Knesset extends temporary measure upping age limit for end of IDF reserve service

Legislation will now expire end of June; prompted by Gaza war, it raises by 1 year the age after which Israelis are no longer called up for reservist duty

IDF reservists guard a Hamas tunnel discovered in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
IDF reservists guard a Hamas tunnel discovered in northern Gaza's Salatin, close to Jabaliya, December 7, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The Knesset on Wednesday extended by four months a temporary order that raised the age at which reservists are freed from duty in the Israel Defense Forces.

The order raising the age by a year was introduced at the end of last year due to a need for a large numbers of troop during the ongoing war against the Palestinian terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was due to expire on Thursday.

The extension passed by a vote of 44-33. The order will now expire on June 30.

The vote came amid a brewing government fracas over the continued issuing of near-blanket exemptions from military service to members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Opponents of the exemptions argue that the burden of military service should be shared by all sectors of the population and that the ultra-Orthodox community is a potential source of tens of thousands of eligible servicemembers.

The reservist age adjustment means that non-commissioned soldiers will continue to be called up for reserve duty until the age of 41, rather than 40 as was previously the case. Officers will serve until the age of 46 instead of 45.

In addition, for military veterans serving in certain professions or positions laid down by the defense minister, such as medical professionals, mechanics, and technicians, the reservist exemption age was raised from 49 to 50.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid attends a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In view of the continuation of the fighting and the emergency mobilization and the significant contribution of the reservists to the fighting efforts, the release of thousands of reservists in combat roles and combat supporters [who age out of reserve duty] during combat would significantly damage the operational competence and combat capability of the IDF,” explained notes accompanying the bill.

The bill noted that it is not possible to replace reservists scheduled for release due to their age with other service members, as “this may harm the operational competence of the units” in which they are serving.

Also, it is not possible to rely on volunteers to fill the positions needed, the notes said.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid panned the government and the bill for continuing to burden only some parts of the public with military service.

“If the word ‘all’ is not in it, it is not a law — it is a decree,” he said. “A decree because it is placed only on one demographic, the demographic on whose head everything always lands,” a reference to the Israelis who do serve in the army.

“If we recruit a quarter of the ultra-Orthodox between the ages of 29 and 49, who can serve – we wouldn’t need to extend reserve duty by one day,” Lapid claimed.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) speaks with commanders at the Central Command HQ near Jerusalem, February 27, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemptions has crept back to the fore of the political agenda in recent weeks after the IDF announced plans to add time onto mandatory service terms for military recruits as well as the delay in retirement for some reservists while also raising the number of days they must serve annually, all in preparation for extended fighting in Gaza and the possibility of war against Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

The plans have met with fierce backlash, with a number of lawmakers, including some within the coalition, demanding the shortage be made up by the ultra-Orthodox, also called Haredi.

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last week that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received a deferral from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record. Some 540 of them decided to enlist since the war started, the IDF said.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group, and release 253 hostages who were abducted by terrorists during the Hamas attack.

To carry out the campaign, the IDF called up a total of 287,000 reservists, although many of them have already been released from duty for now. It marks the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday called for an end to military draft exemptions for members of the ultra-Orthodox community but said he would only back legislation settling the matter if it is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot.

Gallant’s insistence on a law supported by National Unity party lawmakers Gantz and Eisenkot, both former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, is likely to put to bed any chance of the coalition being able to pass a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.

The announcement was welcomed by Gantz, but met with immediate Haredi backlash and vague threats that the issue could bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, August 16, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with ultra-Orthodox military service since a 2017 High Court decision that determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and illegal. Attempts to draft legislation have failed to bridge gaps between mainstream lawmakers who seek a more equal sharing of the burden of military service and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties that demand that the exemptions continue and whose support Netanyahu’s governments have relied on to stay in power.

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