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(photo credit: IDF [file])
Aliya groups are in an uproar over an unprecedented IDF decision to call up new immigrants who had already served in the army under the Mahal volunteer program.
Officials from immigrant organizations said that the IDF's decision would be detrimental to the continuation of the Mahal program, which was established in 1948 when some 3,500 volunteers from 43 different countries came here to defend the young State of Israel during its War of Independence.
Since 1988, more than 1,000 Jews from abroad have come to Israel to serve 14.5 months in IDF combat units as part of the Mahal program.
The officials blasted the IDF's Human Resources division and its head, Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, whom they said were pushing to reenlist a number of Mahal graduates even though they already completed their military service over a year ago.
In two weeks, officials from the Jewish Agency involved in the Mahal program are scheduled to meet with Col. Ziki Sela, head of the Manpower Department in the Human Resources Branch, in an attempt to resolve the issue.
At the core of the disagreement is whether the decision to draft the Mahal graduates is part of a new policy or not. According to the IDF, the drafting of Mahal servicemen is not new and has been the military's policy since the passing of the Military Service Law in 1984, which stipulates that someone who does 14.5 months of Mahal service and then makes aliya is required to reenlist and complete 30 months of military service.
Officials involved in Mahal and other aliya groups said that even if the law were correct, there has never been a documented case of a Mahalnik who was called back into service after immigrating to Israel.
"This has never happened before," said one Jewish Agency official who has been working with Mahal for the past 20 years. "The IDF's decision to reenlist Mahal graduates will be detrimental to the program and will cause more damage than good."
A testimony to this being a new policy can be seen on the Mahal Web site (www.mahal2000.com) where one of the Frequently Asked Questions is: "If I choose to become an Israeli citizen after the 14 1/2 months of service through the Mahal program, do I have to do additional military service?" The answer given is: "No additional IDF service is required."
Another official from an aliya group went even further and said that the IDF was effectively "burying" Mahal, since no one would be willing to sign up for the volunteer program under this new policy.
Due to the failure to resolve the issue, some of the Mahal graduates are facing arrest if they do not appear for their draft date, stipulated on their new call-up orders. One such graduate is Arye, who joined Mahal in August 2005 at the age of 19 and completed his 14.5-month service in October 2006. He then returned to the United States for several months and made aliya in the beginning of 2007.
"A few months ago, I received a new call-up order," he recalled. "I was sure it was a mistake until I got another one that said that if I did not show up I would be arrested."
Arye said that he was taken by surprise when receiving the new draft orders, since no one had ever explained to him that if he made aliya after Mahal he could be called back into the army.
In principle, the aliya officials said they were not opposed to the IDF changing its policy, as long as it would not take effect retroactively and affect dozens of Mahal graduates like Arye, who already completed their service and a short time later made aliya.
The IDF Spokesman's Office released a statement reiterating that the redrafting of Mahal servicemen was not part of new military policy.
"The duration of service in Mahal is 14.5 months and up to 16 months. Someone who served in the Mahal program and then decided to immigrate to Israel will be required to complete their service. This is not a new policy," the statement read.
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