Nabi Saleh and Israel’s professional army problem


Seth J. Frantzman

Over the weekend photos of an Israeli soldier fighting with several Palestinian women and children went viral. In the sequence he is shown with his rifle trying to stop a Palestinian boy accused of throwing stones. Later a young girl and several women arrive. The girl bites him and for a moment it even seems the group of women might overpower him, as his gun dangles uselessly in the dirt.

The photos could have been published 30 years ago in 1985, or 30 years from now in 2045, when Israel will still likely be doing the same thing it is today. It’s the kind of incident that comes up every year. It recalls David “the Nahlawi,” a soldier from the Nahal Brigade who cocked his weapon at a Palestinian youth in Hebron in 2014, or the photos of Lt. Col Shalom Eisner hitting a foreign peace activist in the Jordan Valley in 2012. Sometimes the soldier’s actions are deemed to have been correct, other times the soldier comes in for massive condemnation and is sent to military prison.

For the pro-Israel community, these incidents are unfortunate mistakes, or part of an international media conspiracy that blows routine events out of proportion. The media doesn’t tell the “whole story,” because, we are told, the video or photos do not show what the Palestinians did to provoke the incident. Or the Palestinians are said to have “scripted” the incident. In the case of the soldier at Nabi Saleh the army spokesman told the press that the Palestinian youth was throwing rocks and that after the arrest, the intercession of the women and children, “a decision was made by the regional commander to cease the arrest.”

For the crowd more critical of Israel these kinds of incidents are all seen as symbolic of the evils of military occupation of the West Bank. The Israeli soldiers are described as brutes, the Palestinians as victims. Someone will soon make a meme of the incident, and someone else will interview the family of the Palestinian boy and that will be the end of it.

What no one seems to wonder is why, after 48 years of Israel running the West Bank, is the regular conscript army sent in to deal, again and again, with stone-throwing children.

Nabi Saleh’s Friday protests aren’t something that happened suddenly and posed an immediate threat to Jewish drivers on the nearby road. No. They are a weekly event going back half a decade. Hundreds of arrests, dozens of injuries to IDF soldiers and Palestinian civilians. But if Nabi Saleh protests are still happening in 2045, the command will still be to send in regular army soldiers, with the best in modern military equipment, to confront stone throwers.

Sure, they will be backed up with riot control units, Border Police and the rest of the infrastructure in the West Bank that shows up for riots.

It’s a strange thing that conscript (draftee) soldiers who are paid wages of between $150-$300 a month are asked to be both expert soldiers, riot control professionals and sometimes a kind of social worker and media relations expert to deal with daily duty in the West Bank. And if they make mistakes, if they lose control, they are punished with military prison. It’s a good deal for the country: for minimum expense, a hundred thousand soldiers stand ready to quell riots in the West Bank, man checkpoints in the blazing sun or freezing cold, and do all the other duties. It’s no wonder no one asks any questions about Nabi Saleh.

In order to maintain the status quo the IDF is cracking down on “deserters.” It was reported that more than 3,000 IDF conscripts are being sought by the IDF for being absent without leave for more than 21 days.

According to a report at Ynet the IDF is sending threatening text messages, warning that those who don’t return to the army will risk a ban on their driver’s license, ID cards, no passport renewals, denial of housing benefits, scholarships and even a criminal record.

That seems like a harsh deal for a 19-year-old (most deserters are in their first year of service). For not wanting to stand for three years in the hot sun manning checkpoints, or run after kids throwing rocks, or maybe not wanting to sit in an office and answer phones for three years for $100 a month, they risk having their lives destroyed.

The army in Israel has a sort of cult status as one of the most trusted institutions in the country. It is also a major portion of the national budget. Around 6.7 percent of GDP goes to the defense budget, which consumes 20% of the national budget. Despite the 100,000 or so conscripts who are paid salaries not dramatically different than average salaries in India or the Philippines, the labor costs of the army chew up 50% of its already bloated budget.

Although the conscript army in Israel was initially seen as essential for national defense, over time it has become so ingrained in society that questioning its nature is seen as stepping over a red line. But there is a dire need for hard questions. Anthony M. Cordesman, a military researcher, estimated that in 1973 Israel had 77,000 men in its army and that today that number has expanded to 176,000. In 1973, when Israel faced its toughest military challenge against conventional armies, its enemies fielded armies of around 500,000 men (350,000 by Egypt and 150,000 by Syria). Today, when Israel has peace with Egypt and Jordan and Syria’s army has disintegrated, Israel’s army is larger in peacetime than it was in wartime against its greatest enemies.

