Defence - Issue 70 - Magazine | Monocle

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Orna Barbivai

Major General, Israeli Defense Force

Tel Aviv

Major General Orna Barbivai’s appointment two years ago as head of the Israel Defense Force’s Manpower Directorate was hailed as a historic moment – the first time a woman had been promoted to the army’s general staff. She now has to find a way to provide the IDF with enough trained soldiers to deal with fresh regional threats and growing instability on Israel’s borders as well as pressing demands in hi-tech and cyber warfare.

You warn that by 2020, 60 per cent of young Israelis will not enlist. How come?
What we see now is that one out of every four men does not join up, most for religious reasons. With women we have what to me is of more concern – 43 per cent are not joining the army. We are working to change the legislation regarding enlistment of women. It is very easy today for girls to declare that they are religious and therefore won’t serve, even though many of them are secular. They do so to get an exemption.

You said the IDF is opening as many roles as possible to women. What are the limits?
We are now seeing a huge improvement in women’s integration at all levels – way beyond anything we have had in the army since its establishment. You can see me as an example; my appointment sends out a message that a woman can serve at the highest level. We have female combat soldiers and we have opened up courses for them in the Artillery Corps in Karakal [a light infantry battalion] and the Border Police. But I have to say that these are not large numbers. In the past we thought that women were not in combat roles because we didn’t open the units to them. Today we can say that they just don’t seem interested.

How do changing economic and social factors influence the ‘people’s army’ concept?
I don’t think the state of Israel can allow itself an army that is not a people’s army. The operational needs mean we have to draft a very large number of soldiers and the people’s army is the closest concept. It creates a mosaic, a human jigsaw puzzle, that has a dramatic influence on how Israeli society acts in terms of joint responsibility, of mobility between different parts of society and in exposure to other groups.

But by not calling on Arab citizens of Israel – around 20 per cent of the population – isn’t the army giving up on a huge amount of human capital?
Why talk of conscription? I talk about military service and the security of the state but I think we also have to establish national civilian service in a way that will allow every Arab to serve. If there is a framework allowing young Arab men and women to contribute to society in general and specifically to Arab society, that will be great.

How does the IDF handle people who refuse to serve for ideological reasons – from the right because they oppose dismantling settlements, and from the left because they are against the occupation?
The soldiers know that in the army they are sent to carry out missions that are not always consensual. There is always someone who thinks they can take the law into their hands and decide they want to act otherwise. But while the law in Israel mandates service, and as I say we are an army in a democracy, it’s important to remember the spirit in which we work. The army carries out the law without deviation.

Mothers in arms


Childcare hasn’t been a priority for the world’s armed forces. But with western militaries now employing more women (14.5 per cent of the active-duty force in the US), it is becoming a more important issue.

Limbering up

China, Japan [SECURITY]

China and Japan’s battle over disputed islands in the East China Sea has prompted both sides to rethink the way they make military decisions. Tokyo established a National Security Council (NSC), just weeks after China set up its State Security Committee (SSC). These streamlined bodies should enable the governments to make smarter security policies and respond more swiftly to crises.

However, there will be resistance to reforms in both countries. Critics in Japan see the NSC as another nail in the coffin of their country’s pacifist constitution, while powerful figures in China who used to have a say on security matters will resist the SSC’s smaller decision-making circle.

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