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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/et?ac=004693239412046&rtmo=aCXqhBXJ&atmo=rrrrrrrq&pg=/et/01/4/1/wisr01.html

Sunday 1 April 2001

Israel jails 600 reserve soldiers in crackdown on draft dodging

By Inigo Gilmore in Jerusalem

ISRAEL has jailed 600 reserve soldiers in an attempt to halt a growing rebellion against military service in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the six-month-old Palestinian intifada has claimed the lives of several reservists and shows signs of spiralling out of control. At least 2,500 reservists have gone absent without leave, while thousands of others have become "grey conscientious objectors", meaning that they have fabricated medical or personal reasons why they should not be called up for duty.

Under Israeli law, every male is required to do three years of national service between the ages of 18 and 21, followed by a liability for reserve duty every year - usually about 30 days - until they are between 40 and 50. They make up a 400,000-strong army which supports the regular force of 200,000 conscripts and professional soldiers.

Most of the reservists have little sympathy with the settlers who justify occupation of the territories seized from the Arabs by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war on religious grounds, claiming that the settlements are part of biblical Israel. Many of the mostly secular reservists' objections have a moral and political basis.

The crisis comes at a time when settlement leaders are looking to expand their neighbourhoods, partly in response to terrorist attacks. Last week's shootings and bombings will spur settlers to push for wider development on occupied territory.

Ehud Sprinzak, an academic specialising in politics, said: "Since Sharon came to power many plans for new settlements have been submitted and the settlers have found a sympathetic ear. Of course, the issue of reserve soldiers protecting the new settlements is going to be problematic."

Independent peace monitoring groups say that the number of reservists refusing service has escalated sharply as the intifada has intensified. Several reservist soldiers have been killed and, in the past few weeks, settlements in the Gaza Strip area have come under regular mortar attack for the first time. Clashes that came after a sniper attack in the West Bank town of Hebron - which left an 11-month-old baby dead - and a series of bomb blasts last week have underlined the risks that they face.

Ishai Menuchim, a reservist tank commander and leader of Yesh Gvuel (There is a Limit), an independent pressure group, said: "The reservists do not care about the territories. Many are in their thirties and forties, they have families and care more about their businesses or studies.

"So they are not willing to pay the price and risk their lives for something they don't believe in. This is a big problem for the army because it will affect their operations. The army needs to understand that fewer and fewer people are willing to do their dirty work in the territories."

The issue is a divisive one in Israeli society because many Orthodox students win exemption from military service on the grounds that they must put their religious studies first. The problem is particularly pressing now as reservists are being brought in to replace regular soldiers who are due for a rest at the end of a four-month tour of duty. Some senior army officers believe that jailing draft dodgers could exacerbate the situation by uniting opposition to the draft and even spurring greater numbers to avoid duty.

One battalion commander said: "This may lead to a terrible crisis. More draft dodgers means fewer soldiers for the missions. The workload will increase, not to mention the level of danger. I do not want my men to feel like suckers."

The army is also having to deal with thousands of petitions from parents who do not want their sons to do their national service in the occupied territories. Many have telephoned commanding officers begging them to find safe desk jobs for their sons.

Ruth Hiller, whose 19-year-old son is a conscientious objector, has gone to the supreme court to prevent her him from being drafted. The mother of six says the army has attempted to buy her son Yinnon off by offering him a job in a hospital.

Mrs Hiller said: "We are shaking their tree and the army is worried because it knows this case could open the floodgates. The youth in Israel is saying no but the political establishment is not listening. It is time that we started looking at a very different type of army - a professional army that can operate in a professional way."


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