The IDF incarcerates 14,000 soldiers a year, with Ethiopians making up a disproportionate number. A look inside the army prison system.
Adam Keller, a spokesman for Gush Shalom, remembers his second spell in an Israeli military prison in 1988. He had been sentenced for spraying anti-occupation graffiti on several tanks at his base.
“When I got to prison and people heard why I was there, they told me, ‘you need to be careful of the Ethiopian, he killed an Arab.’ I later met him face to face when I was being taken to court; we were handcuffed together.
I told him what I was accused of. He said, “How I wish I had not gone [to the army], and I would not be in this trouble.”
It turned out, Keller explains, that the recent immigrant had been sent to Gaza during the first intifada.
He had hitched a ride with several other soldiers to get to his base, and some Palestinians had stoned the jeep. The soldiers left him to chase the rioters.
“There was a crowd [of Palestinians] surrounding the jeep and he felt terrified and killed someone.
My clear impression was there were other cases like this in the intifada, and usually the officers said the soldier acted in self-defense and he got off with a very minimal punishment. I got the impression [the Ethiopian soldier] was regarded with contempt and that because he was Ethiopian he got a year in prison.”
Keller became friends with the man, who it turned out had served with the Ethiopian army fighting separatists in Eritrea. He told Keller how he had come to Israel through Sudan and how he had met Sonia Peres (President Shimon Peres’s late wife). But now he was sitting in an IDF prison.
The story is one of myriads of examples of soldiers who have been incarcerated during their army service. The IDF has approximately 170,000 soldiers, according to Oxford University’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. Of these, around 5 percent are career soldiers, the rest conscripts. According to the most recent statistics the army sent 14,042 soldiers to prison last year, most to serve relatively short sentences, such as a month or two. Almost all these soldiers are serving their compulsory military service and are male.
Yet alarming statistics show that soldiers of Ethiopian origin are five times more likely to be sent to prison and that fully 50% of Ethiopian men in the army see the inside of a jail.
The army has enacted several programs over the years to rehabilitate incarcerated soldiers and work with those from poorer backgrounds, such as Ethiopians, to help them balance the demands of home life with an army service where pay is almost nonexistent. However, in a recent Knesset session concerns were raised that the army is not doing enough to address the problem.
The notion of the army as a transformative melting pot of Israeli society, preparing men and women for the job market, contrasts with the high levels of incarceration. Who are they? Why are they in prison? What are the conditions in the prisons? Every army has an internal prison system, the “brig” or “stockade,” with its own internal rules, such as the US Uniform Code of Military Justice, that spell out the rights of soldiers and the process of court martial and representation. Conscript armies, in which soldiers are compelled to serve, find their prison populations grow during wartime. Statistics are not always readily available, but the prison population of US army personnel in Vietnam expanded from around 140 in the early 1960s to 719 in 1968 when there were some 450,000 soldiers in the country.
In Israel the number of IDF prisoners has declined from 15,000 in 2002, during the height of the second intifada.
Prisoners are kept at two large facilities. The first is Prison 4 at Tzrifin base near Ramle, the larger and older of the prisons, which can house more than 600 inmates. A smaller prison, called Prison 6, is located next to Atlit. Other detention centers on bases throughout the country house short-term prisoners not included in the general count, but which estimates put at several thousand a year.
The prisoner experience has been with the IDF since its inception. Uri Avnery recalls his own “intermezzo” in prison in July 1984, at the height of the War of Independence, in his book 1948. When he entered the cell he was “greeted with cheer from my comrades, who were in here for the same misdemeanor: absence without leave.” It was a respite from the “flea-infested Arab villages” he had been fighting in during the war.
“Actually you can’t really be punished if you are in a fighting unit. What can they do to you? Withdraw your leave? You don’t get any anyway.”
Soldiers end up in military prison for diverse reasons: stealing from other soldiers, falling asleep on guard duty, losing their weapons, receiving two call-ups at the same time and reporting to the “wrong” unit, driving a jeep without a driver’s license, or showing up to their base late or not at all.
Although they are a tiny minority, the best known military prisoners over the years have been those who refused service for political reasons.
