SYDNEY – An Australian woman who was jailed in Israel for draft dodging has returned to Australia after spending more than a month inside a military prison near Tel Aviv.
Natalie Gershoig, 27, returned to Sydney last week after enduring the trauma of more than 35 days – including Yom Kippur and Sukkot – inside Military Prison 4.
Gershoig was detained on October 1 at Ben-Gurion International Airport after she had arrived with her partner to visit her Israeli mother over the High Holy Days.
Born in Australia, she moved to Israel in 2000 to live with her mother before returning to Australia in 2005 when her father became ill. Since she was 17 at the time, she had already received her call-up notice for mandatory military service.
Gershoig said she tried to obtain an exemption before visiting Israel. “The Israeli Embassy in Canberra told me I had no waiver,” she told Haaretz this week. “Even when I called the army I got a negative reply. But I didn’t worry because I met all the legal criteria [for exemption].
“I was assured I will probably be interrogated but because of my age and other criteria they can’t really do anything with me. What are they going to do with a 27-year-old woman?
After being detained at Ben-Gurion, she was handed over to the military police.
“I wasn’t expecting what happened next,” Gershoig said. “I wound up the very next day in prison. It was pretty horrible. My partner was left in Israel by himself so the whole trip was ruined. When I finally got out I only saw my mum for three days. Then I had to purchase a new ticket to get home.”
She said that had she known the trauma awaiting her, she would have returned to Israel at a later date.
“Had I been pregnant or with kids they couldn’t have put me in jail,” Gershoig said.
'Could have been worse'
But she acknowledged that she got off relatively easy.
“That was my penalty for dodging for nine years. It could have been a lot worse. I found out later they are entitled to give one month for every year.”
But Gershoig’s Russian-born father Alex was still irate this week at the way it was handled.
“Am I angry? Of course I’m pissed off, but more so about the way they handled the paperwork at the embassy here [in Canberra],” he said. “They could’ve fixed it all up at the embassy. They could have released her from the army in Canberra but they didn’t.”
But a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Canberra said Gershoig arrived in Israel and had “not met military service requirements stemming from her prior residency in Israel.”
The embassy has “no jurisdiction” to assist Israelis in Israel, the spokesperson said, adding: “Neither the person in question, nor their family, has contacted the embassy, leaving the embassy uncertain as to the existence of any issues regarding consular services provided.”
But Alex Gershoig told Haaretz: “I think the army wanted to punish her.”
He was grateful she was incarcerated inside a jail in the Jewish state, however. “Out of all the prisons in the world, if you are going to choose then Israeli is the best, for the Jews that is. At the end of the day it’s a Jewish prison, but no prison is a good prison,” he said. “She was traumatized.”