Consider the fact that in 1948, when Israel truly faced an existential war, it fielded 96,441 men and women at its peak strength in December. So how is it possible that in 2015, facing enemies that consist of stone-throwing youth and well-organized terrorist organizations like Hezbollah whose militia has no more than 10,000 men, does the country need 100,000 men and women under arms? When Israel is fighting hightech wars using specially highly trained units and pin-point ordnance, what is the need for tens of thousands of soldiers? Israel has the sixth most powerful army in the world, more than capable of destroying the countries around it, and most of its “power” does not stem from its massive manpower, but from its weapons. It could scale back 80% of its manpower and still have one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world.

But the Israeli army is resistant to reform and change. When Major General Yohanan Locker released the findings of his commission to a closed press conference in July, the 77-page document calling for reform was ridiculed by top defense brass. Locker’s report suggested major cuts to pensions and releasing many professional army officers.

He suggested increasing the military budget to acquire more high-tech weapons while decreasing the length of obligatory draft for men to 24 months (rather than 36).

Instead of discussions about reducing military service, there is a slavish populist devotion in Israel to “forcing” more service on more people, such as the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Populists claim that only through military service can people integrate into Israeli society and the job market. The army is seen as primarily a socialization tool, which gives some hint as to the cross-purposes the army finds itself in. Since its massive manpower is not needed to deal with military threats, the real excuse for having long terms of service is to “integrate” people.

The irony is that the army is a net burden on the economy and does not produce productive working citizens. Because the army pays conscripts dismal wages, it creates a sub-culture of resentment to hard work. Soldiers don’t feel rewarded for their service. It’s no surprise that the number of soldiers sent to military prison has reached 14,000 in recent years; and almost all of those sent are for desertion or being absent without leave. Many of those in prison are also from the lower socio-economic strata.

The reason for this is because many of them want to work part-time to survive or help their families. In a country where housing prices and commodity prices drive millions into poverty, the army is perpetuating that poverty.

The army’s system of “social welfare,” where poorer soldiers can receive welfare by begging other soldiers who serve as social workers for assistance, creates dependence, not economically successful people.

It takes tens of thousands of citizens out of the workforce for three years, harming the economy. At precisely the same time as the poor are over-burdened in the army, higher avoidance rates are found in wealthy communities in Israel and fewer citizens choose combat service, no longer seeing it as a pathway to success.

So that’s the real story: if the army was about economic success, then why are the traditional secular elites avoiding service at higher rates, as national-religious youth flock to it in higher numbers? In addition, some 40% of Jewish Israeli women avoid army service by feigning to be religious, evidence that when given a choice many Israelis will opt out. The highest levels of service for male Israelis come from the Ethiopian and Druse communities, both minorities. What does it indicate when the elites in the center of the country don’t see the point of army service anymore, and yet we are all told it is the only entry ticket to Israeli society? There is no evidence that drafting people for three years makes them economically integrated. If you want people to learn a skill or go to college, locking them in army service doesn’t help. Except for a few units that are “feeders” for certain sectors, most units don’t impart skills. In fact the few units that do teach skills are dominated by traditional elites in Israel, reinforcing their status and keeping poorer people in cycles of poverty.

All of this paints a disturbing picture.

The army is being used in the West Bank for missions it is manifestly ill-suited and sometimes not trained for. This is because it is a cheaper solution than training a special territorial brigade and paying that brigade professional salaries to meet the unique demands of service there. The army has far too many soldiers for its needs of fighting Hezbollah and Hamas and should be focusing on special forces and high-tech weapons and intel, all things that don’t require a massive draftee army, but seasoned professional soldiers.

As a socialization instrument the army has run its course. It overly burdens the poorest classes. At the same time there is evidence that it plays a major role in cementing social-class lines through stocking “worse” units with poorer people or ethnic minorities, while stocking units that lead to professional success with people from the upper classes and “good” families.

If Israel doesn’t want to look like a worse version of its current self in 2045, with an army more balkanized and with less motivated soldiers doing less important work that they are less trained for, it would do well to consider massive reforms. Reduce service to a year. Increase pay. Train special units for the areas they operate in and do a better job integrating various units with people from diverse backgrounds.

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