Keller initially enlisted at 18 just after the Yom Kippur War. “At the time I didn’t have the tendency to refuse. I wanted to be a combat soldier but ended up running a warehouse,” he said. By 1984, however, he had become more politically active and refused the order to go to Lebanon.
“There was an officer who said if you don’t go we have to fill a quota and when you refuse we send you to prison and we will send someone else who will have to go in your place. They gave me two hours to decide.”
Keller stayed the course. “There are two [justice] systems in the army, a disciplinary hearing and court martial. The disciplinary hearing is when the officer has the right to send you to one month in prison, and this takes five minutes – no audience or lawyers, it is in his office. The army usually prefers this method because they don’t like the publicity of a court martial. In 1984 I was in Prison 4 for one month.”
In 1988 when he was sent to prison again he recalls that there were around eight others who refused for political reasons. There were also religious prisoners who had fled their service to study in yeshiva. The leftists eschewed contact with them, but Keller saw an opportunity.
“I felt despite all these [differences], when there are two organized groups of prisoners, we should have some kind of cooperation and accommodation because it makes us stronger to ward the prison administration.”
In one case the religious men refused to come to roll call because they were praying.
“There was a woman guard named Sandra and she sent someone to call them and they were still there.
Then she went into the synagogue and dragged them out by their tefillin, and they were shocked by this desecration and asked me to draft for them a protest letter to [Yitzhak] Peretz, the leader of Shas.”
In the 1980s, as today, many of the guards at the prison are female soldiers.
“They would object to being called ‘guards,’ officially they are there to instruct the prisoners how to be good soldiers,” explains Keller. With so many women assigned to guard men the tensions are clear.
“When you take a girl of 18 or 19 and she must control 60 men… she must be much more tough than a man. Especially since these men often indulge in sexual fantasies about these women, especially in the evening before lights out.”
Keller recalls a harsher regime in his time.
“At half past four you are woken up and must stand up for roll call, and those who are not there get a day added to their sentence. One skill you learn is how to sleep while standing at attention. I can still do it.”
The logic was that since combat soldiers sleep only six hours, the prisoners should not have it better.
“After roll call and breakfast, we would work. I cut uniforms up as rags for tanks…. After work they kept us on our toes, with roll calls all the time [so we would not sleep].”
In 1990, the last time Keller saw the inside of a prison, he collected testimonies from prisoners claiming to have been mistreated by the guards.
This resulted in a small scandal in which the head of the prison lost his job. One grievance was lack of bathroom privacy.
“There was no toilet privacy, just a kind of bucket in the middle, and there were 10 or 12 of us in the cell, so you had to do it in front of all the people in the cell. For me it was very embarrassing. I was told that afterward, due to my report, toilet privacy was given.”
BY THE time Anton Marks served his time in 2002, the routine had changed. Born in the UK in 1974 he made aliya in 1999.
“In 2002 in October I went to the army for 100 days of shlav bet [shortened service program for immigrant soldiers]. I did training and then a course in communications in the Negev for a month…. They wanted to send me to the territories to guard settlements and I said please put me somewhere… anywhere else within the Green Line, that is against my conscience…. I grew up in a socialist Zionist movement, Habonim Dror,and was involved in peace groups.”
His initial refusal seemed to go over well. “I didn’t get on the bus and went home.”
But later he was sentenced to prison. “I refused the order again…
I was told to go to the Pikud Tzafon [Northern Command] in Safed… they asked if I had refused an order to stay in Yesha [Judea and Samaria]. They asked if I had something to say and I said my moral conscience prevented me from being in an occupying force. He said I was sentenced to Military Prison 6. He was some officer…. It was clear that was a formality.”
For 14 days he sat in prison.
“I got to the prison. I wore my army uniform. I was checked in and given a bunk in a big room. There were about 30 guys in there. Every two weeks you get a day off your sentence for good behavior. Ninety-nine percent of the time we did nothing but play backgammon and watch TV. At night they locked the room. It was much like any other army base.
“I was still away from home, in uniform, and got three crappy meals a day, I simply didn’t have a gun on me.”
