Israeli Defence Forces in crisis

The Israeli army used to be venerated -a symbol and a source of national unity. Against the background of his personal transformation from would-be war hero to resister, Adam Keller traces its decline.

On 8 October, the Supreme Commander of the Israeli Defence Forces (II)F), Amnon Shahak used a ceremonial occasion to make a far from ceremonial speech He complained of the army's deteriorating prestige and a growing alienation between it and civil society: "'How far have we come from the days when an IDF uniform was a source of pride. Nowadays, the ideal Israeli is seen as a stockbroker who spends his holidays skiing in Switzerland. Officers who devote their lives to service are made to feel like suckers."

General Shahak's speech is the most conspicuous sign of the deep crisis through which the Israeli army - and Israeli society in general - is passing.

The Israeli society in which I grew up, in the 1960s and early 1970s, took veneration of the army for granted. Everybody did it, three years conscript service for boys and two for girls. Men continued to do at least a month of reserve service (often much more) each year until the age of 55. His reserve unit was one of his main social milieus, as important as his workplace. Conscientious objectors were a tiny handful. Not only the authorities, but society in general was intolerant of "shirkers" who were often the most lonely of outcasts. It was virtually impossible to gain a job with the government or most major companies without performing regular and reserve military service. This is understandable considering that the start of Israel was created in war, and maintained itself during these decades in total war against its Arab environment, and that Israelis felt the army to be the only guarantee of their physical survival. Perceived as a people's army with an educational as well as a military function, it was the great melting pot where Israelis of disparate and far-flung Jewish communities would coalesce into a single new Hebrew People. There was no distinct "officer class", and (at least in theory) officers would start their careers as privates and he promoted by merit alone.

All this, of course, excluded the Arab Israelis, who were not trusted with weapons and hence not conscripted: their exclusion was used to justify blatant discrimination in civilian life:. "They don't do the same duties as we do, so they don't deserve the same rights" is still the most common argument heard against Arab equality In a less explicit way, this also legitimised women's inferior status. Since their jobs in the army are strictly auxiliary, their share in civilian life should be less. Moreover, on discharge, many army generals and colonels become politicians or business executives, a route of social mobility blocked for women who can't reach such military ranks. To enter upon their civilian jobs alter 20 years' experience in a body where women's discrimination is official and institutionalised inevitably affects the attitudes of such male executives.

Veneration of the army reached a peak alter the smashing victory of 1967. Thousands, of Israelis had "long live the army" bumper stickers. However doubts began to appear, as Israel emerged as the dominant military power in the region, and existential fears were less and less grounded in reality (though to this day they remain deeply ingrained). Also, the IDF had become an army of occupation over the Palestinian civilian population, which increasingly affected both the army S nature and social attitudes to military service.

During the War of Attrition on the Suez Canal (1968-70), satirical reviews in Tel-Aviv for the first time started to question the sacrosanct nature of military service and of "sacrificing your Ii ~ your country". They met with violent attacks from nationalists, yet something of their spirit persisted. Also in that time, a military singing troupe charged with raising soldiers' morale started singing "the peace song", which was soon banned inside the army but became the unofficial anthem of the peace movement.

Discontent increased in the wake of the military fiasco of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Though it was not always clearly focused politically, more and more Israelis started to feel that the absence of peace was not entirely due to "Arab bloodlust and blind hostility", but that the Israeli establishment had some responsibility. In the late 1970s, the first selective refusers appeared, going to prison instead of to the Occupied Territories. At first they were unorganised individuals, isolated even within the peace movement. Then came the first organised group, the 27 high school kids in Tel-Aviv who declared their refusal in an open letter to the prime minister. Upon conscription, some of them were broken by repeated imprisonments and harassment; others were disposed of by being given a psychiatric discharge; one - Sadi Elgazi - won respect and lasting fame by his principled stand at the court-martial.

At that time I was not myself a refuser. Like most others in the peace movement of 197Os, I accepted the idea that - since war is an existential issue for Israel - peace activists should strive to prevent war from breaking out, but should war come nevertheless, we must participate and show ourselves the best of soldiers - and afterwards comes the next war.

I was disappointed on my conscription in 1974 that my bad eyesight excluded me from combat duty. Like many of my generation, I had dreamed of being a paratrooper, wearing the fabulous red beret which was so attractive to the girls.

For me, as for many, the watershed was the Lebanon war. The open and unashamed aggression, the barbarity of the bombing of Beirut, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the prolonged futile bloodletting in years of guerrilla war. Lebanon was Israel's Vietnam, and nothing would be the same after June 1982. With 2,000 reserve soldiers joining Yesh Gvul and declaring refusal to serve in Lebanon, and 200 actually serving prison terms, refusal became a distinct - albeit radical - part of Israeli political and social life. And for each one of these 2,000 conscious refusers, there were dozens or hundreds who went to Lebanon under protest, feeling angry and bitter, or who found discreet ways to avoid that duty.

