Proportion of Teens Wanting to Serve in IDF Combat Units Drops Almost 10% in Three Years

Rise of 'glamorous' high-tech units and comparative peace in recent years seen as reasons for current decline.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The number of teenagers who want to serve in a combat unit during their army service has fallen by nearly 10 percent over the last three years, according to data published yesterday by the Israel Defense Forces’ Personnel Directorate.

Among those drafted in November 2013, 70.3 percent expressed interest in serving in combat units. The comparable figure in November 2010 was 79 percent. Senior IDF officers said the decline was worrying, with one even terming it a source of “great tension.” But they also noted that the figure has been lower in the past. In November 2008, it was only 67 percent.

Army sources said the drop stemmed in part from the fact that in 2010, the IDF was still enjoying a boost from the previous year’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Wars always increase motivation to serve in combat units, while an absence of obvious threats decreases it. Officers say they had expected the proportion of draftees volunteering for combat units to gradually fall back to its peacetime norm.

Another factor, they said, is the development or expansion of new technological units like the cyber warfare unit, which have attracted some people who might previously have opted for combat units. “Technology is playing a role, and there’s competition between the combat units and the technological ones,” one officer noted.

But while the new units are considered important, officers warned that this trend could be dangerous. “If we undermine the fighting ethos, we’ll harm ourselves,” one said.

Alongside the drop in general willingness to serve in combat units, the data revealed a particular drop in interest in serving in the infantry. Over the last three years, the proportion of qualified draftees with an interest in joining the infantry has fallen from 48 to 43 percent. The IDF said this, too, stems partly from the competition with technological units.

The data also showed a rise in the proportion of teens receiving exemptions from army service. In 2013, 26.3 percent of draft-age men and 43 percent of women received exemptions. Among both sexes, religion was the top reason for exemption, with 14 percent of men and 36 percent of women exempted for religious reasons.

The religious exemption for men – who can defer army service as long as they study full-time in a yeshiva – has long been a focus of public debate, and the Knesset is currently working on legislation to curtail it. But army officers said the large-scale exemption of religious women, who can avoid service merely by signing an affidavit that they are observant, has largely escaped public notice, and deserves more attention.

The data showed that 1,447 ultra-Orthodox men were drafted into the IDF in 2012. This year, the IDF’s target is 2,000 Haredim, and a senior officer said the army was on track to meet this target.

Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, the head of the personnel directorate, stressed that combat soldiers “remain the IDF’s leading needs,” adding, “The fighting ethos is extremely significant, even if there’s a feeling that the military threat has declined.”

Regarding the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox, she said the army was waiting for the new law, “with the understanding that we have an interest in drafting those obligated to serve. But in the same breath, I’ll point out that about 40 percent of women aren’t drafted, most because they declare themselves religious, and some are simply lying. It would be wrong for the situation to continue like this.”

Soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade on their graduation march at the end of training, May 30, 2013.Credit: Nir Kafri

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