Rather than save lives, arming off-duty soldiers could bring greater risk

By requiring troops to bring home their service weapons to defend against terror attacks, the army is taking away its most effective means of preventing suicide

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An IDF soldier guards at a bus stop in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, on January 25, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An IDF soldier guards at a bus stop in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, on January 25, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In 2006, after years of relentless Palestinian suicide bombings, the IDF prohibited its soldiers from bringing home their service weapons, which have always been the most common means by which soldiers take their own lives.

The decision to restrict conscripts’ access to their rifles while not on active duty has been credited with reducing the number of suicides in the army by 40 percent, according to a joint IDF-Sheba Medical Center study from 2010. Another study published in January by the journal European Psychiatry, found that figure to be even higher. According to that report, the IDF’s suicide prevention strategies have reduced the number by 57%.

On Monday, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot reversed that restriction, not only allowing combat soldiers to bring home their weapons while on leave, but requiring them to do so. The decision was made amid ongoing violence in Israel and the West Bank, and specifically in light of a terror attack last week in which off-duty soldier Tuvia Yanai Weissman, who was without his service weapon, was stabbed to death in a West Bank supermarket when he rushed, unarmed, to confront two knife-wielding teenage Palestinian terrorists.

“This directive is intended to increase the personal security of both the soldiers and their surroundings and will be implemented among soldiers with combat training,” the IDF said in a statement Monday evening.

The army came under fire when it emerged that Weissman, a 21-year-old husband and father, had specifically requested to take his rifle home with him while on an extended leave from the army, but was denied permission. The attack in which he was killed let the army to reevaluate and ultimately reverse the ban, the IDF said.

Tuvia Yanai Weissman with his wife Yael and four-month-old daughter. Weissman was stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists at a West Bank supermarket on February 18, 2016. (Facebook)
Tuvia Yanai Weissman with his wife Yael and four-month-old daughter. Weissman was stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists at a West Bank supermarket on February 18, 2016. (Facebook)

But despite the army’s logic and the potential for preventing attacks, it is not clear to what extent these armed off-duty soldiers will actually have a practical impact on stemming the violence.

Though additional well-trained, gun-carrying Israelis may convey a symbolic message of safety to members of the public, they aren’t likely to deter would-be attackers: The majority of the stabbings, car-rammings and shootings that have rocked the country over the past five months have been directed against soldiers and border police on active duty, while they were patrolling or guarding checkpoints.

Even the attacks directed against civilians have often taken place in locations — the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion Junction in the West Bank, for instance, have both been the sites of multiple incidents — where there is a constant armed security presence.

Fewer guns, fewer suicides

In 2012, a Knesset report on the IDF’s suicide rate and prevention practices established a clear link between service weapons and suicides. Even after the IDF limited access to guns in 2006, rifles remained the primary method used by soldiers to kill themselves. Of the 124 draftees who took their own lives between 2007-2012, 103 did so with their service weapons, the study, commissioned by MK Dov Khenin of the Joint (Arab) List, found.

“I am very concerned about this decision,” Khenin told The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening. “Of course, the current security situation is difficult. But on the other hand, we know that the more weapons there are out there, the higher the chance of accidents, and even — God forbid — suicide and murder.”

The most effective tool for preventing suicides within the IDF has been limiting the access to guns for soldiers on leave. The rationale is simple: Suicides are often impulsive acts, and making it harder to obtain firearms, knives and other obvious weapons makes it more difficult — and thus less likely — for someone to commit suicide.

“The idea is to restrict methods that are the most lethal, to provide a second chance,” Dr. Matthew Miller, the associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the US Army’s Stars and Stripes magazine in 2012.

“When you are at your wits’ end, what you can reach for determines whether you live or die. If you’re in a house with a gun, there’s a lot more of a chance you’re going to die,” Miller said.

Joint Arab List MK Dov Khenin in the Knesset. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Joint Arab List MK Dov Khenin in the Knesset. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel’s Health Ministry, which tracks the country’s suicide rate, also attributed the decline in suicides among Israelis aged 18-21 to the IDF’s policies. “It is likely that the decrease is because of the army’s suicide prevention programs of limiting access to weapons and increasing the awareness of prevention techniques,” the ministry wrote in a 2014 study.

The army’s suicide prevention strategies include more than just limiting access to guns. “There are a number of tools that the IDF provides its commanders and officials in human resources to identify overly distressed individuals who might be at risk,” an army spokesperson said in response to the new directive.

In addition, the spokesperson said, the army has improved its internal information sharing mechanisms to ensure that mental health issues can be tracked throughout a soldier’s career, from active duty to the reserves. “The IDF will continue to make every effort to reduce and prevent suicide within its ranks,” the army said.

But Khenin maintained that by removing a demonstrably effective tool in the fight against suicide and violent crimes, the IDF may be leaving vulnerable soldiers at risk. “I think the decision was wrong, and the result will be less security and more injuries,” he said. “I think the army’s protocols thus far were the correct protocols, and I will absolutely bring up this issue through the proper parliamentary channels.”

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