In the early hours of Sunday, December 27, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed an IDF soldier outside Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. The unarmed soldier, who was lightly wounded, shoved the terrorist away, and a security guard who was standing nearby overpowered him.
This incident – just one more routine occurrence of the third intifada – exemplifies the importance of soldiers carrying their personal weapons at all times, even when they’re not on active duty.
IN THE past, soldiers often were not allowed to take their rifles home, as some weapons had been stolen. Later on, the decision was reversed – but only for those who lived with their parents. IDF policy dictates that soldiers on leave must lock up their weapons properly, and for lone soldiers, those with no immediate family members living in the country, this can be difficult, as some rent apartments in the city, live in rooms on a kibbutz or spend time staying at the homes of friends or relatives.
In a letter addressed to me, concerned parents of lone soldiers serving in the Paratrooper Brigade complained that their children were victims of discrimination, subject to whimsical, arbitrary and arrogant treatment by their commanders.
The inconsistent policy regarding soldiers taking their weapons with them when they leave their base was just one example.
A number of these lone soldiers are in basic training or in a more advanced stage of training. Some are second-generation paratroopers. Out of fear that their children will be reprimanded, the parents requested that no specific names, dates, events or identifying details appear here.
“We believe that in general,” the letter stated, “lone soldier guidelines are not being followed with regard to the treatment of our children.”
It could be that some of these problems are a result of cultural differences, that Israeli roughness and rudeness is far from Western behavior. It could also be the age gap. Since some lone soldiers join the IDF after they’ve already completed college degrees, they are older and apparently at times more mature than their commanders.
“We’re not complaining,” one of the lone soldiers told his parents. “We don’t complain when we’re freezing during midnight training drills and prevented from sleeping. We are doubly volunteering – once for the IDF and a second time to be in the paratroopers. We came here in order to contribute to and show our solidarity with Israel. We are suffering just like our Israeli brothers in arms and accept this with understanding. But when the army repeatedly ignores our rights, which it created, and abuses soldiers who volunteered to serve and accuses us of exploiting our situation, indeed something rotten is going on and it needs to be fixed immediately. Enough is enough.”
THERE ARE three battalions in the Paratrooper Brigade: 890, 101 and 202. Each has a training course with between 80 and 100 soldiers. When soldiers complete the year-long course, they advance to operational units.
According to the IDF Spokesman’s Office, there are 300 lone soldiers in the brigade, more than half of whom are still in the training phase or have been serving in the army for less than eight months. This means that a full 10 percent of the soldiers serving in the Paratrooper Brigade could be lone soldiers – it is a magnet for young adults who come from overseas to volunteer in the IDF.
When a few lone soldiers complained to their commanding officers – commanders of platoons or companies – about the discriminatory practice regarding taking their weapons home, they were told that the concern was that they lived on kibbutzim or in isolated areas where there was a much greater danger that their weapons would not be secured properly.
“[T]his was ridiculous reasoning because our children’s commanders visited their rooms and saw for themselves that the rooms were secure – security bars had been installed on the windows, none of them lived in ground-floor apartments, and the rooms were all secured with double locks,” the letter said.
But even when the soldiers went on leave to places where their weapons could be kept under continuous supervision, they were not given permission to take them, nor were they offered a satisfactory explanation. In one particular instance, a lone soldier was granted permission to bring his weapon with him for the weekend, but when he was set to go to the same family another time, he was refused.
In another case, a lone soldier living in an apartment with other lone soldiers from the brigade was not granted permission to bring his weapon home even though his roommates (who were in different platoons and companies) were.
“These and other instances indicate that there is no systematic method, and each low-ranking commander makes his own whimsical decision on the spot,” the letter said.
THE WEAPONS issue, however, pales in comparison to the treatment that lone soldiers undergoing paratroop training receive with respect to their social welfare.
IDF rules say they must be released early on any Friday they go on leave so that they’ll have time to arrive home and buy food before stores close for Shabbat. But in at least three instances, according to the letter, this decree was not followed, and by the time the lone soldiers arrived home, all the stores had closed for Shabbat and they were left hungry all weekend.
