IDF on ‘hunt’ for draft dodgers, deserters

According to Israeli military records, there are a 2,700 deserters and 1,780 draft dodgers in Israel. In the last week alone, the IDF has arrested 474 of them as part of its largest-ever operation to apprehend them. Who are these “deserters”and in whose interest is it to invest so much of the military’s resources to hunt them down?  

By Sahar Vardi

The month of May brought tidings of the Military Police opening its “hunting season.” In recent days the IDF has been tracking down hundreds of the 4,500 deserters and “draft dodgers” it has identified. Temporary detention facilities have been erected for this purpose, other prisoners released from military jails to make room. The press has made threats that detainees will be tainted with criminal records for the rest of their lives, and hundreds of military policemen will raid civilian homes throughout the country to haul in their prey.

The question that remains unasked is: Who are they? Who are these “deserters” and “service shirkers” (a relatively new term for what used to be called “draft dodgers” – people who were not exempt from military service and still did not report for conscription on their due date), to be hunted all over the country? And also, perhaps, who benefits?

In my young life I have run into quite a few “deserters” of various types, some of them during my time in military prison for refusing to serve in the army, others in my ongoing activity in New Profile (a feminist organization that supports the demilitarization of Israeli society). I have met amazing people and heard shocking stories that taught me more about our society than any class at school or university and all my volunteering in the community combined.

So who are these “deserters?” Here are a few examples:

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, and so on and so forth. She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the fellow who tried to commit suicide twice, and whose commanders still refused to take him seriously, so he went home instead of trying to kill himself again. He and many others like him.

The “deserter” is the combat soldier stationed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories whose commander did not let him see an army psychiatrist (mental health officer) to cope with what he’d seen there, so he went AWOL in order to get sent to jail, in order to see a psychiatrist there and have someone to talk to. He and many others like him.

The ‘”deserter” is the new immigrant who did not fit in, left the country, and when she came back to visit her family, discovered she was a “draft dodger.” She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the soldier whose military service circumstances were fine, but did not manage to get a work permit. And when his mother called to tell him the confiscators were at the door, he went home and back to work, as he had done since the age of fifteen. He and many others like him.

The “deserter” is the young woman who was sexually abused by her commander, and when she was refused an assignment-transfer, went AWOL in order to be thrown out of her unit. She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the Druze who completed his full three-year term in the army just to realize that Israeli society still considers him an “Arab”, a second-class citizen who does not even have a street name and address where he lives to receive his reserves call-up orders, and twenty years later a policeman arrested and informed him that he has been a reserves-dodger for 20 years. He and many others like him.

A ‘”deserter” is one of your daughter’s girlfriends, or a distant relative. The “deserter” is your kid brother, or the son of your friends. A “deserter” could be anyone who cannot cope with the military system, and especially the kind that this military system does not know how to handle.

And now I ask who profits from this “hunting” season? Whose interests does it serve? Certainly not all those 4,500 “deserters” who live in fear of arrest, or who have already become used to arrest as part of reality, and will be hunted down and incarcerated. It certainly does not benefit their parents, their families, and their friends when military police raid their homes and comb room after room in the attempt to catch someone.

Is it in the interests of the army to now invest extensive manpower just to hunt down these people? Does it benefit an army that in any case exempts 56% of the population prior to their conscription or at some point during their term of duty? Is it in the army’s interest in spite of the fact that a military committee created to examine the conscription pattern, has recommended transforming the army into a professional one, but its conclusions have never been implemented?

There is one single “social” advantage in this waste of resources and harassment of these youngsters, and it is made quite obvious in the campaigns advocating universal draft: those who have served in the army do not want to be “the suckers.” What they cannot understand is that they already are. The superfluous law of mandatory conscription for everyone is that which harms them, their rights, their freedom. Not the people who cannot afford to obey it.

So here is an original idea: Instead of the Israeli army spying on girls on Facebook, instead of hundreds of (wo)man-hunters spreading their nets all over the country and setting up new incarceration facilities, instead of youngsters being forced to choose between their lives and families and military service, instead of governments rising and falling and rising again while wheeling and dealing to draft the (until now exempt) ultra-Orthodox, and instead of those who do serve feeling like suckers – perhaps the time has come to admit that the “people’s army” is dead, and to abolish the law of mandatory conscription. For everyone.

Sahar Vardi is an active member of New Profile – a feminist organization for the demilitarization of Israeli society. She refused her military service in 2008. This piece was originally published in Hebrew on and translated into English by Tal Haran.