Jerusalem – Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv Saturday night to voice their demand for mandatory conscription in the army or national service, in the largest protest yet of the summer, and the biggest show of force since the “Camp Suckers” movement began six months ago.
The protest began with a march from “Camp Suckers” faux military base at Arlozorov train station to the Tel Aviv Museum Plaza, where a small crowd of around 2,000 made their way to the protest, chanting “One people, one draft” and “Bibi, you promised, now do it!”, among other slogans tying the issue of universal service into the cause of social justice.
“Something is rotten in Israeli politics”, said former Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin from the stage on Saturday evening, adding that the day is coming when the majority of Israelis will not serve their country.
Diskin, who has been a heavy critic of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as of late, added that he doesn’t feel like a sucker for having service, calling it a privilege. He also said that he and others are tired of their money going to support people who don’t serve, a statement that was greeted by uproarious applause.
The demonstrators didn’t appear to be from the usual Tel Aviv protest group, and were made up largely of suburban families, couples, and students from around the Tel Aviv area. There were very few national religious protesters, probably due to the fact that it was held on Saturday night, shortly after the end of the Sabbath.
Rehovot resident Tamir Shafir, 39, carried his 8-year-old son Ido atop his shoulders during the march, and said that he came after nearly two decades serving in an elite IDF unit. Shafir said that “if things don’t change by the time he [Ido] turns 18, I won’t want him to serve in the army.”
The protest came less than a week after Netanyahu decided on Monday to dissolve the Keshev Committee, which was tasked with finding ways to draft the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs into the army or national service.
Front and center at the crowd stood Israel Cohen, an 80-year-old double amputee, leaning his two metal prosthetic arms over the barricade. Cohen said he lost his arms in an explosion towards the end of the Six Day War, when his infantry unit was clearing a house in a hostile village outside Nablus.
Cohen said he came to the protest from Ramat Gan to show his support for universal mandatory service, “something that should have been done years ago, and something that Bibi can do today with the 94-seat coalition he has.”
Cohen said he believes the public debate is an opportunity for change to happen, adding “I’m very happy this is finally turning around; the army is for all of the people and all of the people must be for the army.”
The march drew in over a dozen organizations both left and right wing, as well as the National Union of Israeli Students and several groups devoted to religious freedom and helping reservists and discharged soldiers. The protest was billed as a non-political, non-partisan demonstration, though there was a very high number of posters and signs for Yair Lapid’s newly-formed “Yesh Atid” party, and activists from the party were out in force handing out t-shirts for the nascent political party.
Former IDF chiefs Gabi Ashkenazi and Dan Halutz attended the protest, as well as former deputy IDF chief Moshe Kaplinsky and former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.
Towards the end of the rally, Anette Haskiyah, an Israeli-Arab mother from Kfar Vradim, spoke of the need for universal service also in the Arab sector, and used the example of her children who have served in the IDF, including a son who is now joining the Golani Infantry Brigade.
“I call on Israeli Arabs – leave your ghetto, go out into the streets and stop being silent, bitter, and discriminated against. You have an opportunity to protest against racism and discrimination, don’t listen to Arab MKs, they are leading you into an abyss.”
Haskiyeh, a Muslim, also made remarks in Arabic and talked about what the army has done for her four children, all of whom she said served and met amazing people during their time in the army.