Seventy Percent of Imprisoned Israeli Soldiers Are Poverty-stricken

Public figures and IDF officers are blasting the IDF for sending poor soldiers to prison as method to eject them from the army

Yaniv Kubovich
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Soldiers in handcuffs.
Soldiers in handcuffs.Credit: טל כהן
Yaniv Kubovich

Some 70 percent of the conscript soldiers who are serving time in military prisons come from poverty-stricken homes and receive financial assistance from the army, a senior officer told Haaretz.

Public figures and IDF officers have recently blasted the army for sending poor soldiers to prison as a method to eject them from the army. Military sources say that while a new, controversial bill exempts ultra-Orthodox men from enlisting, poor soldiers are sent to jail.

Others criticize the widespread imprisonment of poor soldiers. “The IDF must do a lot more to deal with the problem,” says MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union), who has held several debates on the issue.

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“In the last debate we found that to a certain extent, the IDF has turned the prison into a mechanism to get rid of these soldiers. It sends them once or twice to jail then discharges them for incompatibility,” he said. “This is a simplistic solution that stains those soldiers in civilian life as well,” he says.

The IDF says that in recent years the number of imprisoned soldiers has gone down from some 18,000 in 2015 to about 10,000 in 2017. A considerable proportion of these soldiers are sent to prison for offenses stemming from their families’ poverty. About 40 percent of them are imprisoned for desertion and 21 percent for going AWOL. These soldiers fled the army mostly to work to help their families make a living, the officer said.

Shifra Shahar, head of the NGO A Warm Home, which helps poverty-stricken soldiers, says that despite’s the army’s promises, there has been no improvement in the rate of imprisoning needy soldiers.

“I tell youngsters from poor families not to join the army,” she says. “To be an IDF soldier you have to have a family that supports you. The chance of a youngster from a poor family to end up in military prison is much higher than a middle- or upper-class soldier. The former will have to deal with prison and discharge from the army, something he will carry with him for life.”

Soldiers who deserted or went AWOL say they had to do it in order to work. “I work in catering and most of my work is in the summer, there’s an event every day,” one soldier says. “I can’t afford to miss that, even at the price of going to jail, my family lives on that money for a long time.”

Another soldier wrote in a soldiers’ forum that he was thinking of turning himself in. He had gone AWOL due to depression and his family’s poverty.

According to a survey conducted by Dialog Polling Center among 650 conscript soldiers and submitted to the Knesset in May, a quarter of the soldiers work for a living during their military service, an average of 18 hours a week.

In February this year the IDF published a document detailing its treatment of needy conscript soldiers. The document assumes the poverty rate in the army is equal to that in Israeli society. However, the figures in the document show that the army doesn’t provide the needy soldiers with enough support so they don’t have to work.

“When the army doesn’t increase its support and addresses those soldiers’ need for assistance, the soldier is faced with a choice between his family’s existence and meaningful service,” says MK Shmuli, using a term, “meaningful service,” that refers to combat and intelligence. “Israel has the highest poverty rates in the West and the IDF will have to deal with this if it wants to preserve it as the people’s army,” he added.

On average the army’s assistance to soldiers from poor families is 929 shekels ($255) a month. Only 4 percent of these soldiers said they receive support from some NGO, two-thirds of them receive assistance once a month, and one-third receives one-time assistance.

The survey also found that a quarter of the interviewed soldiers said they were overdrawn in their bank account.

The soldiers who are most needy and are sent to military prison usually serve in headquarters or in combat auxiliary positions.

One soldier wrote in one of the soldiers’ forums recently: “I defected because I was really depressed lately at the base for economic reasons, and the base is really far from home, and I had a bad time and the commander and mental health officer ignore me.”

The soldier, of Ethiopian origin, was thinking of turning himself in and asked the forum members what to expect in military prison.

In recent years, following harsh criticism about the high rate of soldiers of Ethiopian origin sent to prison, the army has taken measures to reduce these figures. Despite the gradual decline in the number of imprisoned soldiers of Ethiopian descent, their number among the military prisoners is still substantially higher than their proportion in society.

In May, Brig.-Gen. Eran Shani, head of the Human Resource Planning and Managing Division in the IDF Personnel Directorate, took part in a debate at the follow-up committee to implement the government plan to integrate people of Ethiopian origin.

“There are fewer soldiers in prison in general, and also fewer soldiers of Ethiopian origin in prison,” Shani said. “If in 2014 there were 795 soldiers of Ethiopian origin in prison, then in 2017 there are 630.”

However, Ethiopian Jews make up 2 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, and Shani’s figures put their proportion of the army prison population at over 6 percent for 2017 – and the figures on Ethiopian Jewish soldiers in prison that he mentioned at the debate were much lower than those the IDF gave Haaretz.

Another problem is that imprisonment in the army is a way to eject soldiers, especially needy ones, from the army. The “problematic” soldier goes to prison once or twice and then is discharged for reasons of incompatibility or due to disciplinary problems.

The annual report of the army’s ombudsman says the IDF isn’t doing enough and the commanders don’t visit their soldiers in prison to support them and help them return to their unit after their release, as required by military orders.

The military spokesman said in response: “The IDF is the people’s army and its soldiers’ socioeconomic situation reflects the general population. The army doesn’t have an indication of the soldier’s status at his recruitment, unless he applies for assistance. In 2017, 10,240 soldiers were imprisoned. Of them, 3,795 asked for assistance and 921 requests were granted. In the first half of this year 5,191 were imprisoned. Of them 1,066 asked for assistance and 367 requests were granted. The number of soldiers sent to prison has been declining over the years. Every request of a soldier who applies for or needs assistance is examined by the relevant officials.”