As More Young Druze Opt for Elite Units, IDF Fears for Future of Battalion

Senior Druze officers say most Druze conscripts prefer to serve in units that are open to all new recruits, and therefore, the battalion should be dismantled.

The Israel Defense Forces is concerned about the future of the Druze infantry battalion, Herev ("Sword" ), as there may not be enough conscripts wishing to serve there. Senior Druze officers say most Druze conscripts prefer to serve in units that are open to all new recruits, and therefore, the battalion should be dismantled.

Herev needs hundreds of Druze recruits each year. But according to a senior Druze officer, "many young men are recruited to the Herev battalion against their will. They want to serve in other units."

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Another senior Druze officer said the battalion "was formed in response to needs that have been irrelevant for decades. Today Druze soldiers want to serve in the Golani Brigade, the Paratroops and other elite units."

Following a petition to the High Court of Justice in 2001, the IDF said it would stop forcing Druze to serve in Herev against their will. Yet in the past two years, young Druze have reported being pressured to join the unit: For instance, their conscription dates have been changed to dates at which there are no openings for basic training in other desired units.

"I had to intervene to make sure my son was drafted on the original date he was given, so he could be recruited to the unit he chose, and not to Herev," a senior Druze officer said.

One of the battalion's prominent opponents is Brig. Gen. (res. ) Imad Fares, whose last position was as commander of the Galilee Division, which includes Herev.

"Forming the battalion was a mistake," Fares said. "When you're recruited to the IDF, it should be to the entire IDF. There shouldn't be a unit purely for Druze soldiers."

The IDF has yet to discuss the issue officially, in part due to its sensitivity among Druze leaders. But it will have no choice if young Druze keep choosing other units, making it hard to fill Herev's ranks.

Many Druze also want to leave the army with a profession, and therefore apply for the Atuda program, which lets conscripts go to university before the army in exchange for longer service afterward in their professional capacity.

Fares said some Druze want to keep Herev going because they still see being a career officer as one of the few ways young Druze can make a living. "But the time has come for the Druze community to understand that there are other ways of making a living besides the IDF," he said.

Herev won commendations for its performance in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and last year, a reserve battalion of Herev alumni was cited as one of the outstanding reservist battalions. Nevertheless, officers familiar with Herev say an independent battalion, which isn't part of a brigade, has trouble reaching the professional level of other battalions and tends to develop discipline problems.

The IDF Personnel Directorate doesn't like homogenous units; its former head, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, recently voiced opposition to creating new ultra-Orthodox battalions. But many Druze want to keep Herev.

The highest-ranking Druze officer, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yosef Mishlav, who served as head of the Home Front Command and as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, began his IDF career in Herev. He agrees that young Druze should be able to serve wherever they wish, but thinks "there is still a place for the Herev Battalion, and its conscripts can go far. I am acquainted with the people involved and I know the battalion's existence is important ... There are those for whom this unit is the most suitable one."

The IDF Spokesman's Office said "the IDF has no intention of closing the Herev Battalion."