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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 November, 2003, 11:23 GMT
Israeli army confronts Aids taboo

By Barbara Plett
BBC Middle East correspondent

1988 was a catastrophic year for Avinoff Frumer.

He was 19. He had been in the Israeli army for nine months when he found out he was HIV-positive.

Israeli soldiers
Army service is key to social acceptance in Israel
Confused and terrified, he sought help from the army psychologist.

"After three days I was expelled without any psychological or financial help," he remembers. "I was feeling like I was not good for anything."

That kind of rough landing is something today's soldiers will probably not have to face.

After years of campaigning by Aids activists, the Israeli army recently decided to allow people living with HIV to apply for service.

The decision has particular significance here because in many ways the army is the essence of Israeliness, at least for Israel's Jewish citizens.

It is the melting pot for the new immigrant and Israeli-born alike - and the way to make key connections for the future.

Social exclusion

Mr Avinoff remembers his expulsion as if it was an excommunication.

"As a country in a struggle, army duty is very important," he says. "To do the army is like a personal duty for us, and if you don't go through the whole process of the army, it's like you were cut out of the society in Israel."

So Aids activists felt it was crucial for the army to accept people with HIV, especially since most of the young people carrying the virus had not contracted Aids.

"You're talking about someone who's just in the beginning of finding out he's HIV-positive," said Rami Hassman, the former chairman of the Israel Aids Task Force.

"He's terrified about what people are going to say and he's basically quite healthy. So we wanted to help such people deal with the issue, and one thing is not to make a major change in their life, and have the army support them."

Another activist, Vered Ben Kharut, admits it was not only protest that worked.

One soldier was forced to take his case to court

"I think this soldier opened the door for all the others because the army understood that it's all right to keep him in this system," she says.

"He is healthy, he's a responsible guy, so no problem, nobody can be damaged from this agreement."

Changing attitudes

According to estimates, the HIV-positive recruits number more in the dozens than the hundreds.

The army says it will accept them on a case by case basis, in non-combat units.

It is not eager for publicity - a spokesman confirmed the decision, but refused an interview.

So a small victory, but one that Mr Hassman hopes will have a wider influence.

"The army has a major impact on the way Israeli society accepts other groups," he says, "and if it's going to accept HIV-positive people, then maybe over a period of time society will tend to change its attitude, and be willing to accept HIV-positive children at schools, HIV-positive people in the workplace and everywhere."

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