Israeli minister plans to send troops into schools to boost conscription

Soldiers would meet teachers in bid to encourage students to join up

The Israeli education minister has unveiled plans to take teams of senior army officers to high schools across the country to help teachers "foster the motivation" of pupils to serve in combat units following a decline in conscription rates.

In an announcement that infuriated liberals in a country where compulsory military service is still a fact of life, the right-wing Likud member Gideon Saar announced that about 200 meetings would be held between teams of senior army officers and teachers, with the stated intention of encouraging schools in "contributing to the society and community".

Saar, who has previously courted controversy by floating the idea of increasing education funding for schools where more people enlisted, also said that he would experiment with publishing individual schools' conscription rates, a move aimed at embarrassing those with a higher than average proportion of "draft dodgers".

Yossi Sarid, a former education minister who headed the liberal Meretz party, slammed the scheme. "I don't think there is any reason for military people to be involved in the education system," he said. "I don't think they have anything to teach the teachers."

The army has always been a given for Israeli high-school students, who screen for units and take tests as they approach graduation. In recent years, though, there has been growing right-wing criticism of draft evasion, coupled with dissatisfaction among part of the public that not serving in the army has become more accepted in the society than in the past.

"The idea is to have a discussion regarding subjects of values that are confronted in the schools. There will be a getting acquainted inside the teachers room on the subject of 'what the Israel Defense Forces means to me'," says Dorit Bar-Chai, an education ministry official involved in planning the programme. "If there are educators who did not serve in the army, that's okay, they can still speak about what the army means to them."

Mr Saar's plan is seen as significantly escalating the militarisation of Israeli education and is seen as a reflection of the conservative values prevailing under Mr Netanyahu. Former minister Yossi Sarid argued that the plan was launched because "Patriotism is always popular for politicians and patriotism in Israel means the army." He added:"This plan says something about the militaristic character of Israeli society. It is definitely getting more militaristic." And Hagit Gur-Ziv, a lecturer at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv, told Ha'aretz newspaper: "This shows there are no limits."

Ms Bar-Chai rebuffed the criticisms. "This is not militarism," she said, "because the two sides are dealing not with military matters but rather with matters of the society. It is a leadership-to-leadership discussion among people who are dealing with those of the same age group."

In August, Mr Saar gave his support to the idea of giving extra funding to schools with high military service rates, including a "personal financial disbursement to all the school staff, teachers, prinicipals and secretaries".

However, despite the ministry's giving the contrary impression, there does not seem to be a problem regarding motivating school-leavers to join combat units. According to army statistics published last week in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, the readiness of qualified new recruits to serve in front line combat units has reached its highest level in a decade, 73 per cent, with motivation increasing after last winter's Gaza war. On the other hand, a significantly smaller proportion of school-leavers now join the army than did in the past, down from 84 per cent in 1990 to 74 per cent last year.

Israeli Jewish men are required to serve for three years and women for two. About a quarter of those eligible to serve do not do so for reasons varying from pursuance of religious studies to medical exemptions.

In a separate development, a Jerusalem municipality committee yesterday approved construction of 900 new housing units to expand the Israeli settlement of Gilo, in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem. British officials last night said the move makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Jerusalem would be shared as a capital to both nations. "It is wrong and we oppose it," the officials said.

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