Marks thinks it wasn’t a terrible experience. “I would like to think that people who make a stand, there is a possibility it makes a difference,” he says.
SOME SOLDIERS commit crimes. Moti, a soldier in the Kfir Brigade from 2009 to 2011, was arrested by military police for drug use during leave.
“I decided during that vacation, I went out drinking and smoked a bit, and at about three in the morning I woke up with three army cops around my bed.”
He was sentenced to 101 days, first in Prison 4 and then Prison 6.
“The conditions were pretty horrible; in Prison 4 we had 50 people in a cell. It was a long cell with bunk beds. There were Beduin, Druse, religious, secular. We had a neo-Nazi with a tattoo of a swastika on his back. It was an interesting experience. Very demoralizing.
“You have 18-year-old girls in charge of you. You have guys who are 21 and their whole life is controlled by this girl. They can make you march in circles for an hour because they feel like they have some type of control. Three times a day you line up for a roll call and you eat three times, you pray if you want and the rest of the time you sit in the cell. If you are lucky you get work and can go outside the cell to clean or work in the kitchen.
“In the courtyard there were three bathrooms and only two showers that worked, for 50 people. But at one point the toilets didn’t work and we couldn’t go to the bathroom and we had to pee in the sinks.”
At Prison 6 there was one bathroom for 100 people and the showers were in public view. In the tent he slept in the water would seep through and pool in the sleeping bag.
ANOTHER SOLDIER, also named Adam, had served in the US Marine Corps. For him prison didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He recalled that Moshe Dayan had once said every soldier should “go to prison, screw an officer and kill a terrorist.”
As a lone soldier Adam faced special hardships.
“We never got an apartment. I lived in squalor, I was staying at hostels and friends’ places, paying out of my pocket, because the army would only give you a stipend if you could show a contract for an apartment. I was almost court-martialed. Basically, my last day in Lebanon a soldier threatened to kill me and I hit him with a helmet.”
Later he was transferred to a unit he hated, driving trucks in logistics.
“It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I slept in a lot. Eventually I got court-martialed for my lack of respect, and it was all in Hebrew which I didn’t understand much.”
He was sent to a detention center near Mitzpe Ramon.
“It was really funny, the whole procedure. It was a joke. I could have run away if I wanted. We got to the jail, the place is the size of a basketball court, it is on a huge base. There is good food at the base. I had spent nine months eating crap on combat bases.
“I arrived at the jail, [and] the commander, an ars [derogatory word for Mizrahi Jews] from Tel Aviv, loved Americans. And there were not too many of us in the jail ever.”
ANY SOLDIER who has not reported to his unit for under 21 days is defined as absent without leave. Some of those sentenced for being AWOL are guilty of infractions such as not showing up for guard duty or arriving at the base late.
For instance, one soldier had to make his way from Kiryat Ekron to his base every Sunday, and public transportation meant he never arrived on time. Despite appeals to his commanding officer he was sentenced to prison for being AWOL.
Those gone for longer periods are considered deserters and theoretically face up to 15 years in prison. In 2012 it was estimated that around 4,500 soldiers were “deserters” or draft dodgers.
For example, Yana Gorelik, a Canadian Israeli, left the country at age 17 in the 1990s after receiving a call up. In 2012 she was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison.
Many of those sent to prison for being AWOL leave the army for economic reasons.
SAHAR VARDI, who refused to do military service in 2008, claims, “The ‘deserter’ is the young woman who, throughout her military term, would spend one month on the base, then several months at home to help her family make ends meet, then some months in the army jail.”
Keller also felt that most of those he met had been sent to prison due to having to make tough choices.
“They wanted to work for their families. There was a farmer from a moshav who was called up during the harvest. They were very often saying that they got no consideration [when they asked for exemptions]. They asked for a delay of a month or two [to do reserve duty]. But the army was inflexible. I really think that at least half the cases I wrote requests for pardons for were of this [type].”
One soldier had just spent his life savings to open a store, asked for his service to be deferred and was refused. MPs showed up and arrested him.
