanning the flames by predicting a “civil war”. Such resistance highlights age-old conflicts within the differing sections of Israeli society. For many of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who are not part of the army, religious study serves the state, not fighting. Devotion to prayers and God go much further towards saving the country, they believe.
Practically speaking, a new draft might be difficult to manoeuvre. Orthodox laws such as the separation of the sexes will have to be balanced against men and women who currently co-exist within the forces.
But if the protests in Israel, which advocate an all-encompassing draft law, are anything to go by, many Israelis do not see this tricky integration as a hurdle. Nor do they accept “alternative” protection of the country, such as the doctrine of prayer and devotion. Much of the anger comes down to the basic principles of equality which insist that everyone must share the burden of protecting their land, regardless of their individual beliefs.
There is yet another piece in the complex tapestry and that is the Israeli Arab community which has become part of the wider debate.
Shaul Mofaz, the former leader of the Kadima Party, has already quit the coalition due to disagreements about how fast the draft should be applied and to whom. Some right-wing and religious factions have threatened to follow suit if Arabs do not become subject to the same compulsory law.
There are currently only around 2,400 Arabs serving in the army, yet figures suggest that if all those who were eligible served, the total would be closer to 30,000. A proposal that was submitted to the Israeli cabinet in July suggested doubling this figure.5 For some, the chance may provide an opportunity to feel part of their homeland; the more that groups within society are kept separate, the less they will ever understand their neighbours.
This year, as Israel celebrated its 64th independence day, Arabs were celebrating the Nakba, the catastrophe. How easy would it be to suddenly serve the state, in a military force that you regard as your oppressor?
Despite being granted citizenship in 1952 and currently representing 20 per cent of the population, many Arab-Israelis are far from being integrated or equal within the country. The average income of Arabs is less than two-thirds that of Jewish citizens and the poverty rate is around three times as high. They make up a handful of members of Parliament and just one of the 15 Supreme Court Justices.6
In July this year Israel ordered eight villages in the South Hebron Hills to be demolished to make space for a military zone.7 Haunting images from the recent video depicting settlers shooting a Palestinian whilst the army stands by, failing to intervene, are still fresh in people’s minds.
According to a report in the army magazine Bamahane in 2010, one out of eight ground force company commanders hail from West Bank settlements. How do the authorities propose to integrate Arab Israelis with people who push Palestinian families out of their homes to make space for their settlements? As Ahmad Khalifa from the Arab Institute for Human Rights said:
“The Israeli military wants to make us serve, not because they need us, but because they want to control the Arab state of mind and divide us.”8
Sadly, a spell in the army paves the way for employment within Israel and signing-up can open doors to education, career opportunities and social benefits. But does this not call for a reform of the system by which employees are recruited; one that does not require a pre-requisite of three years military service to secure a good position?
Sixty-four years ago many Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews did not even want the state of Israel to exist. Ironically, all these years later they are now part of a debate that seeks to make them an integral part of protecting its future.
Beyond which communities should and should not be exempt from military service, those soldiers being sworn in are as young as eighteen. Why is anybody of this age, in any part of the world, told that they must carry weapons and be in volatile situations? Freedom to choose a career in the armed forces is one thing, having no choice in the matter at all is quite another.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.