Whether Yisrael Reinman's death was just another tragic case of a lonely immigrant committing suicide or whether it was some bizarre botched anti-Arab attack, you've got to be asking what a 28-year-old Brooklynite, only two months in the country, was doing with an M-16 in a Jordan Valley mosque. When, however, you take into account the IDF unit that Reinman belonged to, it all of a sudden makes sense.
The Nahal Haredi battalion has been one of the army's pet projects for the past decade. Eager to prove to the haredi community that its sons can serve in the military while not sacrificing their religious lifestyle and beliefs, the army has gone a long way and invested an inordinate amount of resources in trying to ensure the unit's success.
A special base was set up to enable its soldiers to undergo their entire basic and advanced training in a secluded environment, without contact with female soldiers, with long periods for prayer and Torah lessons and a mess with the highest level of kashrut supervision. Religious officers were brought in from various units to command them and a special department in the Defense Ministry was set up to find and enlist yeshiva dropouts.
A group of open-minded haredi rabbis and educators were the main supporters of the unit in the community, but many powerful rabbis and their followers waged a vicious battle to convince youngsters not to join. They were largely successful and the army found it impossible to fill the quota.
To keep the battalion operational, many of the young men inducted into it were not of the originally intended background. Many came from the national religious community, eager for a military unit with a more rigorous religious framework. Others were young men coming from religious families in the US who wanted to serve in a more heimishe environment.
The first sign that something was going wrong was when a number of Nahal Haredi soldiers were caught throwing stones at Palestinian cars. It turned out that a number of youths who had been involved in the outlawed Kach movement and who had been tagged by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) as "undesirable" for IDF service had been allowed to enlist in Nahal Haredi just to make up the numbers.
As the intifada intensified, so did reports of insubordination in the unit, especially of mistreatment of Palestinians at roadblocks. Last year, two soldiers from the unit, both living in West Bank settlements, were caught after having planted a fake bomb at Jerusalem's Central Bus Station as a protest against the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. There was no question at any stage of involving the unit in the disengagement, but there were still a number of cases where soldiers were disciplined for disobeying orders during that period. A special order was also issued forbidding the soldiers from wearing Gush Katif orange T-shirts during the exercise periods.
There have been discussions in the army of whether to close down the unit. Each time the decision was to keep Nahal Haredi operational. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz has said there is no reason that haredi youths should not be serving in the army, and the IDF is not about to close down the only battalion in which that is happening. And besides, the Nahal Haredi, which is in charge of securing the Jordan Valley and routinely carries out successful operations in and around Jericho has gained reputation as an efficient and trustworthy unit.
A few months ago, the army decided to scale down the number of new soldiers to be inducted into the unit with a view to accepting only the haredim it was originally intended for. The army has also said that it has a screening procedure in place to make sure that unsuitable recruits do not get in.
Whatever filters that the army put in, they obviously didn't latch onto Reinman. That's obviously a tragedy for his family. But if he had entered the mosque a couple of hours earlier during prayers, and instead of spraying the empty walls with bullets, reenacted Baruch Goldstein's Hebron massacre of 1994, who knows how many dozens of tragedies, for Arab and Jewish families, would have been caused.
In 1949, David Ben-Gurion decided to disband the Palmah units that had been the main Jewish fighting organization before and during the War of Independence. He took the unpopular step to ensure that the IDF would be the country's only military organization; he wasn't prepared to allow the existence of militias with ideological and political affiliations. Ever since, all IDF units have been open to all walks of society.
Reinman's death is going to give more senior officers second thoughts about the wisdom of maintaining a separate unit for haredim.