Some 10,000 Israeli soldiers, or approximately one in every 15 servicemembers, spent time in a military prison in the past year — and that’s an improvement. In 2015, approximately 18,000 troops were incarcerated.
According to the military, the number of soldier being imprisoned decreased by 15 percent and the overall amount of time soldiers spent in prison went down from 2016 to 2018.
Yet incarceration rates remain high.
The majority of these approximately 10,000 incarcerated soldiers, most of whom come from minority and low socioeconomic groups, were sentenced to prison for going AWOL — absent without leave — for a short period of time, many for less than a day, and for other minor disciplinary offenses.
Soldiers from Israel’s Ethiopian community in particular are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their numbers in the military. In 2017, approximately four percent of Israel Defense Forces soldiers came from the Ethiopian community, yet they accounted for 15.07% of female and 10.78% of male prisoners, according to the Association of Ethiopian Jews.
The types of low-level crimes that land most soldiers in prison do not require them to be tried before a military court, instead leaving the judgment and punishment up to the discretion of their commander.
According to Chief Military Defense Counsel Ran Cohen, whose unit represents soldiers on trial, this practice gives far too much power to these officers, who use prison “as a default choice, rather than a last resort.”
“We must increase our oversight and reduce [the commanders’] powers,” Cohen told Army Radio on Wednesday, following the station’s release of the military’s latest incarceration figures.
“These statistics indicate a serious problem,” he said.
The IDF said in a statement that the process of a commander sentencing a soldier to prison is “administered according to clear rules and while preserving the rights of troops.”
On Wednesday, Army Radio reported that a committee within the IDF Manpower Directorate was formed recently to review these powers given to commanders and potentially to restrict them.
The IDF denied the report, saying no such committee had been created.
The army said it has taken some steps to reduce prison sentences for soldiers convicted in military courts.
“A new imprisonment system has been implemented in the IDF, which sets four levels of imprisonment in accordance with the severity of the crimes. This policy, among other things, has brought about a decrease in the amount of time served in prison and in the number of prisoners,” the IDF said in a statement.
However, the military is not seriously considering taking away the power of incarceration from commanders, despite the potential for abuse and misuse, as well as arguments against its efficacy as a reformative tool.
A bad haircut
The level of incarceration of soldiers is far greater than in the general population. Last year, law professor Boaz Sangero estimated that soldiers were imprisoned at a rate 67 times that of civilians.
In part, the massive disparity in incarceration rates between soldiers and civilians is in the nature of military hierarchy. Your boss might fire you for skipping work or having a non-regulation haircut, but can’t lock you up for it. Not so in the army, as IDF soldier Shani Balilti discovered last month when she was sentenced to 20 days in prison for refusing an order to put her hair into a ponytail. An IDF spokesperson said the harsh sentence was not only due to her haircut but because this infraction was the latest in a series of disciplinary issues.
(Balilti had argued that her hair was sufficiently short as to not require it to be tied back. Days after the Kan broadcaster ran a story on her case, she was given an early release from prison.)
The issues connected to the army’s incarceration policies can be seen clearly in the most common offense that lands soldiers in prison: going AWOL.
While a military cannot function with soldiers abandoning their posts at whim, these cases of soldiers leaving base or failing to return to base without proper permission are frequently acts of desperation, not malice or rebellion.
A 2013 Knesset study found that the majority of soldiers cite financial troubles as the reason for their desertion. This has been confirmed by the military over the years, which found that many soldiers who have been imprisoned for going AWOL did so in order to work or to otherwise assist their families.
Last year, a senior IDF officer told the Haaretz newspaper that more than two-thirds of military prisoners are eligible to receive additional benefits due to their low socioeconomic status.
Soldiers with legitimate reasons can be granted special permits allowing them to be employed outside the army, but the process to receive these approvals can be complicated and embarrassing, requiring the soldier to publicly disclose a low socioeconomic background.
As a result, many soldiers forgo the legitimate route and knowingly violate military law by not returning to base in order to earn money for themselves and their families.
“I work in catering, and the peak of my work is in the summer, so every day I have an event. It’s a period that I cannot miss — even at the cost of prison. This is money that my family can use to get by for a long time,” one such soldier told the Haaretz newspaper last year.
For these soldiers, the threat of prison does not serve as an effective deterrent.
This has been found to be especially true of Israel’s Ethiopian community
“The primary cause leading to imprisonment [of Ethiopian soldiers] is dereliction of military duty without permission as a result of severe familial or financial difficulties,” a Knesset study found in 2013.
That year, approximately a third of all soldiers of Ethiopian heritage served time in prison, according to the study.
The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to a request for comment on efforts to address the disproportionately high rates of incarceration for Ethiopian-Israelis.