JERUSALEM, April 16 (JTA) – “We’re not freiers,” read the signs held by T-shirted reserve soldiers sitting in a makeshift army tent outside the Tel Aviv train station.
In Hebrew slang, a freier is a fool, a pushover, someone who can be suckered into anything.
These days, increasing numbers of Israeli reservists feel like the suckers of society, carrying the burden of reserve duty while others dodge their annual notices.
In recent weeks, several reservists’ groups have been mobilizing their lobbying groups, sending the message that they’re no longer prepared to tolerate the situation.
Such voices have been out there for some time. But with six reservists killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence raging since September, it appears that some Knesset members and Cabinet ministers are starting to listen.
“We’re in a fighting situation, and only 20 percent do reserve duty,” said Eitan Cabel, a Labor legislator who is a sergeant major in the reserves. “It’s not fair. And the atmosphere is that if you do reserve duty, you’re an idiot.”
A team made up of representatives of the army, Treasury, Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office is studying the issue. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week promised that the government would present a bill improving reservists’ condition when the Knesset returns from recess in early May.
Several organizations have rallied their forces since last summer, when the government passed the Tal Bill, which temporarily continues the system under which fervently Orthodox yeshiva students can defer military service.
One pro-draft group is the Awakening Movement whose members returned their military identification cards and went on a hunger strike last summer to protest the Tal Bill – and who organized the Tel Aviv tent last week.
“The army takes us for granted because they know we’ll do what we’re supposed to do,” said Chili Tropper, a 23-year-old former paratrooper and a founding member of Awakening.
The Israel Defense Force has always relied on its reservist forces, in addition to the core of career officers and conscripts. After an initial three years of compulsory army service, men serve an average of 40 days of reserve duty a year until the age of 45.
According to figures from Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, there are some 445,000 reservists in the Israeli army, and just 186,500 full-time soldiers.
Tropper and many of his fellow protesters in Awakening, and the nationwide university student reservists’ organization, are in their early-to-late 20s.
All of them were drafted at 18. Many spent their first year after army service traveling the world, and then returned to Israel for university studies – and reserve duty. Students make up about one-quarter of the reserve force.
Recent figures show that only about half of Israeli men serve in the army. Arabs – except for Druse – and many fervently Orthodox Jews are exempted.
One out of three is then called to serve in the reserves, and one out of 10 serves in a job that is considered dangerous – often supporting combat units as a driver, medic or ammunition supplier.
“The general public doesn’t get involved in this problem, even though it affects everybody’s security,” said Lior Shtrassberg, chairman of the Tel Aviv University student organization and a reserve commander in an artillery unit. “We need a major response to this. The IDF has to re-evaluate the reservist system.”
During the last five years, as the peace process with the Palestinians appeared to be bearing fruit, Israel relaxed the terms of reserve duty.
The army began canceling reserve duty for men older than 45 and planned to cancel call-ups for reservists older than 41. There also was talk of shortening mandatory service for draftees.
But with the current round of Israeli-Palestinian violence now in its seventh month, many reservists already have served much of their annual reserve duty – often in strife-torn areas of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Now, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, has made a request to lengthen reserve duty – and reservists are fearful about how this will affect their lives.
“A reservist goes to do guard duty in the settlements and misses half a semester,” said Cabel, who has served 37 days since last April – and recently received a notice for another 10 days of reserve duty in July. “Who’s paying for his loss?”
Here is what the protesting reservists want:
• Financial compensation. Payment for students in reserve duty according to the average wage, not the minimum wage, as well as tuition reimbursement. They also seek discounts on city and income taxes for days served, credits for mortgages and insurance policies, and special grants for serving in combat duty.
• Educational support. No college or university has a formal alternative for soldiers who miss tests or school work. The students want a service at each institution of higher learning to help them defer reserve duty when necessary. They also want three alternative dates for exams, tutoring for missed classes and financial aid for videotaping lectures.
• Work compensation. Reservists want to raise the $4,000 fine on employers who fire employees because of their reserve duty. They also are seeking compensation for the self-employed.
Ironically, the ongoing Palestinian violence “sort of helps” reservists press their demands, Tropper said.
Representatives met with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer late last week, and on Monday they met with several Knesset committees and with legislators from the left-wing Meretz Party.
But some reservists say they’ve had enough of commissions and committees. They want some real decisions soon.
If the talks and discussions don’t come to fruition by Independence Day, which falls next week, the groups threaten to strike at the universities, block highways, picket the Knesset and wage a hunger strike.
“I’m not optimistic,” Cabel said.
Some 23 proposals on the subject are currently on the Knesset agenda, but Cabel dismissed the media attention and Knesset discussions as “just talk.”
“I expected more of an awakening from the public,” he said. “There’s no real drama going on here; it’s just lobbying, not real pressure groups.”
The Awakening and student representatives are more fired up about the situation, possibly because they have more adrenaline and more time, Tropper said.
“Our job isn’t to find the solutions. Our first goal was to get the issue out there. Now we’re passing the ball to the politicians,” he said.
“We feel like the boy who put his finger in the dike. We’re in control now.”