Before telling army no tanks, objectors banded together online
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Before telling army no tanks, objectors banded together online

Former 188th Brigade officer meets with 86 recruits who refused Armored Corps, tries to convince them to give tanks a try

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the Armored Corps, speaks with a newly inducted soldier who was jailed after refusing to serve in the tank brigades, in the army's Prison 6 on November 30, 2016. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)
Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the Armored Corps, speaks with a newly inducted soldier who was jailed after refusing to serve in the tank brigades, in the army's Prison 6 on November 30, 2016. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)

Though not often talked about, each year dozens of new recruits to the Israel Defense Forces refuse to accept their service assignments, demanding more combat-intensive units, less combat-intensive units, a base that’s closer to home or better service conditions.

But when, in one week, 86 newly conscripted soldiers summarily refuse to join the Armored Corps, it became evident that something was amiss. This was something new.

On Wednesday, Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the 188th Armored Brigade, traveled to the army’s Prison 6, a military correctional facility, where the dozens of tank corps objectors are being held.

A one-time unenthusiastic recruit, Selavan hoped to convince — not beg, he stressed — the soldiers to join the Armored Corps he had served in for nearly a decade. He spoke to them about his own experiences, about their duty to the army and about his beloved corps.

Then-Cpt. Yaakov Selavan stands in front of a tank in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)
Then-Cpt. Yaakov Selavan stands in front of a tank in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)

Speaking to the soldiers, he discovered how they’d come together — from all over the country, for a variety of reasons — to protest their placement in the Armored Corps: Facebook.

“I spoke to these guys. One guy said, ‘I have problems at home, I can’t be [in] combat.’ One guy said, ‘I want to be more combat, I want to be in a special unit.’ One guy said, ‘I want to be in the Border Police,'” Selavan told The Times of Israel on Wednesday evening.

“Everyone told me a different reason. So I asked them, how are you guys all here together?” he said. “And they told me, we created a Facebook group for everyone who doesn’t want to go into the tanks.”

Of course, Facebook protests are nothing new for the IDF.

‘I asked them, how are you guys all here together? And they told me, we created a Facebook group’

Last year, soldiers took to the social media site to decry changes to the army’s facial hair policy, an issue which was ultimately resolved by the High Court of Justice. The year before, servicemen used the site to protest the perceived mistreatment of Nahal Brigade soldier David Adamov, who was investigated by Military Police for cocking his weapon at Palestinian provocateurs in Hebron.

But this use of social media, not as a form of protest in and of itself, but as an organizing tool for real-world action, has never been seen on this scale in the IDF.

“The army is facing a challenge it never faced. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it because if the army gives up here, it’s going to happen every four months,” Selavan said.

Talking ‘dugri’

The 86 objectors came from a group of some 200 inductees who were assigned to the Armored Corps, either to serve in the tanks themselves or as part of its accompanying infantry units.

The tank brigades have been one of the least popular choices for new recruits. They were, and are, viewed as being “softer” than the infantry brigades; the soldiers were perceived as grease monkeys, always working on their tanks. They were said to have the worst service conditions, with fewer weekends off.

Israeli soldiers clean the barrel of a tank cannon at a deployment area near the border with the Gaza Strip on August 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers clean the barrel of a tank cannon at a deployment area near the border with the Gaza Strip on August 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2016, just 0.7 percent of expected recruits requested a spot in the tank brigades, head of the Armored Corps Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson told The Times of Israel earlier this year.

“There are still people who look at us and say, there’s infantry and then there’s armored. You’re less ‘fighters.’ You’re less,” Hasson said.

“There are stigmas that we can’t destroy, until once you get into the corps. But once you’re in the corps, it’s already too late. I want someone who chooses me, not someone who falls in love with me once he’s with me,” he said.

A decade ago, Selavan also didn’t want to join the Armored Corps, for many of the same reasons. But once inside, he was hooked.

According to Selavan, only those who didn’t serve in the tank brigades, or alongside them in combat, see the Armored Corps as being less tough or essential to the IDF.

“We’ve had a lot of bad PR over the years,” he said.

Unlike infantry soldiers, who take home their tricked-out Tavor assault rifles, tank operators don’t get to show off their Merkava IV to the kids back home. And in some cases, their contributions to Israel’s security go unmentioned.

‘No one’s speaking out for the tanks’

For instance, in Sunday’s clash between IDF soldiers and members of an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group, the army noted in official statements only that Golani Brigade soldiers and an air force vehicle were involved.

“But there’s one thing [people] don’t know: There was a tank from the 188th Armored Brigade that also shot at the terrorists, at their facility. Why don’t we know that? Because someone decided that it’s not right to publicize it,” Selavan said.

“No one’s speaking out for the tanks,” he added.

So after hearing parents of objectors on the radio decrying the Armored Corps, Selavan decided to visit Prison 6 and try to spread the tank gospel.

In order to get into the facility, he had to again don an army uniform; but after noticing the eyes of the objectors glazing over as he spoke, he put back on his civilian clothes.

“I told them, ‘Let’s talk dugri,'” Selavan said, using Israeli slang for straightforward.

“We didn’t beg them. We came from an adult place of, ‘We’re a good unit. We feel you don’t know our unit, so come listen to us,'” he said.

Selavan, who today speaks professionally about Israel and the IDF, told the soldiers he understood their objections, but chastised them for “running away” because things didn’t go the way they’d wanted.

‘Tomorrow morning a lot of them will make the right decision’

“The army takes a lot out of you. It takes your family time, your girlfriend time; sometimes it takes your happiness, your freedom,” Selavan told them. “But it also gives you a lot.”

This message — or possibly the threat of further jail time — resonated with a handful of the soldiers, who gave up their protest and agreed to enter the Armored Corps, Selavan said. But the vast majority had another night in Prison 6 ahead of them.

“They’ll sleep on it tonight, and then tomorrow morning a lot of them will make the right decision,” he said.

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