Israeli reservist groups express outrage over latest service extension bill

The Jerusalem Post

March 14, 2003

IDF reservists are up in arms about a bill that renews, for another year, the expansion of annual military service from 30 days to 43 days. The bill has already passed its first reading in the Knesset by a vote of 64-40, on Wednesday.

Though most groups that have trumpeted the cause of reservists and a universal draft are no longer in existence, one movement called "Baltam" organized a Thursday evening demonstration outside the Tel Aviv headquarters of the secular Shinui Party, which voted with the government.

Dozens of demonstrators, wearing the green hats of the opposition Meretz Party, heckled MKs entering the meeting. One screamed, "Soldiers are more important than pork," referring to Shinui's recent petition to legalize the sale of non-kosher meat.
In the coming days, "Baltam" plans to take its protests to the Knesset and Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem.

"We're not going to take it anymore," says Roye Ron, 32, who heads the 5,000-member organization established in 2000.

The law increasing the maximum period of annual reserve duty originally passed last October to accommodate the temporary manpower needs of Operation Defensive Shield, but Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim says it is still necessary to combat the ongoing Aksa Intifada.

The legislation is tough on reservists, but hardly unprecedented: in 1988, reserve duty was temporarily expanded to a whopping 60 days in order to cope with the first intifada.

That hardly satisfies the young men who, every year, have to leave their spouses and families, classrooms and businesses to, once again, don a uniform.

"The government is sending us a mixed message," says Eitan Friedman, the 25-year-old founder of "Serving Together," a now-defunct reservist protest group. "On the one hand, they say there's a manpower shortage. On the other hand, there's a whole population the ultra-Orthodox who don't serve in the army."

In Israel, every male who serves in the army is supposed to report, each year, for reserve duty until reaching the age of 51 (though in recent years, reservists who serve in combat units have been released at 45). But after discounting women, ultra-Orthodox, those who have medical exemptions and many who simply dodge their responsibilities only about 10 percent of the population actually performs reserve duty.

And according to the IDF Spokesman, less than half of those serve for longer than 21 days a year.
The remaining reservists say they are hurting. Despite a law that prevents an employer from firing someone for performing reserve duty, there was a 35% increase in the number of reservists who lost their jobs while on duty in 2002, as compared to the year before.

"We want better legal protection against illegal firing," says Ron. "An employer would think twice before firing a reservist of he knew that doing so could land him in jail."

Ron also says financial incentives for reservists are in order. "That way you discourage the number of reserve duty-dodgers."

"It's always the same people bearing the brunt of the reserve duty," grumbles Tony Jassen, 28, a stocky Seattle-born Jerusalemite. Holed up on Tirza, an isolated Jordan Valley army base, he spends his days guarding children at the nearby settlements, as they travel to and from school in armored tour buses.

Also stationed at Tirza is Sivan Malka, 23, of Ashkelon, who was called up right before his college final exams. Last year, Malka served 30 days. He believes that increasing the length of reserve duty will backfire on lawmakers. "It's only logical that, the harder you make reserve duty, the fewer people who will show up to do it," he says.

Jassen isn't so sure. "They might complain," he says, "but those who do their duty now will still come next year. On the other hand, the people who skip out now wouldn't show up for reserve duty even if it was only 10 days a year."

National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky promises that his Shinui Party plans to keep its promise to draft the ultra-Orthodox. "Then our manpower problem will be solved," he says.

When that long-awaited day finally comes, retorts Ron, there may not be any reservists left to celebrate.