The office of Lt.-Col. Amichai Segal at battalion headquarters in the middle of the northern West Bank, is surrounded by rocky, hilly agricultural country. Palestinian villages and towns and Israeli settlements sprawl out around the military base.
Segal projects a quiet confidence as he discusses his battalion, which may very well hold the key to the biggest domestic issue dividing Israeli society: the call to draft haredi citizens to the Israel Defense Forces.
“I don't like the name ‘haredi battalion,’” says Segal, age 39, who himself heralds from the national-religious camp. “This is a battalion for those who believe in the Torah.”
Born and raised in Tel Aviv to a national-religious family, Segal enlisted as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade and rose through the ranks, becoming company commander, then taking a study break and returning to the army as deputy battalion commander in the Kfir infantry brigade.
He also knows first hand about religious differences; His siblings became secular while he has kept his faith.
When Segal first put his name forward to compete for the post of battalion commander, he had hoped to receive a “regular” battalion, he admitted, and had no interest in leading Battalion 97.
Now, though, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This project is more important than integrating secular and religious people. Its a national project of the first order, and I was able to influence it as battalion commander,” Segal says, speaking a week before he is due to complete his term as commander.
One of six battalions in the Kfir Brigade, the seed for Battalion 97 was planted in 1999, when a charity began operating in the haredi community, in conjunction with the Defense Ministry and the IDF’s Personnel Branch, to draft haredi soldiers.
The result was the creation of the battalion, which today is made up of haredi soldiers, who serve for 16 months; national religious draftees, who are in the battalion for two years; and foreign volunteers, who spend 14 months in active service.
The religious soldiers are able to serve here because of the unique conditions offered to them. There are no women on base, eliminating modesty issues that arise in nearly all other IDF bases.
“During the day, there are several prayer and Torah study sessions,” Segal says. “This is the uniqueness of the battalion. It safeguards this way of life in the IDF.”
The same model can be used to draft haredi soldiers to other sectors in the IDF, like logistics and the air force, Segal argues.
The battalion is growing in legitimacy within the haredi community. “It used to be the target of criticisms,” Segal recalls.
“It was said that one could not keep up a religious lifestyle here, that there was inappropriate exposure to women. Now the criticism has vanished.
That’s because we keep the rules of observance here as IDF orders. It’s observed more closely here than by some haredi civilians.”
“A religious scholar won’t see women in a yeshiva, but he will see them on his way home. Similarly, on base, a soldier won’t see women here but he will see them after leaving the base,” Segal explains.
The battalion is also an outlet for the haredi men who are not cut out to spend their entire lives studying in a yeshiva.
“It’s not natural for everyone to do this,” says Segal. “Those who fall between the cracks face a sense of failure. In the battalion, they begin to rebuild their confidence. We do not give up on them. The commanders believe in their soldiers. As a result, parents have thanked us for giving their sons a sense of purpose.”
Instilling yeshiva “drop-outs” with a new sense of self-worth is a gradual process that involves discipline, professional training and, finally, the carrying out of active duty missions. With time, the soldiers’ identification with the state grows too, Segal says.
“The model has room for improvement, but at its core it’s very good.”
Irrespective of its uniqueness, Battalion 97 is a fighting force like any other. It carries out continuous security missions in its jurisdiction, which covers Jenin, Kabatiya and rural villages around the settlement of Mevo Dotan, where battalion headquarters are located. At nights, the soldiers occasionally arrest terror suspects.
During the days of the second intifada, Jenin and outlying villages became notorious for being a hornet’s nest of terrorist activity and the origin of many suicide bombers. Today, though, the main threats to security involve rock-throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks on Israeli civilian and military traffic in the area and attempts to damage the West Bank security barrier.
“We brought down these incidents to almost zero,” Segal says. “It’s a tiring daily routine, but we make sure to stay on high alert.” Soldiers also conduct tours of the area with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for intelligence missions.
“All in all, everything is calm here now,” says Segal. “There is economic prosperity in the area, and law enforcement is effective on the part of Palestinians. There are very few disturbances. I’m not a prophet; I don't know what tomorrow will bring. But right now, the situation is quiet.”
Next month, the battalion will take part in a brigade-wide exercise on the Golan Heights as part of a new emphasis by the IDF to get West Bank infantry forces ready for swift deployment to the northern or southern fronts.
By that time, Segal will have begun studying for his MA in business management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and will have more time to spend his with wife and four children at his home in the Samaria town of Eli.
“We have it easy compared to them [wives raising children],” Segal said with a smile. “They have the toughest mission of them all.”