One, two, three, four, what are we guarding for?

Less than 30% of reservists actually enlist.

By MATT ZALEN
May 7, 2010 15:58
IDF reservists

IDF reservists 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Sitting in a dank, cramped room, in the middle of a tiny military base near Shavei Shomron in Samaria, Moti, a reserve soldier, voices his frustration.

“I hate miluim. It’s disgusting, it’s terrible,” the 28-year-old from the center of the country says, shifting on his creaking bed. “Whenever I put on the uniform of the army, I can’t take it.”

For Moti, such feelings of discontent have had plenty of time to fester. For nearly three weeks, he has spent most of his days wandering among the small cluster of buildings which make up his base, engaging in idle conversation with fellow reservists between a steady stream of naps, meals and – only infrequently – guard duty. Today, it seems the boredom has gotten the best of him.

“This is a waste of time,” he grumbles. “I suffer, I guard and I don’t like it at all.”

While Moti may reflect an extreme case of bitterness, conversations with a cross-section of reservists reveal a general despondency which permeates their ranks. Almost every Israeli may understand the need for mandatory service – a byproduct of the nearly constant existential threat which has hovered over the state since its very inception – but there is no denying that enthusiasm for fulfilling the national duty has most certainly waned. And nowhere is this more evident than in the reserves.

Reservists play an integral part in the survival of the country, and if recent legislation is any indicator, they continue to function as the backbone of the IDF. According to the preamble of the Reserve Duty Law, which was fully enacted on January 1, 2010, “The reservist draft is an indispensable part of the Israel Defense Forces, and constitutes a central layer upon which the army relies for the security needs of the state.”

Although the IDF prefers to keep exact figures detailing the strength of its fighting force a secret, a simple calculation reveals just how critical reservists are. The reserves are comprised of former soldiers who have finished compulsory service, and have yet to reach exemption age – 45 for officers, 40 for everybody else. The rest of the army is made up of conscripts – theoretically all Israelis between 18 and 21 – and career soldiers. It should therefore come as no surprise that the former group numerically eclipses the latter.

But such figures are hardly representative of reality. According to unofficial estimates – the only ones available given an army blackout on the issue – no more than 30 percent of reservists actually report for duty. And of that percentage, a far smaller number do so willingly.

Stemming from the Yom Kippur War, skepticism of the government has created an ideological revolution, which both directly and indirectly caused military policy to fuse with political considerations. Increasingly conscious of these changes, reservists became self-aware individuals rather than unquestioning members of a collective – and the result is a problem which threatens the very essence of the “citizen army” if it’s not fixed soon.

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So what does it mean when the bulk of reservists which Israel relies on for its continued existence not only demonstrate a disdain for much of what is asked of them, but an eagerness to avoid the service altogether?

“IF YOU look around you, you don’t see anybody serving in the reserves – maybe one or two other people,” Roye Ron, chairman of the Baltam Organization for the Support of the Reserves Draft, explains. “Nobody in the army will give you [exact] numbers, but I will tell you that in closed meetings in which I took part, nobody contradicted what I’m about to say. They understand the reality of the situation.”

And the situation, he says, is dire. “If you take today’s population of those who fall within the age of reserve duty – that is between 20 and 45 – if you take all this potential of those who are meant to be serving the state, you’ll find that roughly 10 percent of them will show up for reserve duty each year. Further, you’ll see something like maybe 2% or 3% of that 10% actually does more than four days of reserve duty a year. That means that roughly one or two people out of every hundred does more than four days a year.”

Oddly enough, shouldering the burden of the majority is not what bothers Ron, but rather the operational duty which often translates to guarding settlements or remote outposts along the border.

“The function of reserve duty is to defend the country during war,” Ron says, “not to go to guard settlements in the territories, not to go to the border of Lebanon or Syria. You want me to serve in the reserves when I know that I’m the only one serving in the reserves? No problem, I’m ready to go every year to train in the event of war. I’m willing to come to help defend our country. But I’m not willing to do all kinds of guarding or operational stuff.”

However, according to the army, operational duty – which in many cases is guard duty – is not only just as important as training for war, but is itself an integral part of such training.

“The way I see it, and the way many other officers see it, is that operational duty isn’t just a burden, it’s also a way of training the unit,” one army source argues. “It contributes to unity, and it contributes to the capability of the units.”

Regardless, he says, the army understands the concerns of the reservists and has worked toward solving them by reducing the guard duty obligation, which simultaneously spreads the workload.

“The number of days [a reservist can be called for today] is much less than a decade earlier. The Reserve Duty Law... controls and limits the number of days that one is supposed to do each year.”

According to the new law, a soldier can be summoned to the reserves for 54 days total in three years, of which only 25 can be allocated to operational duty – and only during one of those years; non-commissioned officers can be called for 70 days total every three years, and officers a total of 84.

As a result of these changes, the army actually “expanded the circle of those who are doing service,” the source says. “If we’re saying that a reservist only has to do operational duty once every three years, then basically that means more units need to be qualified for operational duty – so really that means [more reservists].”

But according to Ron, that reduction in days allotted to operational duty is still not good enough. Total exemption from guard duty is what’s really needed. Such an exemption, he says, would at once boost the morale of the reserves, enable more effective training and economically benefit the military as a whole.

“[Create] companies that are tasked only with doing operational duty – in the territories, on the borders,” Ron suggests. “[Israel has] enough people who are unemployed, or people who simply need jobs. Pay them the salary of a permanent soldier, and create, say, 12 companies.”

Baltam, along with other organizations which represent reservists, spent years lobbying for just such a change, but in the end it was not to be.

