"It always amazes me to see how they become soldiers within two minutes. We explain to them that the uniforms they wear are real uniforms, uniforms that are worn by soldiers who fight or even die in them."
The speaker is Maj. Keren Kamerinsky, 32, commander of the Tzalmon Gadna base, near Karmiel, which simulates boot camp training five days a week, year-round, for 320 teenagers at a time.
Kamerinsky a mother of two from Kibbutz Beit Zera, on the southern shore of Lake Kinneret, described her staff's efforts to motivate the future soldiers to serve in the IDF, speaking at the end of another week of training youths who will be drafted within two years.
About a quarter of future inductees get their first taste of army life during a weeklong Gadna program while they are in 11th grade.
Gadna, an acronym for Hebrew Youth Battalions, was established in the early 1940s by the Hagana, which after independence became the core of the IDF.
Thousands of Gadna members fought in the War of Independence. Until 1990, Gadna focused on instilling patriotic values in Israeli youth and encouraging Diaspora youth to make aliya.
Nowadays it concentrates on stemming the increasing draft-dodging by Israelis.
Thus, the army sends youth instructors into schools starting around the 10th grade. These soldiers provide pupils with information about military service, the roles they can play, the recruitment process and more.
If the schools' principals approve it, the pupils go on a "Gadna Week" in 11th grade. During their last year in high school, they are prepared for filling out IDF forms for the units to which they would like to be assigned. Fewer and fewer high schools send their 11th-graders on Gadna weeks.
Sending all youngsters on a Gadna week, authorities believe, would help curb the draft-dodging and would restore the fading attraction of military service.
Besides Tzalmon, two other IDF bases operate under the Education and Youth Corps: the Sde Boker base in the South, which can accommodate 450 pupils a week, and Juara base, near Yokne'am, which can accommodate 220.
The Tzalmon staff emphasizes that the program is not limited to physical training such as camping, night treks and the use of weapons; a great part of the week is devoted to learning about the army - its units, combat ethics, commitment to bringing home captive soldiers and, above all, the importance of serving in the IDF.
"We want them to leave here understanding what happens if they don't enlist. My staff speaks with them a lot on this issue, even if it means one-on-one talks," Kamerinsky said. "Our goal is to motivate Israeli youth to aspire to a meaningful service in the IDF. We do it by giving them their first positive experience in the military system."
Outside Kamerinsky's office, pupils from Kfar Saba's Galili High School were drilling for a military ceremony, which their parents were invited to attend. The school's principal, Dr. Rami Amitai - a retired IDF colonel - has turned this event into a school tradition.
Meanwhile, 79 pupils from WIZO Rehovot and 80 from Ankori Rishon Lezion, who spent the week in Tzalmon as well, were busy packing up memories into their fashionable backpacks before heading home.
Donning uniforms was not the most natural thing for them - nor was the outdoor camping.
"I was shocked on the first day we arrived here. We got off the buses and right away they started ordering us around and told us to stand in two lines. I didn't think it would be so serious," Galili student Nirit Teller, 18, said Thursday as her team was tidying their room in preparation for the morning inspection.
"When we first came here, our commander told us to drop our bags and to run and stand at attention. None of us knew what 'attention' was, let alone what was it meant to 'drop and give her 20,'" said fellow Galili student Michal Fedler, 16, shortly after firing a gun for the first time in her life.
"It was very scary at first, because shooting is something you don't know anything about and only soldiers do. When the commander ordered [us to] fire, I took my time, aimed at the target. I didn't do badly at all," Fedler said, sounding proud as she held up her target sheet. "Now I feel like enlisting in the army."
According to the Education Ministry, out of the 60,000 Israeli 11th-graders designated for mandatory military service, 30,000 were supposed to go on the weeklong Gadna program during this school year. However, only 15,000 will go, due to the long teachers' strike at the beginning of the year. On average, some 19,000 11th-graders go on a Gadna week annually.
The Education Ministry said in a statement, "The training is offered to principals of high schools in the periphery, high schools that have high numbers of new immigrants, high schools with a low percentage of actual enlistment, high schools that embrace the preparatory program for serving in the IDF, and others."
