Israel can never hope to match its potential enemies in terms of manpower. It is not a member of any military alliance; on the other hand, it has not asked and will not ask for foreign troops to come to its rescue. Conscription has become deeply ingrained over the years. Not to have served in the IDF has in the past been regarded as a disgrace; moreover it has been a real impediment to future civilian careers.
Military service in Israel was mandatory, beginning at age eighteen, for male and female citizens and resident aliens. Conscription extends at present to all able-bodied persons, as they reach the age of 18 - three years for males and two for females. The length of compulsory military service has varied according to IDF personnel needs. In 1988 male conscripts served three years and females twenty months.
New immigrants, if younger than eighteen years of age upon arrival, were subject to the same terms of conscription when they reached eighteen. Male immigrants aged nineteen to twenty-three served for progressively reduced periods, and those twenty-four or older were conscripted for only 120 days. Female immigrants over the age of nineteen were exempted from compulsory service. Immigrants who had served in the armed forces of their countries of origin had the length of their compulsory service in Israel reduced. New immigrants are not inducted during their first year in the country, unless they waive the deferment - which many of them do. Military service of newcomers, side by side with old-timers, has proved to be a powerful instrument for successful integration.
The minorities - Muslim, Christian, Druze and Circassian - have this in common: their language is Arabic and they have family and other ties on the other side of the borders. Since Israel's potential enemies are to be found on the other side of the borders; since war against the Arabs would create an insurmountable conflict of loyalty among the recruits; since, conversely, there would always remain a lingering suspicion towards them as to their trustworthiness - it was found mutually convenient to exclude these citizens of the country from the draft. A suitable legal formula was devised to legitimize the arrangement.
The minorities are exempted from conscription, except the Druze. The Druze leaders decided, early on, to throw in the lot of their community with the nascent Jewish state and, as a token of loyalty, voluntarily waived the exemption to which they were entitled. Some Bedouin tribes have a tradition of voluntary service, primarily as trackers, an art in which they have excelled for generations.
Exemptions for Jewish males were rare, and about 90 percent of the approximately 30,000 men who reached age eighteen each year were drafted. Several hundred ultra-Orthodox students studying at religious schools, yeshivot (sing., yeshiva) followed a special four-year program combining studies and military duty. The Ministry of Defense estimated, however, that in 1988 about 20,000 of the most rigidly Orthodox yeshiva students, who felt little allegiance to Zionism and the Israeli state, were escaping the draft through an endless series of deferments. From a strictly military point of view, their value to the IDF would be limited because of restrictions on the jobs they would be able or willing to perform. Although the military served kosher food and adhered to laws of the Jewish sabbath and holidays, secular soldiers were lax in their observance.
An academic reserve enabled students to earn a bachelor's degree before service, usually in a specialized capacity, following basic training; such students reported for reserve duty during summer vacations. Conscientious objectors were not excused from service, although an effort was made to find a noncombatant role for them. The minimum physical and educational standards for induction were very low to insure that a maximum number of Jewish males performed some form of service in the IDF. Conscripts were screened on the basis of careful medical and psychological tests. Those with better education and physical condition were more likely to be assigned to combat units. Sons and brothers of soldiers who had died in service were not accepted for service in combat units unless a parental waiver was obtained.
Several elite units were composed exclusively of volunteers. They included air force pilots, paratroops, the submarine service, naval commandos, and certain army reconnaissance units. Because of the large number of candidates, these units were able to impose their own demanding selection procedures. The air force enjoyed first priority, enabling it to select for its pilot candidates the prime volunteers of each conscript class. Conscripts also could express preferences for service in one of the regular combat units. The Golani Infantry Brigade, which had acquired an image as a gallant frontline force in the 1973 and 1982 conflicts, and the armored corps were among the preferred regular units.
Standards for admission to the IDF were considerably higher for women, and exemptions were given much more freely. Only about 50 percent of the approximately 30,000 females eligible annually were inducted. Nearly 20 percent of eligible women were exempted for "religious reasons"; nearly 10 percent because they were married; and most of the remaining 20 percent were rejected as not meeting minimum educational standards (eighth grade during the 1980s). A law passed in 1978 made exemptions for women on religious grounds automatic upon the signing of a simple declaration attesting to the observance of orthodox religious practices.
This legislation raised considerable controversy, and IDF officials feared that the exemption could be abused by any nonreligious woman who did not wish to serve and thus further exacerbate the already strained personnel resources of the IDF. Women exempted on religious grounds were legally obliged to fulfill a period of alternative service doing social or educational work assigned to them. In practice, however, women performed such service only on a voluntary basis. Female conscripts served in the Women's Army Corps, commonly known by its Hebrew acronym, Chen. After a five-week period of basic training, women served as clerks, drivers, welfare workers, nurses, radio operators, flight controllers, ordnance personnel, and course instructors. Women had not engaged in direct combat since the War of Independence.
Israel's reserve system is based on the assumption that every citizen is a "soldier on eleven months vacation", as one Chief of Staff put it. Israel has hardly any strategic depth; it may - as the Yom Kippur War attested - be subject to a surprise attack. Speed of mobilization is, therefore, an absolute priority: 48 hours, including distribution of equipment and dispatch of the unit to its allocated sector of the front, is considered the outer limit; 24 hours is the norm, but there are units - particularly in the Air Force - where this has been reduced to 12 hours.
The Defense Service Law required that each male conscript, upon completion of his active-duty service, had an obligation to perform reserve duty (miluim) and continue to train on a regular basis until age fifty-four. Very few women were required to do reserve duty but were subject to call-up until the age of thirty-four if they had no children. The duration of annual reserve duty depended on security and budgetary factors, as well as specialty and rank. After 1967 reserve duty generally lengthened as the IDF experienced a growing manpower need. The average length of reserve duty was temporarily increased from thirty to sixty days in early 1988 to help deal with the Palestinian uprising. After about age thirty-nine, reservists no longer served in combat units.
This comprehensive reserve system, the most demanding of any in the world, was vital to Israel's defense posture. It allowed the country to limit the full-time manpower within the IDF, thus freeing vitally needed people for civilian tasks during most of the year. Because of the reserve system, the IDF could triple in size within forty-eight to seventy-two hours of the announcement of a full mobilization. The system was burdensome for most Israeli citizens but provided a source of escape from everyday routine for some. Most Israelis regarded reserve duty as a positive social phenomenon, making an important contribution to democracy by reducing class distinctions.
Nevertheless, it was undeniably a source of discontent to many, especially those assigned to dangerous and disagreeable patrol and policing duties in southern Lebanon and in the occupied territories. Reserve duty causes a great deal of hardship, particularly at the stage when young people set out to establish themselves. There are interruptions of production schedules, of university studies, of the normal flow of economic activity. In order to minimize the impact, a series of mixed civilian-military committees was set up to consider requests for deferment: certain industries or services have been declared essential and their personnel are exempted from reserve duty; for students there are deferred examinations and no student will miss a year on account of reserve service.
Remuneration of reservists is arranged through the Institute of National Insurance. Workers continue to draw regular pay and the employer is compensated by the Institute. Self-employed persons are compensated up to a specified ceiling.
In the past, evasion of reserve duty had been regarded as a violation of the individual's duty to the nation, verging on treasonous behavior. In September 1988, however, the media revealed the existence of a bribery ring of doctors and senior IDF personnel officers that sold medical exemptions for sums ranging from US$300 to US$500. The lengthy military obligation was also believed to be a major cause of emigration, although the number who had left Israel for this reason could not be accurately estimated. The IDF required Israeli citizens of military age to obtain the permission of their reserve unit before traveling abroad.
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