Israeli soldiers turn to suicide as two years of intifada erode morale

From Richard Owen

With the intifada about to enter its third year, a spate of suicides has highlighted the growing concern in Israel about morale in the country's armed forces. Nearly 50 soldiers have killed themselves this year, twice as many as in all of last year.

In one recent case, Eli Shahar, an 18-year-old soldier, was humiliated and given a mock trial by fellow soldiers for being a "misfit". He shot himself in the mouth with a rifle shortly after.

In another recent case, a soldier shot himself in a park in Tel Aviv, and a woman soldier severely wounded herself in the stomach when she turned her rifle on herself in the city's main street. An earlier case involved the suicide of a young soldier guarding the Israeli Broadcasting Service.

According to General Dan Shomron, the Chief of Staff, suicides in the Israeli Army do not exceed average rates for comparable age groups in the West. Israel is intensely proud of its armed forces and its tradition of military prowess. In addition to regular forces, all able-bodied men up to the age of 54 do a period of military service, so that "the people" and "the Army" are one.

The suicide phenomenon is widely seen as symptomatic of Israeli soldiers' unhappiness at having to carry out a task for which they were not trained: the policing of the occupied territories. After two years of the intifada--the second anniversary is on Saturday--the Government seems to have calculated that the Arab riots can be contained.

Some Israelis argue that ruling the West Bank and Gaza Strip involves an unacceptable cost in "psychological and social damage" to a society founded on moral values. Soldiers trained to defend Israel against outside Arab aggression "take no pride in having to shoot at Palestinian children and teenagers", one reservist said.

But some army officers say they detect a growing acceptance among some soldiers that containing the intifada is effectively another of Israel's wars. Recent clarification of standing orders laying down more precisely the circumstances under which troops may open fire has also eased problems of morale.

But the suicide of the 18-year-old Shahar caused shock because he was a member of the elite Givati Brigade, several members of which have been imprisoned this year for "brutality" to Arabs. The equally highly trained paramilitary border police are also not immune--one border policeman committed suicide last month because, according to relatives, he was afraid of having to face a court-martial for brutal behaviour.

A growing number of soldiers are refusing to serve in the occupied territories. According to Yesh Gvul ("There is a Limit"), the organization of conscientious objectors, nearly 100 soldiers have been imprisoned for refusing to go to the West Bank and Gaza. The Army puts the figure at 70.

Mr. Amnon Karmon, the spokesman for Yesh Gvul, who was first imprisoned for refusing to serve in Lebanon during the 1982-1985 war there, speaks of "limits to obedience in a democracy".

He claims the real number of objectors is higher because many soldiers make "deals" with their commanding officers under which they are allowed to serve in Israel proper rather than in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, General Shomron, describing the recent suicides as "painful", has ordered an investigation.

-NEW YORK: Western diplomats were working frantically yesterday to block a controversial Arab-sponsored resolution, recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as a state, which was to go before the United Nations General Assembly later in the day (James Bone writes).

The United States has threatened to cut all funding to the UN--amounting to a quarter of the world organization's entire budget--if the 159-nation assembly passes the resolution granting the PLO non-voting observer status.

(text of December 5, 1989 The Times (of London) article)