In one case, after this happened time and again, the soldier decided that he’d had enough – he left his small community and rented an apartment in Tel Aviv so that he’d have time to buy food for Shabbat. The letter claimed that when another of the soldiers finally complained to his superior, the commander said “Yeah, I really understand you,’’ but did nothing about it.
Another problematic issue is what’s called in the army “errand day.’’ According to Paratrooper Brigade decree, lone soldiers are entitled to one 24-hour period off per month in order to take care of errands.
It’s not necessary to explain the incredible importance of this day for lone soldiers, who, in contrast to soldiers who receive assistance from family members, have no one to help them navigate the complicated maze of Israeli bureaucracy. Lone soldiers need every spare minute the IDF provides them.
Unfortunately, many of these soldiers encounter insensitive commanders who, sometimes with the knowledge of their superiors, behave however they please. Often, they release lone soldiers late, and sometimes not at all. Other times, they release them only to avoid having complaints filed against them.
The most aggravating violations, though, are with respect to lone soldiers’ contact with family members abroad – regulations state that lone soldiers are eligible for an eight-day leave of absence to meet with parents or close family members.
In contrast with other soldiers who see their loved ones often, lone soldiers can experience months and sometimes even a year of loneliness before they have a chance to spend time with family.
You would think that in this respect, Paratrooper Brigade commanders would demonstrate a little bit of sensitivity and humanity, but unfortunately, according to the letter, this doesn’t happen to be the case.
In one case, a lone soldier told his commander a few months in advance that his father and other relatives would be visiting Israel and that he would like permission to take a six-day leave in order to spend time with them. Permission was granted, and when the time arrived, the soldier left his base to meet up with his family.
After two days, he received an urgent message that he needed to return to his base at once. His commanding officer told him he needed to be checked by a doctor before starting a parachuting course. Yet when he contacted his mashakit tash (the soldier in charge of lone soldiers’ welfare), she told him that the only reason was a shortage of manpower in the kitchen.
Only after an acquaintance who was a senior IDF officer intervened on his behalf was the lone soldier able to have the order revoked. But the embarrassment his commander felt at having been caught in a lie did not make the soldier’s life easy upon his return.
The lie about a doctor’s visit in order to cover a shortage of potato peelers was repeated with another lone soldier who had organized months in advance a trip with his family, which was coming to visit from the US. In this instance, too, intervention from senior officers was required to reverse the order.
In another case, a lone soldier made a number of requests over a period of months to be allowed to use his entitlement to meet his parents abroad. His request was approved only at the last moment, which added $1,000 to the price of the airplane ticket.
If these examples are insufficient in painting a picture of an absurd situation, here is the most painful and insulting example of all.
A lone soldier in a pre-basic-training program received permission from his commanders to go overseas right after his induction ceremony to see family members he hadn’t seen in a year. Following the ceremony, his company was scheduled for guard and kitchen duty, so he knew he wouldn’t miss any important training drills.
His commanders approved his request.
But for some reason, his platoon commander lied and told him the request had been denied. When the soldier protested, the commander – known for derogatory comments and an offensive attitude toward English-speaking lone soldiers – erupted and screamed: “So what if you haven’t seen your family for a year? I haven’t seen my mother for two weeks and that’s even harder. You have no idea what kind of problems I have at home with my siblings.”
THIS ARTICLE was not written out of a desire to censure the Paratrooper Brigade.
Its purpose is to help correct a wrong.
When I approached the IDF Spokesman’s Office, I had the feeling it took these claims seriously and was interested in solving the problems. It was suggested that I speak with the brigade commander, which I said I would be more than willing to do.
But then I was asked to provide the army with a list of the names of the complainants and a detailed list of the incidents so that it could deal with the issues in a more organized fashion. In other words, I was being asked to divulge my sources.
When I refused, an IDF press officer responsible for the Paratrooper Brigade got on the phone and, instead of listening to my complaints, began explaining IDF policy, as if reading from a form. In the end, I received a laconic response from the spokesman’s office that gave me the feeling that nothing was going to be done.
Here is the response I received: “Commanders in the Paratrooper Brigade throughout the chain of command appreciate lone soldiers and respect them for their service. All commanders follow IDF regulations and make sure that lone soldiers are granted all of their rights and that their service is made as easy as possible. If any specific requests are submitted, all issues will be handled directly.’’Translated by Hannah Hochner.