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Israelis and the Army

verywhere in Israel you see tired, harassed, pissed-off soldiers sleeping on buses, talking to their parents on their cell phones and searching your bags at the bus station. They’re the best looking people in the country getting old fast in green uniforms and not sleeping enough.

Men have to serve in the army for three years and women for two. The army begin their propaganda in the schools early on and by the time most of them begin the initial paperwork most are fairly gung-ho. Hardly anyone at the age of 16-18 is in any position to understand the complexities of the Palestinian conflict and the main thing they bear in mind is that all of their friends will be going. Their parents and relations have all served their time in the army and it’s seen as a rite of passage. They could try and buck the system but they’d be very alone in doing so.

In fact much of the closeness and strong bonds that are characteristic of Israeli society come from all the time spent in close quarters in the army. This is especially true for the men who are obliged to live in such cramped conditions that they have no choice but to learn to get on with those around them. Even when they leave the army and head off in wolf packs for India or Thailand the military influence goes with them; observe Israelis preparing a chillum in the Himalayas – one of them will be burning the cigarette, another crumbling the charas, another two working together to clean the chillum and prepare the safi cloth. Or as a friend observed in Bangkok:

“When a crowd of Israelis comes into a cafe they don;t so much hang out as secure the place.”

Losing two or three years of their lives puts Israelis into something of a hurry. Most of them want to travel and get the army shit out of their system after their service which means that by the time they want to study they’re already 22-23 years old. Knowing that the entire country could be swallowed by war already gives the Israelis a sense of having no time and the army aggravates that, especially when they still have to serve a month each year of recall duty, millouim.

So an increasing number of Israelis try to find some way out of going to the army. One way out is to admit to being a drug addict, if only a heavy marijuana user. The thing about that is it stays on your record and future employers are definitely going to bring it up. It’s also a bar if you want to go into law, education or medicine. On the other hand times are changing and employers are getting more hip. As one Israeli told me:

“I wouldn’t want to work for anyone who gave a shit if I smoked or not anyway.”

The other option is to go for a psychological assessment and give some clue that you’re not far away from suicide. Army suicides have been a painful issue for the government and the shrinks aren’t going to take any chances if you can pull of a good performance.

The one thing you don;t want to do unless you have some of the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi in you is go for conscientious objection. Telling the army that you refuse to occupy Palestinian villages on point of principle, or even be party to such actions, will earn you a place in a military prison cell. This is much harder than regular jail and, especially in times of Intifada, when a hard line ex-army general is running the country, there’s precious little support for those who take a stand.

One thing that the army does for Israelis is make them grow up fast. The average Israeli of 22 years is often as mature and together as someone 5 years older than him in Europe. He may be bitter and psychologically traumatized but knows how to look after himself when he needs to. For women the army isn’t usually as hard as men but still they have to submit to the grind of the institution and they either play ball and excel, or pass a lousy two years in some army office counting the days.

The result is that almost everyone you see in Israel is a soldier. Even the bus drivers and students have to don their green fatigues once a year and go and patrol the desert or hassle Palestinians in the West Bank. The young guys in the army sometimes strut around town on leave with their gun on their back and soldiers are to be seen hitchhiking all over the country.

And the girls look good in green.