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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 3, No. 28     12 July 2004


Pride and Dissent in the Israeli Military

Brig.-Gen. Gershon HaCohen


  • As a commander of IDF combat units, I have never met with even one incidence of refusal to obey orders or lack of motivation. The main problem is sometimes exactly the opposite - my troops suffer from overmotivation.

  • Today, regular units do not devote the same amount of time to training as they did five or ten years ago. They are too busy getting experience in the Gaza Strip and in Judea and Samaria on daily missions. However, when tested in battalion exercises, they achieve the same results as when they were training for longer.

  • The challenges of being involved in a very dramatic and very intensive routine of engagements create an esprit de corps atmosphere. This new situation has created the feeling in the military units that they are relevant, and that they are succeeding in every engagement.

  • One of the main achievements of Operation Defensive Shield was within the consciousness of Israeli society. The basic achievements in the toughest venues - the refugee camps - were carried out by reservist infantry brigades, confirming the continuing cohesiveness of Israeli society - that we can still succeed in carrying out this kind of operation with victory.

  • There is also a change in the approach of reservists to their service in the IDF. While only one in ten serves as a reservist combat soldier, these ten percent are carefully selected, which creates a sense of being in the elite of society.

  • In my experience, the only problematic soldiers are those with socioeconomic problems, not ideological ones. The percentage of those who ideologically refuse to obey orders is so low that many commanders have no such soldiers in their units.


In my own experience as commander of the IDF’s "Gaash" Formation, which includes combat units such as the Golani Brigade, I have never met with even one incidence of refusal to obey orders or lack of motivation. The main problem is sometimes exactly the opposite - my troops suffer from overmotivation.

Most of the soldiers enjoy serving in their units and want to stay. Most of the missions of the IDF are carried out by regular units, and this high motivation is the main reason behind Israeli society’s ability to carry on with this ongoing struggle.


The Conflict Provides Extensive On-the-Job Training

Today, the regular units do not devote the same amount of time to training in comparison to the situation five or ten years ago. They are too busy getting experience in the Gaza Strip and in Judea and Samaria on daily missions. However, when the battalions are tested in battalion exercises, they achieve the same results they achieved when they were training for a longer period of time.

The young soldiers prefer to be engaged with different missions every day. When I was a young officer after the 1973 war, I remember suffering from absolute boredom. During the mid-1970s I was stationed on the Golan Heights, maintaining routine readiness for a threat that never came. The challenges of being involved in a very dramatic and very intensive routine of engagements create an esprit de corps atmosphere greater than anything I’ve known since 1973.

During the first intifada in 1987 the main debate within the IDF was about our relevancy, whether we were carrying out appropriate missions for a military force or were we acting like a police force. This debate is now over because the basic form of warfare has changed.

In a way, the wars of 1967 and 1973 were similar to World War II. We and the Arabs engaged with the same type of tactical forces - but that is not the situation today.

Our infantry units operate differently today, as do our armored units. Both must operate in areas where civilians are present. Every day we are tested on the basic issue of whether we are harming those who are innocent or killing those whose roles in this struggle are known. We can still ask, "are we policemen?" but today, the answer is, "if this is the way we can defend our country, why not be policemen?"

In addition, the situation today is basically different from the first intifada. This is a war. Here we don’t fight local citizens but terrorists. Unlike the first intifada where the challenge was the mass of people on the streets, here the main challenge is how to kill the terrorist. In a way it is not as complicated, because we are confronting fewer people.


A Feeling of Victory in Every Engagement

This new situation has created the feeling in the military units that they are relevant, and that they are succeeding in every engagement - a kind of victory.

After Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, the question was asked, "Okay, we succeeded in penetrating Jenin refugee camp, Nablus, and everywhere else we wanted to, but there are still all these terrorist activities, so maybe it did not succeed?" Yet one of the main achievements of Operation Defensive Shield was within the consciousness of Israeli society. We succeeded in responding to the challenge, recruiting Israeli reservist soldiers from their homes, sending them to carry out their mission - even to die for their mission - and being proud of their achievements. It was vitally important that the basic achievements in the toughest venues - the refugee camps - were carried out by reservist infantry brigades because this brought a kind of confirmation of the continuing cohesiveness of Israeli society - that we can still succeed in carrying out this kind of operation with victory.

Israeli society has also undergone a change in its basic approach to the concept of peace. It is not enough to make love, not war, and that if we want peace enough, it will come. People in America and in Israel understand today that peace is something that comes only if society is ready to fight to keep it, to defend it. Fighting for peace is an ongoing struggle.

As a result, the Israeli army today does not suffer at all from lack of motivation. On the contrary, in the last few years the IDF has built more and more new infantry battalions that are dedicated uniquely to engagement in Judea and Samaria and Gaza. Many soldiers are joining these units with a passion because they get the feeling that they are doing something very important. These changes have also created a change in the approach of reservists to their service in the IDF. On the one hand, questions have been raised as to why only one in ten serves as a reservist combat soldier. On the other hand, these ten percent are carefully selected, which creates a sense of being in the elite of society, giving them an identity of which they are proud.

While Israeli society consists of many different voices, as is appropriate in a genuine, open society, the free discussions about everything have not damaged the willingness of the soldiers that I meet every day. While there are some that do not take the challenge and who decide to refuse to serve, this has had little effect on the overall trend.

In my experience, the only problematic soldiers are those with socioeconomic problems, not ideological ones. We help those soldiers who cannot afford to serve in a combat unit because of economic difficulties to do so.

Out of hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers, less than 500 were declared to have refused service. Only twelve pilots declared they would disobey orders and only one of those has taken part in combat operations in the last ten years. The percentage of those who ideologically refuse to obey orders is so low that many commanders have no such soldiers in their units.

*     *     *

Brig.-Gen. Gershon HaCohen is commander of the "Gaash" Formation of the Israel Defense Forces. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on April 29, 2004.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Yaakov Amidror, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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