Israel's Interior Minister Refutes Claims About Lengthy Eritrean Military Service

Silvan Shalom accepts Eritrean ambassador's claim that African country’s draft is for 18 months, not 20 years, as UN, State Department reports claim.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Eritrean migrants protest in Israel, urge UN to act against their government. June 25, 2015.
Eritrean migrants protest in Israel, urge UN to act against their government. June 25, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Interior Minister Silvan Shalom said Monday that Eritreans have to do military service for 18 months in their native land, contradicting recent reports by the United Nations and U.S. State Department. Israeli advocates on behalf of Eritrean asylum seekers have cited lengthy mandatory military service as a factor motivating them to flee their homeland, but Shalom rejected such claims.

“I have met with the Eritrean ambassador to Israel. It turns out there is no 20-year draft,” the interior minister told Army Radio. “The entire draft obligation is for just 18 months,” he added. “Any woman with a child is not required to be drafted. Any woman over 28 is not required to be drafted. Any man over 42 is not required to be drafted,” he said.

Interior Minister Silvan Shalom. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Asked whether he considered the Eritrean ambassador a reliable source on this issue, Shalom replied, “Of course. Who [else] would provide the information?” The interior minister took exception when his interviewer noted that Eritrea is “a dictatorial and violent country,” responding, “You apparently don’t know what is happening in the country. Anyone returning there has no problem. That’s the first thing. And the second thing – anyone who has left with a passport and flown from Eritrea to Cairo has left freely.”

According to the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, there are some 33,000 Eritrean nationals in Israel. The Israeli government has applied considerable pressure on both them and Sudanese migrants to return to their homelands, despite the dangers they would seemingly face. Israel has also offered them the opportunity to be flown to Uganda or Rwanda, despite many reports that they don’t receive official status there and aren’t accorded basic rights. In recent years, 1,058 Eritreans have return to their homeland, while 1,980 have gone to Uganda or Rwanda.

Eritrean migrants protest in Israel, urge UN to act against their government. June 25, 2015.Credit: Reuters

In June, a United Nations investigative panel published a comprehensive report on human rights in Eritrea. The Eritrean government refused to cooperate with the panel’s work or to allow its members to visit the country. Basing its work on 550 interviews and 160 written statements, the committee found that the Eritrean government has committed systematic, widespread, serious violations of human rights.

The panel acknowledged that Eritrean law does indeed provide for compulsory military service of just 18 months. However, the report stated that, in practice, children are frequently pressed into military service for unlimited periods of time. Conditions of military training and service are harsh, the panel noted, and there are shortages of food, water, proper facilities for sleep, and maintenance of proper hygiene and medical care.

The situation conscripts face can cause long-term disabilities, psychological effects and even death, the UN report said, and conscripts are routinely deprived of freedom of expression, movement and religion, and frequently subject to physical abuse.

Similar findings appeared in the annual human rights report of the U.S. State Department, whose latest edition was published about two months ago. The Eritrean government routinely presses conscripts into unlimited periods of service beyond the official 18 months, the State Department noted. Both the UN and State Department, as well as other sources, also reported that the Eritrean regime has been guilty of carrying out the murder, torture and disappearance of its nationals.

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