In another strange case a Druse soldier purchased Arabic cassette tapes from a South Lebanese Army soldier and sought to sell them in Tel Aviv. He got five months in prison.
Moti felt that most of those he met were in debt or their families were desperately poor and they had left the army to work, often because they were refused permission to work during their service.
“A lot of them just wanted to support their families.
Some also hated their units and wanted out.”
Adam adds that one problem was that officers have undue power over the soldiers, and that some soldiers who made mistakes were not disciplined while others were sent to prison.
“What is justice, is it arbitrary? The system of authority is giving 19-year-olds power over people. It is ridiculous. I heard people getting sent to prison because an officer has an ego.”
Similarly Keller felt that “most of those in prison were Mizrahi…
many Iraqis and Moroccans, many had little education.”
Haggai Matar, another conscientious objector who spent time in prison in 2002, notes that “there were a lot of Druse and Beduin, [in greater proportion] than in society. The Ethiopians, the Russians. In the prison lingo they were non-Israelis and the ‘Israelis’ were mostly of Mizrahi origin.”
A DOCUMENT submitted to the Knesset on July 9 reveals that 66% of prisoners serve time due to being AWOL or for desertion. Although Ethiopian soldiers make up only 2.9% of the IDF, they are 12% of those in prison, and almost 52% of Ethiopian men serve time in prison, as opposed to 23% of other male soldiers. Seventeen percent of female Ethiopian soldiers end up in prison, versus 4% of their peers.
The army’s education officer Eli Shermeister told the Knesset that 91% of Ethiopians sent to prison were sentenced for desertion, as were 77% of Russian-origin soldiers serving sentences.
Ethiopians are predominately incarcerated for being AWOL to deal with economic problems at home and 52% of them already receive some form of welfare assistance. In the larger picture, the organization Bayit Ham Lekol Hayal notes that some 52,000 soldiers a year request welfare assistance because of their low salaries – about NIS 300 a month – which have not been increased for 12 years.
Knesset Member Adi Kol, who chairs the Public Petitions Committee, is direct in her view that the army is not doing enough.
“The army claims [the soldiers] have all the benefits and get all the help they can give. They receive rent assistance and permission to work. But what I hear is the time it takes to approve… for instance if they have to pay rent and it takes a month for army bureaucracy to pay them, then they must work.
“What shocked me was that during the time they are in prison they don’t get the salary and benefits. They leave the prison in harsher conditions and eventually they get discharged. In my view the army is the army of the people and this is a melting pot, we ask everyone to join and we must give them the right conditions to do so.”
She notes that soldiers discharged due to disciplinary behavior carry a black mark on their records when they apply to university and jobs.
“I demand that the army find a better solution…. The army is ready to pay a lot of money to bring in haredim [ultra-Orthodox], we should give poor soldiers the same benefits. The army is a big part of Israeli life. The army is saying that it is only for those who can afford it.”
She notes that the low salaries for soldiers mean many can barely afford their cell-phone bills, let alone help their families.
One Ethiopian woman who served in the IDF for many years in staff officer positions notes that the issues affecting Ethiopian soldiers are not so much about racism as about callous officers.
“The commanders don’t know their private lives. Every Ethiopian comes from a family that has a low socioeconomic status. This means that those parents cannot give the soldiers money every month. The army gives them about NIS 400 a month. Many of them smoke and spend NIS 700 a month on cigarettes. They need to work and their commanders won’t let them. Ethiopians are like a big family, they have 100 reasons to be absent without leave, for weddings and funerals.”
Although Ethiopian men enlist at the highest levels of any group, she notes that many do not end up in units or positions they desire.
“They do three years of things they hate. My cousin is very calm and they gave him the job of driver, where you must be stubborn.
So they have trouble adjusting and getting used to it. They have no motivation. They are told by their friends that if they make trouble and end up in the jail they might get out of it.”
She notes those soldiers who ask for welfare assistance face a difficult process in which a social worker will come to their house and pry into their private lives. Those who wish to work during their service must petition their commanding officer and social worker in their unit. Refused permission, there are cases where female soldiers even turned to prostitution to supplement their army pay.
