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High Morale

Six months into intifada, Israeli soldiers remain motivated.

by Avi Machlis

March 29, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Israeli soldiers deploy during clashes with Palestinian protesters March 12 between the West Bank town of Ramallah and Bir Zeit.  Photo by Jamal Aruri for  AFP

Israeli soldiers deploy during clashes with Palestinian protesters March 12 between the West Bank town of Ramallah and Bir Zeit. Photo by Jamal Aruri for AFP

As Israeli-Palestinian violence hits the six-month mark, Israeli military officials report that soldiers remain motivated to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Senior military officials report that reservists, who account for 70 percent of the army's 639,150 troops, are reporting for duty at higher rates than before the intifada began. This contrasts with past years, when reservists often found excuses to evade service.

According to Brig. Gen. Avinoam Laufer, head of the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) planning and logistics division, about 95 percent of reservists who have recently been drafted have reported for duty.

This compares to about 85 percent who reported for duty before Palestinian violence began last September.

"The feeling among reservists, like in the public at large, is that something must be done," Laufer said, adding that in recent years soldiers' motivation has tended to rise when times got tougher.

The army does not yet have clear indications about how the intifada is affecting new recruits or conscripted soldiers.

Soldiers currently being drafted were polled about their attitudes last year, before the wave of violence began.

Those polls indicated that there had then been a 4 percent decline in the motivation of young Israelis to serve in combat units.

That decline came against the backdrop of political developments in which Israel appeared to be on the brink of peace deals, Laufer said.

"When there is a feeling that we are moving toward a good peace, motivation tends to decline," he said. "When the situation deteriorates, motivation goes up."

Nevertheless, Laufer admits that during the first intifada, between 1987 and 1993, there was a clear deterioration in the motivation of reservists to serve as the conflict dragged on and soldiers were called repeatedly to police the Palestinians.

The apparent increase in motivation, as measured in terms of reserve turnout, comes amid a rising death toll.

Since the violence began in late September, 67 Israelis -- 38 civilians and 29 soldiers -- have been killed by the Palestinians.

Israel has killed at least 348 Palestinians over the same period.

For Israel, the death toll is very high when compared with the number killed by Hezbollah gunmen during the last five years of the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon.

Between 1995 and 1999, about 25 Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon. Even that death toll was enough to break the Israeli consensus over maintaining a presence there.

Palestinians were jubilant when Israel withdrew from Lebanon last year, citing Hezbollah's war as a model the Palestinians themselves should follow.

Israeli military officials, however, said the Palestinians were making a "crude miscalculation" if they hope to copy Hezbollah tactics and wear down Israeli society and military morale through a war of attrition.

If the Palestinians concluded from the Lebanon case "that with a big enough pile of bodies we will go home or go somewhere else," they misunderstood Israeli policy, said one military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"If that's the logic, if they think they will pile up the numbers and get a Lebanon outcome, it's a historic confusion of the accidental and the existential," the official said.

Military assessments of Israel's staying power come amid reports that the Palestinians may be reassessing their strategy.

Some Palestinians are said to be calling for public protests with a lower level of violence alongside the guerrilla-style warfare by armed militias that has been the staple in recent months -- and that has cost the Palestinians a degree of international sympathy.

As recently as Sunday, however, another Israeli was wounded in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank.

While the continued violence appears to have rallied Israeli soldiers and society behind the national unity government's refusal to negotiate under fire, there are some signs of cracks in the consensus.

Yesh Gvul, the movement that supports soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, says it has handled 10 cases of conscripted soldiers and fielded calls from up to 80 reservists who refuse to help suppress the current intifada, including a "high proportion" of junior officers.

Yesh Gvul -- Hebrew for "there's a limit" -- was created to protest Israel's presence in Lebanon.

The group says 168 reservists went to prison during the 1982 Lebanon War for refusing to serve, while another 200 went to prison during the 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada.

Even the relatively small numbers are significant, however, since in the past, young conscripted soldiers almost never dared to challenge military discipline by refusing to serve, according to Peretz Kidron, a Yesh Gvul activist.

Kidron also said that most reservists who refuse to serve in the territories have been given other assignments instead of jail time -- as the army wants to avoid public controversies that might affect morale.

"Outright refusal is the tip of the iceberg, and that has an enormous impact on army morale far beyond the numbers involved," Peretz said. "They know that every time they throw one guy in jail, another 10 get the idea."

Peretz also said Yesh Gvul has found in the past that many reservists will heed the call of duty the first time around -- but will think twice if called up again.

Tamar Hermann, director of the Tami Steinmitz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, said Israelis from across the political spectrum are rallying around the flag.

"Even those Israelis who supported unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon are now much more skeptical of such a move so close to home in the West Bank," she said.

But Hermann's polls also show that, while Israelis have a high level of confidence in the IDF, 50 percent of the respondents do not believe there is a military solution to the current conflict, compared with only 41 percent who think more force would help.

"Israelis think some force should be used to suppress rising Palestinian violence, but they do not see it as a way out of the conflict," she said.

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