Israeli army mulling amnesty for exiles

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JERUSALEM — The Israel Defense Force is working toward offering amnesty to expatriate Israelis who currently face arrest upon return because they avoided military service.

Senior IDF officers said last week that the move is an effort to bring more Israelis home and to remedy an abnormal situation.

According to the IDF, every year scores of young Israelis over 16 leave the country and never return to do their mandatory military service.

"For many, it's not their fault," said Brig.-Gen. Avinoam Laufer, head of planning and management in the IDF's Manpower Branch. "Their parents decided to emigrate and they were over 16, so the law says they must be conscripted. If they left before they got their draft notice, they are classified as 'residing abroad without permission.' Most are in this category."

According to plan, which in its final stages of approval, these expatriates will be allowed to return and will be given a full year to report to a draft board and "explain themselves."

"They will have to reach an arrangement with the army," Laufer said.

The army will either give them a certain period of service that they must do or, depending on other criteria, give them a full discharge.

"Most will get serious reduction in their service time," Laufer said, adding that the arrangement will allow a person to leave Israel without being detained, even if no arrangement is reached with the IDF.

The move, if approved, will open the way home for Israelis who would otherwise face arrest and conscription for even visiting the country. The numbers of such people have reached "tens of thousands" over the 50 years, Laufer said.

The arrangement does not, however, include anyone who left the country after receiving a draft notice. They will continue to be considered deserters.

The proposal must still be approved by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in his capacity as defense minister. Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein must also rule on the matter because the expatriates are legally criminals.

Absorption Minister Yael Tamir is praising the IDF's effort.

"We see it as part of the goal we have to bring to Israel Jews from around the world," she said. "It is the role of the IDF to remove those obstacles that will prevent them from returning or remove from their path the suspicions they may have about coming back to Israel."

According to a plan presented recently to Tamir, starting on Jan. 1, 2000 anyone over the age of 29 who left Israel before receiving a call-up notice and who is willing to perform volunteer work organized by the IDF and Absorption Ministry will be allowed to return.

Because the plan requires someone to be absent for 15 years in order to be eligible, Tamir said, it wouldn't encourage other youth from skipping their military service. "We looked at a lot of requests and saw that people were interested," Tamir said.

She said that the numbers were not known, but estimates ran between 5,000 to 10,000 such expatriates.

Senior IDF officers have said that the IDF is interested in expanding the plan in order to include those over the age of 15, on condition they left before they received a call-up notice. They also indicated that the time spent abroad would be lower than the 15-year minimum now set.