Dying to get in

Expert: Israelis' motivation to get into elite IDF units may be so high they put their own lives at risk.

September 19, 2006 23:43
3 minute read.
Dying to get in

idf training 88. (photo credit: )


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A day after the second candidate in pre-conscription physical evaluations died in less than a month, a former chief psychologist in the IDF told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that the motivation of some young Israelis males to be admitted to elite IDF units may be so high that they put their own lives in danger during the physically gruelling selection trials. "These young people are extremely motivated. They want very much to be accepted into these special units, and because of that high motivation, sometimes they exert themselves more than is necessary or more than what is safe for themselves," said Dr. Reuven Gal, who now serves as an international consultant in areas of military psychology and leadership development. "The dilemma is that you want to create the kind of situation where the young men are 'pushed to the edge,' while at the same time taking all the necessary precautions and keeping the tests as safe as possible," said Gal, who while serving as chief psychologist of the navy helped develop and administer the the pre-conscription evaluations, or gibushim, for the navy's elite commando battalion, Shayetet 13. Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz ordered a halt to all such evaluation exercises following the death of Aharon Zarfati, 17, during an evaluation for Shayetet 13 Monday morning. Gal declined to comment on the tragic accident as navy and military police investigations are pending, but he said he trusted all the necessary precautions were adhered to by administrators. Zarfati drowned at a naval base near Haifa on the second day of the field evaluations. He was reportedly in one meter of water participating in an exercise which involved a snorkel and blacked-out scuba masks to test candidates' underwater endurance. He was spotted unconscious on the ocean floor by instructors, and attempts to revive him by medics on the scene failed. One source in the naval commandos said the highly-motivated Zarfati may have been reluctant to admit he was having trouble with the exercise for fear of being disqualified. A gibush for crack commando units such as Shayetet 13 can last between 3 and 5 days and focuses on physical stamina and the candidates' behavior when sleep deprived and under intense mental and physical exertion. Candidates may choose to quit at anytime. Those that remain, advance to personal interviews, before finally being granted admittance into the unit. Despite the inherent risk involved, gibushim have been a tried and true process by which the IDF ensures only the most motivated and capable recruits are selected for elite units, according to Gal. The physical tests constitute only one phase of a long process, said Gal. The hundreds of high school boys that volunteer each year for gibushim must first pass a basic physical, as well as psychological and intelligence exams administered at regional recruitment bureaus. In the weeks leading up to a gibush, recruitment officers provide detailed explanations of what to anticipate, and what the recruits will be expected to do and not to do during the physical trials. However, "we have found that the young people get the details they find to be the most important from peers and siblings that have gone through the process," Gal added. Of the 200 candidates that begin a Shayetet gibush, widely considered the most difficult in the IDF due to the water component, only two dozen will remain by the end of the field tests. "Going into the gibush, friends of mine already in good units all gave me the same advice," said Yuval Lefner, a former staff sergeant in the air force commando unit Shaldag. "The advice was basically - never quit. It's all in your head. You might feel like you are going to die, but you're not going to die." "The first morning of the gibush, they put sandbags on our shoulders and had us run up and down dunes until people quit or passed out. I told myself that I would rather die than tell the instructor that I quit, and that is the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other." Lefner admitted that being accepted to a special force unit was a measuring stick of masculinity by many young men raised in the battle-hardened Israeli culture. "The first thing guys under 30 ask each other when they meet is: 'What unit were you in?' followed closely by, 'How long was the gibush?'" He said the perceived difficulty of a specific unit's gibush has also become a gauge of its prestige among young Israeli males. On August 23, Itai Sharon, 17, died during qualification tests for the IAF pilots' course at a base in the Negev. Sharon apparently died of heatstroke. The preliminary findings of an investigative committee concluded that there were no violations of army regulations in that tragedy.

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