Since the Lebanon war (which never really ended - Israel still occupies a strip of South Lebanon and IDF soldiers still fight a useless, hopeless war against Muslim guerrillas), the army's position in Israeli society steadily deteriorated, under the impact of two forces - political controversy and disaffection, and the growing prosperity of Israeli society, with US-style "consumerism" replacing the Spartan ideals of the Zionist pioneers. These two forces, with their respective results - a conscious, declared, politically and morally articulated total or selective refusal of military service, and a far more widespread, diffuse, non-articulate social acceptance of "shirking" - have been on the rise in the past decade, reinforcing and adding legitimacy to each other.

The intifada years (1987-93) brought a second upsurge of selective refusal, this time focused on the Palestinian territories. Again, as in Lebanon, with 2,000 declaring refusal and 200 actually imprisoned. Some such as myself came to the point of total refusal. For me, the breaking point was the pardon granted in 1990 to four soldiers who had beaten a Palestinian to death. I just could no longer wear the same uniform, in what-ever capacity.

The massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had a distinct effect on military refusal. The immigrants came from a society completely alienated from its army, and brought this attitude to Israel. Also, many of them - although of Jewish origin which gives them the right to Israeli citizenship - are actually Christians, and some belong to pacifist-oriented churches. The number of total refusers - while still quite small in absolute numbers - has increased, and many are immigrants from Russia.

After Oslo, there was a considerable drop in the number of politically-motivated refusals, with the expectation that the occupation would soon end anyway. At the other end of the political spectrum, some extreme nationalists refused military service to express opposition to the Labour Government's "treasonable" policies. But the less politically coherent move of Israeli society away from the army continued unabated. Newspapers no longer exercise self-censorship on such issues as corruption inside the army, training accidents, fatal friendly fire", mistreatment of soldiers by officers or fellow-soldiers; military censorship is less effective, and papers find ways to circumvent it; soldiers' parents take a more and more active role, almost as a soldiers' trade union, keeping constant contact with their sons (many conscripts nowadays carry mobile telephones). Soldiers' mutinies over bad service conditions are frequently reported in the press, and an increasing number of conscripts and reservists find ways of avoiding military service - for example, by accepting a psychiatric discharge. Such avoidance is now widely accepted by families, social acquaintances and employees (employers nowadays actually prefer workers who do not have to be absent on military reserve duty one month of each year). Those who still perform full military duty are not respected as much as regarded as "suckers".

Netanyahu's election victory in May 1996 brought the military crisis into the open, and greatly exacerbated it. The stopping of the peace process and the new confrontation with the Palestinians and Arab world caused a major wave of politically-motivated refusal and disaffection.

Meanwhile the new government regards the army high command with suspicion, seeing the generals as supporters of the previous Labour government (with some justification). This creates a mood of alien- anon, spreading down in the military hierarchy. Also the new government's neo-liberal economic policies include plans for a cut in both the senior officers' salaries and in the benefits to discharged conscripts, further aggravating the sense of alienation at both ends of the military hierarchy.

In the short term, this has an important political implication an effective limitation of Netanyahu's military options Should he try to get out of his political impasse by provoking war with the Palestinians and/or Syria, Netanyahu is likely to encounter a considerable anti-war movement, with many ramifications inside the army. Hopefully his knowledge that this is so might, in itself, help to avert the coming war.

In the longer term, Israel seems headed towards abolition of conscription and a move to a volunteer army - in line with the trend in man' western countries. this prospect has a disturbing aspect. In such a volunteer army, the religious nationalists - the one section of Israeli society where motivation for military service is still high - would preponderate. Already, they are disproportionately represented among IDF lieutenants and captains; within a decade or two, these will be the new colonels and generals. Thus, in the Israel of 2010, a right-wing military coup might he a real possibility.

Some people on the Israeli left feel this danger to be a reason to oppose refusal and actually encourage young left-wingers to take up a military career. I don't share this.view, nor do I feel it is in any practicable. I do feel that this prognosis is one more good reason why we must do all we can to bring the peace process to a quick completion within the coming decade - and establish a peaceful society in. which the army would be reduced to manageable proportions.

Adam Keller, the editor of The Other Israel, has served three prison sentences: in 1984 when he refused to serve in the Lebanon: in 1988 when he accepted kitchen duties but one night spray-painted anti-occupation slogans on 150 military vehicles - somehow the military authorities knew it was him and imprisoned him for three months; and in 1990 when he refused all military service, and after serving 28 days in prison was declared 'psychiatrically unsuited' to do further military service.

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