She argues in favor of reform, saying that “my opinion is that the army needs to make the service shorter for men who come from weaker families, it is too much for them to serve three years. They actually take money from their poor families because they cannot work. There are even combat soldiers fighting all night and then going home at the end of the week and needing to ask for money.”
MK PNINA Tamano-Shata, deputy speaker of the Knesset, thinks the statistics are deeply disturbing. Through breaks in voting for a budget bill at the Knesset dining room she points out that “we talk about equalizing the burden, but we don’t even know how to deal with the 14,000 in prison, 80% of whom are there for economic reasons.
“They say equality. It isn’t possible to say the pay is equal if [the soldier] goes hungry or he lives far away from his base and must travel home.”
She thinks Ethiopians and lone soldiers face special circumstances.
“They don’t even know whom they can talk to about their circumstances. Ethiopians come from a special situation where they face racism in society… they can feel it in the attitudes that people have against them.”
They expect troubles in the army and feel awkward going to their commanders for help.
“The 20-year-old commander is young and doesn’t know the issues. The commanders should visit their homes and see where these people come from. The judge should be someone older. Ninety percent of the people meet Ethiopians for the first time in the army. There are already a lot of stereotypes by that time.”
She wants to see the Knesset call an emergency meeting on the issue, noting it isn’t enough for the IDF to just say “we will fix it.”
When thinking about the disproportionate number of Ethiopian soldiers in prison one wonders whether if it were another group, say 50% of soldiers from kibbutzim or wealthy backgrounds who ended up in prison, there would be a national outcry. MK Tamano-Shata looks up and says, “the country would fall on its face!” EFRAT ZACH, a captain in the military police, works with the army’s rehabilitation branch that seeks to help soldiers reenter their service. The unit works with almost 85% of prisoners. She notes that many of the soldiers her unit deals with are from poor backgrounds.
“Some of them are the main breadwinners. They made money for their household before 18 and then the army came…. Many times the home takes them in another direction from their service. So they run away from service.”
Nevertheless by helping them Zach argues that they can be better citizens.
“We teach them about Zionism and we try to connect them to the larger picture, why they should go the army, what they want to do in the future.”
They instruct the soldier what he can ask his commander for in terms of assistance.
“The commanders send them to prison and needs to work with them when they return. We work so that the commander understands them better, so that they will not return to prison.”
Through help from those like Zach, around 40% of soldiers are given a different job. For 10% they recommend discharging the soldier. Although her unit does not deal with reforming who can give punishments and whether prison is the right remedy, she notes it is important for “commanders to see there are populations that need more help, and to stop it before the soldier ends up in prison, before the soldier runs away.”
THE ARMY’S response to the issue leaves many aspects unresolved. For instance, in many cases it seems officers are not punished for offenses that their soldiers would be.
Recently an officer in the Border Police, where many conscripts serve, allegedly stole phones and money from recruits. The Border Police told the press “if the allegations prove accurate, the officer will be dismissed from the force, effective immediately.”
If he had been a conscript, he likely would have been sentenced to prison.
In 2010 two high-ranking officers, Brig-Gen. Imad Faris and Brig-Gen. Moshe Tamir, were disciplined for letting relatives drive military vehicles, resulting in accidents.
Neither was imprisoned.
Soldiers interviewed from many units noted that certain units never send people to prison, because their officers are flexible. One woman noted, “we never sent people to prison, our soldiers are from the right populations [backgrounds].”
The army does not question whether imprisoning soldiers who have economic and family problems is the best solution, even when some 40% of those soldiers are being reassigned after their sentence.
Shimi, who served in Nahal from 2005 to 2007, has a more nuanced view of the problem.
“Most of those I knew in my unit who were sent to prison were pissed off that instead of going to college with the rest of the world they were forced to be in the army. They complained all the time. It makes sense to me that a large percentage of those sentenced are Ethiopian; they are kind of viewed as second-class citizens.”
“But prison isn’t so bad, you get a bed and hot water and food, your civil liberties are taken away just as they are in the army generally.”