Israeli Military May Do About-face on Letting Soldiers Go to Protests

Permission was granted to off-duty soldiers two years ago, but never implemented.

Israelis camp on Rothschild Boulevard in protest of high housing prices, Tel Aviv, Israel, August 10, 2011.
Liron Almos, Flash 90 / JTA

The army is now reconsidering permission it granted two years ago, but has yet to implement, for off-duty soldiers to take part in demonstrations.

The Israel Defense Forces changed the regulation prohibiting soldiers from taking part “in any demonstration or any march held by a non-military entity,” in light of the social demonstrations and soldiers’ participation in demonstrations supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, in which soldiers were participating out of uniform, making the regulation irrelevant.

The new order, signed by then-head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, in 2014, stated that as long as soldiers were not in uniform and the demonstration did not involve the army or its policies, activities or tasks, or undermined the army, soldiers could take part.

But implementation of the regulation has been delayed for two years, and now the army is reconsidering it, mainly due to the fact many soldiers took part in last year’s protests by the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which were sparked by the violent arrest of a soldier from the community.

Senior officers are said to have felt that because a change in the regulation was planned, soldiers could take part in the demonstrations as long as they were not in uniform. However, the demonstrations not only protested discrimination and racism against Ethiopian-Israelis, but also against government policies and bodies enforcing it and, according to some senior officers, the IDF should not allow its soldiers to take part in such protests.

In recent months, as the army reconsiders the matter, changes in the language of the regulation have been proposed. It has been suggested that soldiers not be allowed to join protests on political or party issues, as the current regulation prohibiting soldiers from signing petitions states.

However, in internal discussions on the subject, participants reportedly wondered if there were any protests that do not deal with political issues.

In 2014, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel asked the IDF to cancel the regulation against soldiers participating in demonstrations, arguing that such a regulation is unconstitutional and does not take into consideration the right of IDF soldiers to freedom of expression.

In response to a letter from an officer in the reserves, Barbivai wrote: “There is no need to waste words to explain the logic at the basis of the prohibition against soldiers taking part in demonstrations in general, and controversial public issues in particular.”

The IDF Spokesman’s Office responded that the regulation was “now under study by the relevant professionals in the framework of a round of comments that are required to complete before it is approved.”