Israeli army spies see past false modesty of female conscripts

ISRAELI, female and looking to dodge the draft? Don't get caught kissing.

With more 18-year-old women claiming religious modesty as grounds for exemption from male-dominated military life, Israel's army is hiring investigators to spy on suspected draft evaders, catching them doing decidedly unreligious things.

"We need those girls," said Lieutenant-Colonel Gil Ben Shaoul, deputy chief of Israel's military recruitment centre.

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The army says the surveillance began last year and has caught 520 young women, many of whom admitted they did not deserve religious exemption and signed up for military service.

Claiming religious devotion has long been an easy route out of conscription, but now the army sees two trends thinning its ranks: draft-dodging in general among both sexes, and an upsurge among women, nearly 40 per cent of whom now take the easy religious option.

The army's fightback became public this month when grainy footage was leaked to Israeli media showing a young woman in a tight shirt appearing to kiss a young man – something no religious, unmarried female would do in public.

Lt-Col Ben Shaoul said the couple entered a lift – all this on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when devout Jews are supposed to avoid using machinery.

Investigators said the woman had claimed a religious exemption, but undertook army duty after she was presented with evidence of her misdeeds.

Catching the draft-dodgers is fairly straightforward. "It takes one weekend," said Lt-Col Ben Shaoul. The young women are usually caught driving on Saturday, drinking or smoking. "We find them in bars," he explained. "We know some of them are models and singers, and they use this way to get out of the army."

Maya Buskila, a pop star who was known for her skin-baring outfits and provocative dancing, claimed she was religious when called to service 12 years ago. After the draft-dodging spotlight was belatedly focused on her last year, she undertook a symbolic spell of army duty, reportedly to educate women on the importance of serving.

Lt-Col Ben Shaoul said the military contracted seven private surveillance firms after officers reported warning signs: too many women who claimed to be religious, yet were vague on Jewish prayers and holidays.

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Although some commentators said the use of private investigators had Big Brother overtones, it has raised few eyebrows in Israel. The army is seen as the country's one unifying force; all males are expected to serve three years and women two, and secular resentment over exemptions on religious grounds runs high.

Yet draft evasion is spreading as the middle class expands, and the military is increasingly seen as a career-disrupter.

In 1991, 21 per cent of women avoided service on religious grounds, according to the army; last year the figure was 36 per cent, even though, overall, only about 20 per cent of Israelis class themselves as religious.

The army has worked hard to make the military more attractive to women. Women now fly helicopters, instruct artillery squads and serve as police.

Still, most do clerical jobs that many say are pointless.

"I served for two years doing nothing. All the girls do nothing," said Shiran Cohen, 24, a university student. She said she was assigned to check on ammunition stockpiles, but was frequently sidelined by men in her unit.

"Now my sister is in the army, and she does nothing," she said.

Other women say they had a fulfilling experience. Yael Shahar served as a sniper and as a reservist in a hostage rescue unit. She said: "The army is an integrator; it allows people to meet from different backgrounds. Without it, I think Israeli society would be even more divided."

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