In the June 30th issue of Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer details the doubts some Israelis are expressing about the future of the Herev Battalion (299), the IDF’s storied Druze unit. The Druze are a religious minority in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, whose faith is an esoteric 11th century offshoot of Isma’ili Shi’ism. 122,000 Druze live in Israel, where they are prominent in the military, police, and politics. Though Druze can serve anywhere they wish in the IDF, many Druze youths historically request to serve in Herev. Today, however, with Druze well-integrated into Israeli society and eager to compete for spots in elite units, some claim that to keep the battalion alive, many Druze youth are assigned to Herev despite requesting other units.
Why is there a separate Druze unit? Is there any benefit to the Druze community and to Israel in keeping the unit open?
Young Druze started fighting alongside Jews in 1947, when Druze community elders agreed to allow them to serve in the pre-state Haganah militia. When the war over Israel’s newfound independence erupted, the Druze joined a new minorities unit, made up of Bedouin, Circassian, and Druze. Many more Druze began volunteering during the 1948/9 war, as the community historically supports the local ruling power.
The bond between Israeli Jews and Druze, forged on the battlefield, grew closer over the ensuing decades, as the Druze unit fought in the 56, 67, and 73 campaigns. The Druze battalion came of age in Operation Litani in 1978. During the successful Israeli drive to push the PLO out of southern Lebanon, the battalion operated independently and with distinction.
As Druze soldiers completed their mandatory service, a sizeable reserve force grew, and the IDF created reserve Druze battalions. The soldiers were determined and willing to serve. When called up for the 1982 Lebanon War, Druze reserve enlistment rates reached 100%.
The battalion was later named the Herev, or Sword, Battalion, designated for Druze youth. A new unit, the Bedouin Scout Battalion 585, was created for the Bedouin community in Israel. With the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, Herev moved from the Gaza Strip to the northern border, close to the Druze villages.
While Herev patrolled the border with Lebanon in 2006, Hizbullah fighters ambushed an IDF reservist patrol in a neighboring sector. The Second Lebanon War had begun. The Druze battalion entered Hizbullah territory on the first day of the war, and was the last unit to leave more than month later. Permanently stationed in north for the previous 6 years, the battalion was well-trained in fighting in dense, mountainous terrain. The preparation proved itself in the fighting. Herev suffered no casualties in the entire war, and killed at least 15 Hizbullah fighters. Interestingly, four Druze soldiers rushed back to their villages during the war to get married, then immediately rejoined their comrades in combat.
Motivation to serve remains extremely high. Around 83% of eligible Druze men serve in the IDF, compared to only 72% of eligible Israeli Jews. 369 Israeli Druze have lost their lives in service to Israel. The Druze have a long martial tradition, and service in elite IDF combat units fits that heritage well. Druze soldiers are known as tough, determined fighters, easy to serve with but sensitive about issues of personal and familial honor.
There is a strong element of community pride as well. The battalion gives Druze a tangible symbol of their ongoing and disproportionate contribution to Israel, despite grievances about the state’s allocation of resources. “I think that the Battalion is a symbol of pride and sets a good example for the Druze community,” said Colonel Mufid Am’ar (res.), a former commander of Herev. “Druses can serve in any unit and that’s something to be proud of, but at the same time, we must safeguard the Battalion. I think that today the soldiers have the Battalion, warm homes, and commanders that they can be proud of.”
Why, then, are many young Druze requesting to be drafted into other units?
Since 1971, Druze have been free to enter regular IDF units, and have reached the elite pilot, Sayeret Matkal, and Hovlim (Naval Officers) units. When the first Druze IAF navigator finished his course, his family used every connection they had to secure hard-to-attain 100 tickets to the ceremony. With the greater prestige of regular special forces and infantry units, and the integration of Druze into Israeli society, Druze conscripts often feel little attraction to service in Herev. The battalion “was formed in response to needs that have been irrelevant for decades” said a senior Druze officer. “Today Druze soldiers want to serve in the Golani Brigade, the Paratroops and other elite units.”
Other top Druze officers agree. “Forming the battalion was a mistake,” said BG (res) Imad Fares. “When you’re recruited to the IDF, it should be to the entire IDF. There shouldn’t be a unit purely for Druze soldiers.”
The officers have a point. IDF units created around communities, like Herev, the Bedouin 585, and the ultra-Orthodox Netzach Yehuda battalion, serve two purposes. They give these communities a unit to rally around and express communal identity and pride, and they help integrate otherwise disaffected youth into Israeli society and economy through military service. The units are especially tailored to meet the needs of the various communities. For example, the Bedouin battalion offers specialized Hebrew lessons and carries extra social workers, and the ultra-Orthodox battalion carries no female instructors. But the Druze have no religious restrictions keeping them from serving in a regular IDF unit, and are already quite comfortable operating in Israeli society. For Israel, it is preferable that there be as much integration as possible in their units. A society in which citizens have close friends from other sectors is a healthy one, and Israel needs to be especially vigilant in this regard. Druze, too, are better off building relationships with other Israelis, connections that give a serious advantage in the Israeli professional world.
So why not simply disband Herev? After all, as Pfeffer points out, the IDF manpower command wants to move away from homogenous units.
There are number of reasons. Besides the communal pride, there are Druze youth for whom a specialized environment is ideal. Because of behavioral issues, language skills, or social problems, a familiar, supportive unit reduces some of the challenges of military service. Also, with Herev carrying only Druze officers, Druze currently enjoy an advantage in finding combat command positions. Many Druze are career soldiers, and the army and other security services are important sources of employment for the community.
Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yosef Mishlav, the highest ranking Druze in the IDF argues that “there is still a place for the Herev Battalion, and its conscripts can go far. I am acquainted with the people involved and I know the battalion’s existence is important … There are those for whom this unit is the most suitable one.”
A solution might exist in the middle ground. Keep the battalion, its name, its insignia, and its unique history, but open it up to all Israelis. Druze still have the option of volunteering for it, if they want to serve in the same unit as fathers and older brothers did, but with adequate manpower coming from all sectors of Israeli society, there will be no need to send anyone there against his wishes. Integration will happen whether Druze serve in Golani, the armored corps, or Herev. The battalion could still offer special services to Druze soldiers, including language and financial assistance, but Druze youth who want to serve in other places will feel no pressure to stay close to home. And with other Israelis serving in the historically Druze battalion, the sense of pride that Druze have for their battalion might grow even more.