The ministry did not detail the cost of a Gadna week per student as the The Jerusalem Post requested.
Most 11th-graders do not attend a Gadna week, and this means of motivating teens to volunteer for the demanding and dangerous IDF units is being criticized as well as being praised.
"The Gadna is part of an entire system that prepares the youth for their enlistment, but more than that, it prepares them for a certain worldview of conflict. The Gadna is also a socialization system. I think it is not the place of the army to educate our children," Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University's School of Education told the Post.
"Today's reality is different from the Israeli reality in the '50s. The reality of the army entering schools, and even kindergartens, is unique to Israel. The military echelon in Israel has unlimited influence on Israeli society. The Winograd Committee [that investigated the Second Lebanon War] pointed to this problem, which creates an unhealthy society [in which] members know very well how to shoot and fight but are paralyzed when it comes to solving the conflict through alternative means such as a peace process," Bar-Tal said.
The fourth day of Gadna was an outdoor camping day for pupils from WIZO Rehovot and Ankori Rishon Lezion. They were placed in a field, isolated from the rest of the base by a chain-link fence. Throughout the day, they learned how to erect tents, in which they slept, and how to function in the field. To make the experience more realistic, they ate battle rations that included the traditional canned beef, canned humus and canned chocolate spread. They drank out of their canteens, went on a night trek and had to deal with the North's nighttime cold.
"This group in its majority is capable of sleeping outdoors. We decide whether this experience will break their spirits or not, and if we think they are incapable [of roughing it], we allow some of them or all of them to sleep indoors," said Lt. Netta Alush, 22, commander of the Nahshon Company - one of two at the base. "Clearly our goal is not to break their spirits. In general, most difficulties derive from a hard time adapting - only a very few are a result of utter contempt," she said.
"I have a hard time receiving orders from other people. This is not like when you refuse to do something at home or at school. There, you don't need to drop for 20 push-ups," said Sapir Khalaf, 16, a WIZO Rehovot student, in summarizing the week - which was hard on her in all aspects.
"I don't intend to serve in the army. I will find a way to be exempted. I don't know how, but I'll lose weight if there is no other choice," Khalaf said. The army does not recruit youngsters who are extremely under- or overweight.
Nonetheless, most of those who attend Gadna find it useful to have a taste of what lies ahead.
"The shooting practice is the highlight of this week, because during the week, we keep doing the same things, like getting into these uniforms, cleaning and tidying the rooms. Shooting is something I have done so far only on the computer at home," said Yotam Wolf, 17, a Galili student. "I didn't do so well in the shooting practice - but the experience is what matters."
Yotam Lazar, 16, another Galili student, said that even if the week went badly, he would still enlist in a combat unit. "I am proud of myself, and this week strengthened my desire to be a combatant," he said.
"The bottom line is that our principal is a retired military man who still goes on reserve duty and makes enlistment for mandatory military service a very high priority. He wants to infuse us with the army's values and discipline, and he does it well," said Din Zusman, 17, also of Galili.
Out of Kfar Saba's four high schools, theirs is the only one that still goes on a Gadna week.
The Kfar Saba Municipality refused to let the Post interview the high schools' principals.
And the parents? They're happy someone teaches their teenagers some discipline, and see the Gadna as a fun social activity that their children will remember for the rest of their lives. However, when asked about enlisting in combat units, they sang a different tune.
"This week made her happy, and since Michal is our eldest, this week was useful for us, too, because we really knew nothing about it before," said Allan Fedler, who made aliya from South Africa when Michal was two.
"As a parent, it will break my heart if she decides to serve in a combat unit, but I'll support any decision she makes," he said.
Ilana Nissani was glad her son, Idan, had the chance to taste army life in advance and collect some lifelong memories. "But I don't want him to serve in a combat unit. I don't think I will be able to handle it," she said.
"Unfortunately today's IDF is not the same IDF of 20 years ago, and the evidence is the 'flat screens' commanders of the Second Lebanon War, who stayed behind moved and soldiers as if they were toy soldiers. The youth are not stupid, and they say what is on their minds and insist on it. Din has knee problems, so he won't be a full combatant, but he will serve in other significant roles, that's for sure," Zusman's mother, Michal, said in a tone of relief.
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