“We met with then IDF chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, and we met with a lot of senior officials in the defense establishment and the government, and said, ‘Create companies like this throughout the rest of the country, and let the reservists be exempt from this duty. We have lives, we work, we have families, we have studies. Let us come every year just to train for a war,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘Yes, we’re trying, we’re working on it, but it’s not coming through, it’s hard, people aren’t willing.’ All sorts of excuses.”

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The army, however, remembers the details a little differently.

“In the past, an attempt was made to create these kinds of companies, and it didn’t succeed,” the army source says. “There isn’t enough potential manpower for it, for the long term, who would do this kind of service; that is, during the year, all the time, operational duty.”

ADDING FUEL to the fire, Aleh Mikonoviski, director of the Kapashim Forum, which, like Baltam, provides assistance to reservists and helped lead the lobbying effort for passage of the Reserve Duty Law, counters that the army wouldn’t suffer such a shortage of manpower if it wasn’t bound by politics.

“If you tell me that you don’t have enough manpower, but at the same time you exempt tens of thousands of people due to politics – because that’s really what we’re talking about when it comes to the Tal Law – then, well, come on,” he says.

Approved by the Knesset in July 2002, the Tal Law grants haredi men of military age the right to take a year off from their yeshiva studies without being automatically drafted. In 2008, more than 50,000 yeshiva students were exempt from the army as a result of the law, and by 2012, that number is expected to reach 60,000.

Yet, like Ron, Mikonoviski is a pragmatist. Understanding that the current injustice of a dwindling reserve force being tasked with the responsibilities of the nation is likely to continue for some time, he and the rest of the reservist organizations banded together to tackle other pressing matters.

“If these people [who do reserve duty] each year are going to carry the burden, then at the very least, they shouldn’t be hurt – not in their finances, not in their personal lives and not in their studies, not in any of the areas that affect the soldier,” Mikonoviski explains.

The result of their efforts appears in the form of economic compensation and legal safeguards included in the Reserve Duty Law. For instance, reservists will now automatically be granted incremental monetary bonuses – nicknamed “special compensation” – and tax breaks for serving more than 18 days a year; further, government and public institutions are encouraged to offer incentives to those who serve in the reserves, and an annual day honoring reserve soldiers was established.



“The reserve draft is very important for Israeli society, and so it’s important that we defend both the rights of the reservists and their obligations in law, with parliamentary force,” the army source acknowledges.

But to believe that the new law fully addresses all of the concerns raised by reservists and the organizations which represent them would be optimistic, the source admits.

“I think that the law finally put into place a system of tools that we can use... with an emphasis on those who do more and from whom more is demanded,” he says. “It did solve a lot of issues. But along with this, [organizations] will continue [to fight] for the benefit of reserve soldiers, and [outstanding issues] that need to be resolved will always exist.”

BRIEF CONVERSATIONS with a number of reservists reveal no shortage of outstanding complaints. Some feel that the army isn’t properly utilizing the skills they’ve acquired in civilian life, while others lament what they perceive as the military’s almost illogically wasteful method of operation.

“Most of the people in my unit work in the hi-tech sector,” says Danny Goodman, 38, who belongs to a chemical warfare defense unit. “We sat down one day and worked out just how much the army spends on us each day. It’s a stupid amount, and a stupid waste of money.”

Nir Paz, an options trader at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange who earns roughly NIS 50,000 a month, perhaps best represents just how pricey basic military duties could be.

“I don’t do anything. I’m just a guard dog,” he says. “Wherever there’s a hole, I guard it.” For that, Paz adds, the army pays him more than NIS 1,000 a day.

The army, however, rejects the notion that paying such sums for ordinary guards is a waste.

“We call reservists according to operational necessity, which is determined by the unit that he’s in, his function and the needs of the operation,” the army source says. “All the people of this country must carry this burden. Like the country itself, we accept that some people make more, some people make less, and so therefore we calculate the cost of reserve duty as an average, that takes into account both groups, and that’s what we use when planning and managing.”

He adds that regardless, it’s nearly impossible to calculate “the cost of each individual reservist.”

Yet despite these problems – and occasionally because of them – there are also reservists who are happy with the system just the way it is. One such person is Paz himself.

“I have no problem doing guard duty, as long as they pay me,” he says. “I’m not opposed to reserve duty. It’s important.”

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Daniel Sribnik, a highly experienced computer programmer with a doctorate, is similarly supportive of the current system, despite its almost total disregard for his skills.

“During operational duty, for the most part I guard,” says Sribnik, at the time stationed at a base near Nablus. “It’s generally a very simple mission. It’s nice. Basically, I’m a tiny screw in the army. And it’s fine to be a tiny screw. They need that in the army.”

Tomer Manshari is not a tiny screw. As a paramedic, he is considered a valuable asset and as such is called up more often than most reservists, and generally for a longer time. But far from embittered by his situation, he enthusiastically embraces it.

“Yes, I like reserve duty. I like the group, the friends, the friendship,” he says. What’s more, it’s a contribution to the state.

“I think that someone who contributes, despite the fact that it’s not easy from a personal perspective, and from the perspective of work... the moment you’re doing something with meaning, you become happy.” he says.

However, expressions of support and enthusiasm for serving one’s country can’t change the fact that the numbers don’t lie, and those numbers show reservists abandoning their national obligation in droves during an average year. While the trend may or may not be a consequence of mundane guard duty, what is certain is that it’s likely to only get worse. Thankfully in years which aren’t average – years defined by times of crisis – the reserves are still a force the country can count on.

“[When an emergency strikes], more than 100% of eligible people will turn up,” Bar-Or says. “We had this situation during Operation Defensive Shield. And in Lebanon in 2006, we didn’t have any problems.”

Even Moti, who hates donning the uniform, would happily join the fight.

“If there were a war, I would definitely go,” he says. “War, emergency situation, anything like that, I wouldn’t even think twice.”


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