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Crossing Continents Thursday, 11 November, 1999, 12:49 GMT
Dodging Israel's draft
Anti-draft campaigners are becoming increasingly vocal
By Hugh Levinson

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Chad, Roi, Ravital, Ofir and Haggai chat and laugh at a table outside a noisy pavement cafe in Tel Aviv. They are typical young Israelis - friendly, casual and direct. And they all have something else in common: they have all escaped Israel's compulsory military service.

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"I'm going to tell everyone I don't do the army. I'm not ashamed," says Ophir. "I feel so good that I decide what I decide. I'm not sorry for even one second."

Ophir and his friends managed to evade the draft - which lasts for three years for men and two for women - by deliberately failing their medical tests. Chad convinced the doctors he was a homicidal maniac. Roi collapsed in apparent hysteric fits, induced by smearing tabasco sauce on his fingers and then rubbing his eyes.

All five were classed as "Profile 21" - army code for psychologically unfit for recruitment. They are part of a new generation that views army service as a source of shame rather than patriotic pride.

"We don't want to go. If we have to say we're crazy to get out, we'll say we're crazy," says Chad. "But we all know the truth."

Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist for the Israel Defence Forces, sees several reasons that these ideas are now being expressed openly.

Support for the IDF is no longer taken for granted
Israel is changing from a collectivist country united in the Zionist project to a more individualistic and materialistic society. It is no longer at threat of destruction from its neighbours. And military actions have become politically controversial, especially since the invasion of Lebanon and the reaction to the Palestinian intifada.

Campaigners against conscription - which applies to all except Israeli Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jewish students - say they also oppose the way military values permeate society. Ruth Hiller, a member of the anti-draft group New Profile, calls it brainwashing. "Children are indoctrinated throughout their whole lives and they're not given a chance to choose."

New Profile believes up to a quarter of draftable young Israelis are avoiding conscription either by taking Profile 21 or by explicit conscientious objection, with many more dropping out during their years on army reserve.

Army training stresses group discipline
The IDF disputes the figure, saying only 1% of young Israelis fail to serve. "We have to denounce and deplore this phenomenon," says Efraim Sneh, deputy defence minister and a former general. "This is one of the ugliest phenomena in our society." He wants the government to explore ways of giving extra benefits to those who fulfil their military service, while denying them to people who don't.

Yoav, Ma'or and Hadar are all keen to join up
His abhorrence of draft evaders is echoed by Hadar La'or, an 18-year-old school leaver who will soon join the IDF as an artillery instructor. She's spent six months on a tough private training course to ensure that she can enter the IDF's elite stream. "I think it's a shame that some people are endangering their lives to protect this country but others are just avoiding it because they don't want the duty of it," she says.

She believes those who don't serve miss a crucial bonding experience which is central to becoming a true Israeli. "Every soldier calls another one brother or sister," she observes.

However, the nature of the IDF itself is changing. Dr. Gal points out that as Israel slowly makes peace with its neighbours, the need for manpower has reduced. Meanwhile, the ranks of 18-year-olds have increased, thanks both to a rising birthrate and recent immigration, especially from the former Soviet Union.

Young conscripts may be phased out and replaced by professionals
In the long run, he believes Israel will eventually move away from universal conscription and towards a professional army. "In a way the young people in Israel are ahead of their time," he says. "Some of them feel already what our political leaders do not feel yet - that military service is not something that should be taken for granted for everyone."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: a visit to an "unrecognised" Arab village which receives no public services, and an investigation into whether Israelis are really becoming more polite.

Ruth Hiller, New Profile, Israel, Oct 99
explains why she campaigns against the draft...
Laor and others, Israel, October 1999
say they'll be proud to serve in the army
See also:

27 Apr 98 | ISRAEL TODAY
13 May 99 | Israel elections
03 Sep 99 | Israel elections
11 Oct 99 | Middle East
24 Oct 99 | Middle East
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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