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Soldiers voice anger as Israel’s politicians squabble

Standing in front of a tank on the edge of the Gaza Strip, an Israeli general interrupted his speech on the war against Hamas to deliver a televised rebuke to Israel’s political leaders.

 

Brigadier General Dan Goldfus urged politicians “on all sides” to reject extremism and unite, avoiding a return to status quo before the outbreak of the conflict in October – when political divisions and months of protests had left Israel deeply polarized.

“You must be worthy of us. You must be worthy of those fighters who have lost their lives,” Goldfus said in his March 13 briefing, broadcast on Israel’s main television channels.

Goldfus was reprimanded by the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, two days later, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said. But his words struck a chord among some Israelis back from the front.

“He gave voice to many who feel they are sacrificing their lives and time while the politicians are busy with petty politics,” said Barak Reicher, 42, fresh off five months of reserve duty.

Reuters interviewed 13 reserve and conscript soldiers on army bases, at parliament, at home and at protests. All of them spoke of high morale among their comrades on the battlefield, but most also described their frustrations with Israel’s political leadership.

Several, from both sides of the political spectrum, voiced anger that the government was failing to address key issues like the reform of military conscription and the economic hardships facing returning reservists.

The IDF, which does not comment on matters of government policy, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office also did not respond.

After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage, Israelis came together in grief. Netanyahu formed a national emergency government by bringing in a centrist party led by former defence chief, Benny Gantz, a rival.

The move marked the end of a period of political turmoil that saw mass protests last year over the hard-right government’s plans for an unpopular judicial reform.

But divisions have since reappeared, with cabinet ministers taking swipes at each other over the Oct. 7 security failure, quibbling over finances and power struggles over a seat at the war cabinet.

A focus of tensions is a March 31 deadline set at the Supreme Court for Netanyahu’s coalition government to draft a new conscription law – which could pose a threat to its survival.

Netanyahu’s administration relies for support on ultra-Orthodox religious parties, which have vowed to safeguard wide-ranging exemptions for their community to military service.

But Gantz in turn has threatened to leave the government if his demand for a more equitable law is not met and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has aligned himself with Gantz, saying he will not back a bill not accepted by all in the cabinet.

The ultra-Orthodox exemptions are a long-standing source of resentment for many mainstream Israelis who at the age of 18 are bound by two or three years of conscript service.

Many ultra-Orthodox, who hold full-time religious studies sacrosanct, also remain outside the tax-paying workforce, relying mostly on state benefits. Meanwhile, Israelis who served in the army can be called up to reserve units until around the age of 40, or even older, leaving behind jobs and families.

Reservists played a prominent role in the 2023 protests over judicial reform, which they said would have crippled the Supreme Court. Some threatened not to answer calls to duty.

The most prominent reservist group during those protests, Brothers in Arms, this month announced it was returning to the streets to demonstrate against the government, with a renewed focus on the conscription law.

“The only way to get things done here is through protest,” Omri Ronen, a captain in the army reserves and member of the group, said at one of the nationwide rallies on Saturday. “This may be our last opportunity and we must not lose it.”

SHARING THE BURDEN

The conscript military has long been a melting pot for Israelis. Its ethical code is meant to keep it above politics.

But reservists have played a role in affecting post conflict political change, with protests precipitating the downfall of Israeli leaders in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war and both the Lebanon wars, in the 1980s and in 2006.

A survey of 1,200 people published on March 14 by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a non-partisan think tank, found public trust in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) among Israel’s Jewish majority to be almost four times higher than faith in the political leadership, which fell by 5% between June to December 2023. Trust in the military rose by 1% in that time.

“Less than a quarter of the public trusts their elected officials,” said Yohanan Plesner, IDI president. He noted, however, that solidarity within broader Israeli society had rebounded after the war from the low levels seen during the mass protests of mid-2023.

Since launching its ground assault on Gaza, Israel has called up around 300,000 reservists, its largest mobilisation in decades. It began releasing them around four months later.

Some are now out on the streets, protesting. Though the crowds are far smaller than last year’s mass demonstrations, there is a protest somewhere in the country nearly every day.

Reef Arbel, 25, was due to begin his studies in October but found himself fighting in Gaza for 120 days. During that time his crew was hit by an anti-tank missile, he said.

Like several reservists who spoke to Reuters, Arbel said he felt abandoned by the government on his return to civilian life.

“I come back from my reserve duty and I need to get groceries and the prices are up and my rent is about to go up and the politicians aren’t showing any regard for my life. They’re just busy with their own political survival,” he said.

Arbel was among hundreds at a demonstration on Feb. 26 outside Israel’s Supreme Court when it convened to hear challenges to exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews from military conscription.

The issue has become more explosive as the Gaza war exacts the highest military casualties in decades. Around 600 Israeli soldiers have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the military, almost five times as many as the 2006 Lebanon war casualties.

Nevertheless, Arbel said that if he is called up again, he will serve: “What keeps us going is knowing that we’re protecting Israel, and getting closer to the hostages.”

Health authorities in Gaza say that more than 32,000 people have been killed there by the Israeli military campaign.

COST

Adding to the resentment over conscription is the economic toll taken on reservists who for months were away from their jobs and businesses.

Since the war began, the state has put together a nine billion shekel ($2.48 billion) support package for reservists, including increased grants for parents, compensation and loans for business owners.

Since January, around 10,000 small business owners who were called up have petitioned for compensation grants, according to the Economy Committee. Around half have so far been approved with more than 62 million shekels already paid out.

Israel’s main labour union Histadrut told the Labour and Welfare committee it has received thousands of appeals from reservists whose rights were violated, including some whose jobs were in danger. Authorities don’t have precise figures for how many reservists have lost their jobs or livelihoods.

Roi Mahfud, whose Combats Forum has been advocating for reservists, said his group had also received thousands of requests for help. “People are hurting,” he said.

Called up on Oct. 7, Shani Cohen, 35, spent her first two months of reserve duty at the Gaza border. She was fired from her job in January, she said.

“I’m not political but I do feel people are beginning to forget that we are at war,” she said. “We must focus on what unites us, not what divides us.”

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