Army to shutter Druze-only ‘Battalion of the Sword’

IDF chief of staff orders unit closed as part of the drive toward societal integration of Israel’s minorities

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Battalion 299 soldiers in the field, February 10, 2012 (Courtesy IDF/Flickr)
Battalion 299 soldiers in the field, February 10, 2012 (Courtesy IDF/Flickr)

In a historic decision, the army’s top commander on Monday decided to disband the IDF’s homogeneous Druze battalion, a storied unit that no longer drew the top recruits from within the community and seemed to symbolize a segregation whose time had long since passed.

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the IDF General Staff, ordered the reorganization in light of the Druze community’s successful service in the army and its “desire to continue to develop and integrate into the army,” the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson wrote in a statement.

The battalion, which was established in 1974, will not take in any recruits over the summer and will be fully shut by September.

The community of 130,000 Druze citizens of Israel signed a pact with the nascent state in October 1948 and began serving in the IDF shortly thereafter. In 1956, the state, upon request from the community leaders, imposed a compulsory draft on the army-age young men. Their rate of service — 80 percent, according to IDF figures — is higher than the national average.

Soldiers from the soon-to-be disbanded Battalion 299 in the field with the Druze flag (Courtesy/ IDF Flickr)
Soldiers from the soon-to-be disbanded Battalion 299 in the field with the Druze flag (Courtesy IDF/ Flickr)

Very few, though, seek to serve in the all-Druze unit, Battalion 299, or the “Battalion of the Sword.” According to IDF statistics, only 5% of all Druze recruits asked to serve in the unit last year; 19% were compelled to serve there.

“The IDF is a melting pot and there is no reason to found a Druze battalion or a Moroccan battalion,” former Druze MK and minister Salah Tarif told Haaretz.

The unit was founded at a time when language was a problem for Druze recruits. Today, when the commander of the Golani Brigade, Col. Ghassan Alian, is a Druze, as is President Reuven Rivlin’s military attache, Brig. Gen. Hasson Hasson, there appears to be no true need for the segregated unit, which was awarded a citation for its role in the Second Lebanon War.

Gadi Eisenkot is to be named as the next IDF chief of staff. (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Gadi Eisenkot (Photo credit: Flash 90)

The full integration of all Druze soldiers into the army “requires us to continue to act towards full integration into Israeli society, regardless of religion, race, sex, or sexual preference, alongside an all-out war against racism,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wrote on Twitter shortly after the announcement.

He said the Druze community’s desire to rise up the command ranks within the army “is significant and it springs forth from an education toward love of their homeland and from the leadership of the heads of the community.”

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