During the last 60 years of conflicts and wars, the Israeli military has gained a significant position in Israeli society. As Sofie Ejdrup Larsen explores many Israelis have come to perceive the military as an inevitable part of their youth.
In November 2012, the conflict broke out between Israel and Hamas once more. For about a week rockets were fired, bombs were dropped, and as a result more than 150 civilians lost their lives.
This time, the violence was triggered by an increased number of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas into southern Israel, killing 3 Israelis. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ attacking Gaza in an air offensive and killing Hamas militant chief, Ahmen al-Jabaar. This only lead to further attacks; Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were, for the first time in more than 20 years, targets of Hamas’ rockets. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to this with more aggression, calling in 30.000 soldiers from the reserve force in a ground offensive. A few days later, as the Hamas continued firing rockets into Israeli territory, an additional 45.000 soldiers were demanded to the borders of Gaza. An Israeli invasion of Gaza was alarmingly close to becoming a reality.
Called to the front
It was about this time I got a disturbing message from my Israeli friend, Ori: He had been called to the front. Like any other citizen of Israel, Ori had to serve in the military for three years after graduating from high school. As a soldier in the Engineering Corps he specialized in bombs and mines; disarming, planting, detonating etc. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, known as ‘the Gaza War’, he was stationed in Gaza for some weeks. Back then, the Gaza War was sparked off by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The IDF answered with attacks on targets in Gaza; the Palestinian militant groups continued firing rockets; the Israeli forces increased their attacks, and so on. Sounds familiar? After three weeks of this, the madness finally came to an end. Under international pressure, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire and Hamas followed suit shortly after.
Today, four years after he finished his military service, Ori is 25 years old and studies Geometry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, southern Israel. A few days before the IDF called him in, he and I had been writing back and forth on Facebook, since I wanted to know whether he was alright. Raised in Ashdod and currently living in Beersheba, Ori is quite used to the rockets. Both cities are relatively close to Gaza and especially Ashdod is often a target of Hamas. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “I am ok, chilling at the bomb shelter and having a beer… All will be good if I don’t get called to the reserves…” He described how quiet the university campus had become since the rocket fire had increased and called Beersheba a ‘ghost town’. Friday morning the 16 November, a very short message from Ori was in my inbox; “They called. Wish me luck.”
‘Doing One’s Duty’
I met Ori last year while carrying out a fieldwork in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Four other anthropology students and I travelled around the country for a month doing interviews, visiting military bases, and recording a short ethnographic film. All of this in the attempt of understanding how young Israelis combine ‘being young’, while serving in the military for several years – most of them in their teens.
After graduating from high school, all 18-year old, Jewish citizens must enter the IDF, unless they are occupied with fulltime religious studies. Women serve for two years and men for three years. After this, all men and some women become part of the reserve troops and are called in for training 3-5 weeks a year until they turn 55. This is why the IDF could suddenly phoned Ori, demanding him to get to the border of Gaza immediately.
Since everybody has to do it, doing one’s military service is generally perceived as a ‘collective duty’ by the Israelis and has become a more or less integrated part of most people’s lives. Like one of our informants, a soldier in the Marine Corps, stated: “I feel like it’s my turn to watch over the other’s backs. They did it for me then, now it’s my turn. I can defend myself with my gun, but how are the old people gonna defend themselves?”.
The institution of the IDF is characterized by a complex hierarchy. Most posts of higher rank are possessed by soldiers serving their military service selected to do a ‘commander course’. This way, a 19-year old can have the rank of a commander and be responsible for platoons of as many as 200 people. Above the commanders are the officers; soldiers that have chosen to serve an additional year, often in their early 20’s. One of Ori’s flatmates put it this way: “Your officer and commander is one year older than you. The army, you can say, is run by kids”.
Creating a nation
Due to the massive immigration of Jews from all over the world throughout the last century, the population of Israel is characterized by a large amount of heterogeneity. In the army everyone wears the same uniform and obeys the same rules, no matter what social background one has. This way, social and cultural differences are less obvious and instead a feeling of equality is created. The IDF helps integrate different groups of people and to some extend ‘shapes’ them. Surveys show that most people leave the military more right-wing than they were before entering.
In short, the military is deeply rooted in the Israeli society and understood as an integrated part of life and self-conception for the majority of the Israelis. It functions to homogenize a highly multi-cultural population , ‘shapes’ the Israeli youth, generation after generation, and by doing this transforms the people of Israel into one nation with a common mission: Protecting Israeli citizens and preserving the Israeli state.
Last November, truce negotiations took place in Cairo. In the presence of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, representatives from Palestine and Israel finally talked in diplomatic ways and decided on ceasefire. An actual war was once again averted and Ori has returned home to Beersheba to continue his studies. At least for now.
After more than 60 years of fighting, peace seems like a utopian dream for both Israelis and Palestinians. With the support of the radical, orthodox Jewish minority, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government continue the aggressive military strategy launched by Ben-Gurion back in the 1930’s.
An army of kids is indeed convenient in times of war.