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There has been a marked increase in the number of soldiers who have been applying to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for leaves of absence during their compulsory service so that they can work - due to the difficult economic situation of their families. The Katef Lahayal organization says that 30 soldiers of the 890th battalion need assistance in purchasing warm clothing and foodstuffs. The parent of one of these soldiers says that when his son comes home on furlough there is no spare cash for him to go out and have fun, so he has to stay home. "It breaks my heart," says the father. Army sources say they are aware of the needs of the soldiers of the 890th battalion, and that there are similar problems in the Golani brigade and other infantry units.

This shameful situation was created by the severe economic crisis and the high unemployment rate, but it provides an opportunity to correct a gross distortion in the army: soldiers performing compulsory service in the IDF receive ridiculously low salaries, ranging from NIS 355 per month for home front soldiers, to NIS 513 for military support personnel and NIS 705 for combat soldiers.

Even though this is compulsory service, it is not meant to be slavery. Why should IDF conscripts earn less than their contemporaries who shirk army service? In 2002, 9 percent of 18- and 19-year-old Israeli Jewish boys received exemptions for Torah studies, and an additional 21 percent were exempted for various other reasons. Together with the Israeli Arabs who are not conscripted, a total of 45 percent of this age group is not serving in the army. Among girls, the percentage is even higher.

It is not enough that the ultra-Orthodox shirk their military obligation, are not exposed to injury or death, and that their parents sleep peacefully at night - they also receive a larger stipend for learning in a yeshiva than the conscripted soldiers. Justice, Israeli style. The rest of the Jews and the Arabs, who do not serve because of unsuitability or dodge the draft can continue their education, work and develop a career. So why do the 55 percent who serve receive the least from the state?

National service demands two heavy prices from the conscripts: the physical danger and the loss of years of income. In order to compensate for the lost income and to close this blatant discriminatory gap, it would be fitting to pay soldiers a monthly salary close to the minimum wage - NIS 3,000.

According to foreign publications, there are about 100,000 compulsory service soldiers, so such a monthly wage would cost the state some NIS 3.6 billion. Actually, the extra sum required would be less than half of this - for four reasons. First, one has to deduct the current salary cost. Second, the discharge grant, which is problematic and distorted, would be canceled. Third, the exemptions and benefits granted to soldiers for tuition, mortgage and income tax credits would also be canceled. Finally, all the bureaucracy involved in administrating these benefits would become unnecessary.

Most importantly, the payment of minimum wage to soldiers would cause the IDF to change its attitude toward conscripts. They would suddenly be viewed as something that costs money. Today, the army squanders these human resources due to their minimal cost. Just six months ago, the IDF decided to extend female soldiers' service to 24 months (from 21 months), so there will be an increase in the number of female administrative personnel at every headquarters. The moment that every soldier, male or female, costs NIS 3,000 a month, the army will start making the right calculations. Suddenly, not only tanks, gasoline and cars for every career officer will cost money, but also the soldiers.

The moment the IDF starts paying properly, not only will it not want to extend the girls' service, the army will want to shorten it. And that of the boys too. We'll see how the number of reserve days will drop, the moment they cost the army money. In short, army duty (after the current emergency passes) will do a tremendous amount of real good for the economy, because one always has to remember that the real burden on the economy is not the monetary cost of the soldier, but the tremendous loss of production from the three years in which he is not working.