The IDF is one of the world’s most controversial militaries, with one of the worst reputations. Jim Bulley travels to Israel to meet the team trying to change this.
Astonishingly young, friendly and easy to talk to, Captain Benjamin Rutland is the perfect public face for Israel’s controversial IDF. In fact, all the soldiers under the Captain’s command are young, friendly, good-looking and fluent in at least two languages.
This is hardly surprising. Captain Rutland and his soldiers are members of the Israeli Defence Force Spokesperson’s Unit, a special unit responsible for media and public relations in Israel and the world. Soldiers in this unit need to be approachable and credible. Their job, after all, is to be believed.
Differentiating between civilians and insurgents dressed as civilians in the region is an ongoing problem for IDF soldiers fighting in the occupied territories. Rutland claims that the IDF treat it as their “moral commitment” to ensure as few civilian deaths as possible, and argues that Hamas have repeatedly made “an active and conscious cynical decision” to base its operations within civilian areas.
According to IDF statistics, only 295 of the 1,166 Palestinians killed during the recent Gaza conflict were civilians. Rutland also claims that, despite the obvious military weakness it gave them, the IDF dropped leaflets and broadcasts in areas they intended to bomb, encouraging civilians to move out. The IDF can also divert a missile in the air if they believe there are civilians in the area. Finally, military satellite images supplied by the IDF show the centres of Hamas operations in the immediate vicinity of hospitals, schools and houses.
To further explain the threat of Hamas outside of Gaza, Rutland demonstrated on a map just how far Hamas rockets can fire. According to this map, the most advanced Hamas military weapons can reach Israeli towns and villages up to 40 miles from Gaza. Rutland also suggested that Hamas artillery could soon reach as far as Tel Aviv, roughly 70 miles away. This threat is obviously one that the IDF takes very seriously; Tel Aviv is the second largest city in Israel, has the second biggest economy in the Middle East and is very close to Israel’s largest international airport.
Israel is one of the twenty-three countries in the world that still enforces national service, generally for young people over the age of eighteen. Military service in the IDF is usually two years for women and three for men. This service often continues into reserve service, where soldiers are expected to serve up to one month a year until they are forty-five. Despite the average age of national service, Rutland argues that Israel actually experiences economic benefits from the program. He argues that as the IDF invests so much in high-tech equipment and training, they are providing transferable skills that are visible as soldiers leave the forces and move into the technical business.
When asked about the possible phasing out of national service at some point in the future, Rutland points out that Israel had tried to slowly remove its service program but the First Lebanon War interrupted this in 1982. While agreeing that being in a situation to remove national service completely is desirable, Rutland points out that with the conflict in Gaza, Israel now needs more troops rather than less.
In 2007, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions published a quote attributed to an Israeli Sharpshooter, which suggested that IDF soldiers were allowed to shoot anybody over the age of thirteen, as in Jewish culture this would generally mean they were past their Bar Mitzvah. Rutland states that this quote is a “total and utter fabrication”, stating that “Israel has very clear rules of engagement” which the age of thirteen has nothing to do with. He goes on to clarify that “anybody who looks like a threat is considered a threat.”
One of the most contentious issues in modern Israel is the wall that surrounds the West Bank. Rutland insists on referring to this simply as a “Security Fence”, arguing that the distinction between ‘fence’ and ‘wall’ is very important. He explains how in some areas the fence has been destructive. Houses too close to the fence had to be removed as people could just jump from one house to another and avoid the fence all together. Ultimately however the IDF believes the fence is necessary for security.
In recent years, particularly in light of the recent conflict in Gaza, world media has started to take a more negative attitude to the military decisions of Israel. This has not particularly affected IDF soldiers, says Rutland, as they are not often exposed to world media. Higher-ranking officers are more likely to read and watch foreign media services, but ultimately they will follow government policy. Israeli media has also begun to increasingly criticise government action and this is a lot more likely to have an effect on the troops, whose families and friends will also be privy to these news services.
Ultimately these influences have little noticeable effect over soldiers, who will do what the government orders.
As the voice of the IDF, Captain Rutland still has a long way to go. Changing the opinion of the world media isn’t an easy job, but it’s one that he and his team must attempt to undertake every day. Statistics, smiles and an attractive team of young soldiers are difficult to resist – whilst talking to the Captain it’s almost impossible not to believe his justification for national service, civilian deaths and the demolition of innocents’ houses. World media has turned against Israel, and in a changing world perhaps it’s teams like Rutland’s who are going to get it back on side.