IDF Soldiers of Ethiopian Descent Are More Likely to Land in Military Prison or Desert

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The percentage of Israeli soldiers from the Ethiopian community that are in military prison, absent without leave or have deserted is five times that of the general population, according to a military officer who spoke at the Knesset on Tuesday in a session dedicated to the issue. 

The Israel Defense Forces classifies soldiers who were jailed, went AWOL or deserted as having “failed in service,” and they estimate that 10 percent of those soldiers are Ethiopian, compared to 2 percent in the general population. 

The State Control Committee's session in the Knesset focused on integrating and advancing members the Ethiopian community in the wake of a report from the State Comptroller. The report addressed not only integration of Ethiopian soldiers in the IDF, but also activities of the educational system, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, integration into civil service and more.

There are approximately 6,300 members of the Ethiopian community now serving in the IDF, with about 2,000 enlisting every year. They are considered highly motivated for military service and many are placed in combat units – 27 percent compared to 25 percent for all draftees. 

But Ethiopians are also overrepresented at what is considered the lowest level of military service, according to Lt. Col. Amir Vadamni, head of the personnel planning branch for the regular army in the IDF’s personnel directorate, who spoke at the session today. 

“We need to move people to more significant positions,” Vadamni told the committee. There is already “corrective preferential [treatment]” for community members in key positions in the intelligence corps, air force and navy; including “easing criteria so they can place more people in those positions,” he added. 

A 2011 Haaretz report found that a quarter of all Ethiopian soldiers flee at some point during their service – a figure three times higher than in the general population of draftees. The report also revealed that nearly one in eight soldiers who received financial support for their families during service are Ethiopian - double the figure for the entire IDF.

In light of these harsh statistics, the personnel directorate created a new department last year to help integrate Ethiopian soldiers. The department focuses on preparing soldiers for service, preparing their commanders to deal with them more effectively, and finding ways to better integrate the soldiers into Israeli society following service. 

But the IDF still has not succeeded in reducing the numbers of Ethiopian soldiers entering military prison. A fifth of all soldiers in military jails are from the Ethiopian community, said the IDF. Last year there was even a small increase in these figures, which Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, head of the IDF’s personnel directorate, called worrying. 

Despite the good will of Ethiopians volunteering for combat units, with special emphasis on the infantry, there is a significant dropout rate later. This dropout rate is higher among the soldiers from the Ethiopian community, mostly in later stages of service after the soldiers have completed basic training, Vadamni told the committee. During basic training and the initial stage of more advanced military training, the soldiers are well cared for, he added. 

In light of these figures, the IDF will provide special preparation for every Ethiopian recruit that ranks low in certain areas during preliminary screenings.  

"We already see a change among those who have received this preparation for the IDF and combat service, and we see the dropout and ‘failed service’ rates have fallen significantly as a result of this preparation,” said Vadamni. “We are expanding this activity so that every soldier who needs it will receive preparation. We also increased quotas for pre-military preparatory programs and today, in practice, there is no limit." 

Ethiopian soldiers in the Israeli military.Credit: Doron Golan

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