TEL AVIV — Israel's top military officer has decided to disband a 40-year-old Druze-only battalion in favor of integrating soldiers from the minority ethnic community across the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
In an announcement Monday, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, IDF chief of staff, said his decision to shut down the Herev (Sword) infantry battalion stemmed from "the growing desire of a decisive majority of the community" to serve in all units and service branches, including elite forces and top technology posts.
"The IDF sees this move as an opportunity to strengthen the full integration of members of this community in a way that preserves the glorious tradition of the Herev battalion, its warriors and its fallen."
The statement noted the close alliance between the Jewish state and the Druze community, whose members have historically served as an example for "high motivation" and whose members "have paid a heavy price" throughout Israel's many wars and military operations.
Israel's Druze community comprises less than 2 percent of the total population, yet the rate of enlistment is significantly higher than combined sectors of the secular and religious Jewish population.
The IDF noted that some 80 percent of Druze men and women choose to be drafted into the IDF, where they are increasingly serving in units that are unrelated to the Herev battalion. It noted that 39 percent of conscripts serve in combat units; the majority of them as paratroopers or crack infantry brigades.
Another 18 percent are selected for "quality courses" while 17 percent serve in technical support positions, according to the IDF.
In the nearly 60 years that Druze have been serving in the IDF, only one officer, retired Maj. Gen. Yusef Mishleb, a former commander of Homefront Command, made it up to the IDF General Staff.
According to Monday's announcement, the disbandment of the Herev battalion, coupled with redoubled efforts to integrate Druze throughout the ranks, aims to facilitate those who aspire to the high echelons of IDF command.
"The decision to close the battalion was made upon the discovery — much to our delight — that those being drafted are no longer interested in serving in a homogenous framework," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Monday. Rather, he said, "They want to take responsibility and capture senior command positions."
"It's testament to the fact that the IDF is one of the central places that enables integration for all its soldiers, regardless of ethnicity. … We are obliged to continue to act toward full integration of minorities in Israeli society, without regard to religion, race, sex or sexual orientation," Ya'alon said.
In the future, he said, he hoped the IDF would also be able to fully integrate Bedouin soldiers throughout its ranks and ultimately disband the military's storied Bedouin Trackers Battalion.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.