IDF soldiers after returning to Israel from Gaza August 5, 2014..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Human Resources Subcommittee heard distressing testimony on Sunday: One in six male soldiers does not complete his mandatory army service.
Even more distressing were the statistics for those of Ethiopian background. The proportion of male soldiers of Ethiopian origin dropping out has risen from 19.4% to 22.8%. One in 10 female Ethiopian soldiers does not complete her service.
The committee members’ reaction was to encourage the army to keep working. MK Omer Bar-Lev, the chairman, said: “Pressure to deal with the matter must continue for the good of all Israeli society.”
The issues facing Ethiopian immigrants in the army have been a persistent black mark on the nation’s most respected institution for years. In December 2011, the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee received a report that noted: “The percentage of soldiers of Ethiopian origin incarcerated in military prisons stands today at 12% of the total number of imprisoned soldiers, significantly higher than the percentage of Ethiopian Israelis in the general population (1.5%).” Almost half of Ethiopian men in the army spend time in military prison, it was revealed.
The army has been investing in programs to target this community. The problems this relatively small group faces are mirrored by problems affecting the entire army and it would be a mistake to see incarceration and dropout rates as Ethiopian issues. Every year the IDF jails almost 14,000 soldiers. Many of those sent to IDF prisons are there for desertion or being absent without leave. It is part of the pattern of large numbers of soldiers not finishing their service; desertion is a symptom of the larger issue of soldiers who find the army experience incompatible.
One of the main reasons for this among those from poorer communities is that pay for those performing compulsory service has remained at the extremely low level of around NIS 400 a month. Those soldiers who lack financial help from home find themselves in an impossible situation. A circuitous bureaucracy of army welfare services allows soldiers to tap an additional NIS 1,000 a month, but this is often not enough.
Numerous organizations devoted to aiding soldiers before and during their service such as the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (AWIS), the Libi Fund and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), have stepped in over the years to fill the gap.
According to Zion Gabai, the CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the organization has devoted more than NIS 26 million to funding projects to aid soldiers. It provides vouchers for holidays for food and clothing and provides support for pre-army courses and for courses specifically meant to improve Ethiopian soldiers’ results on entrance exams so they can get into better units.
The vast commitment by the army, Knesset members and organizations that support soldiers is to be commended. The fact remains, however, that each committee and each organization is addressing one piece of a much larger issue that affects society as a whole. The picture we receive of soldiers being imprisoned because of financial distress at home, the stories of soldiers accumulating thousands of shekels in debts during their mandatory service and working part-time jobs to help their families, is disheartening.
The government and the army must change things for the better. This means greater access and support for pre-army programs, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The use of incarceration as the quick-fix punishment for numerous minor infractions in the army should be drastically reduced with a target of dramatically reducing the IDF prison population.
There are better methods than prison to address the needs of soldiers who shirk on duties due to poverty.
The government should consider raising the paltry sums soldiers are paid and make it easier for those from poor backgrounds or lone soldiers to get help.
The army should be part of a success story that builds up citizens’ lives and not a burden that leaves soldiers disenchanted and broke.