Exemption from military service in Israel – main legal provisions

The following are the main provisions allow for exemption from military service in Israel. All these provisions are currently contained in the Defense Service Law of 1986 (and are mostly carried over from earlier versions of that law, the earliest dating back to 1949. The law sets all Israeli citizens and de facto permanent residents of both sexes as liable for conscription from the age of 18. This provision is not applied in practice to most Palestinian Israeli citizens as a matter of policy. Conscription is applied to all others, and only those exempted can avoid conscription legally.

Medical exemptions

According to paragraph 5(c) of the law, a medical committee is authorized to determine if a person is unfit for military service. This exemption can be given on the grounds of physical or mental health.

Exemptions for married women or mothers

Paragraph 39 of the law exempts married women from conscription and exempts pregnant women and mothers from all forms of military service.

Exemption and deferral of service by ministerial discretion

Paragraph 36 of the law gives the Minister of Defense the discretion to exempt or defer conscription and reserves service for any person for any reason. In fact this provision has been used to exempt some conscientious objectors (see below), to discharge soldiers after spending much time in military prison and to provide indefinite deferrals of service to members of several religious groups (most notably ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious students).

Exemption for conscientious objectors

Exemptions for conscientious objectors are given out by ministerial discretion, and decided upon by an internal military committee known as the “Conscience Committee”. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled (most notably in the case of David Zonshine, appeal no. 7622/02) that the Minister of Defense cannot be instructed to use this discretion to exempt selective objectors.

In the past, women could obtain an exemption on grounds of conscience based on paragraphs 39(3–5) of the law (explicitly stating that women can be exempted on grounds of conscience), while men received exemptions, if at all, under paragraph 36. Two separate systems of hearing committees existed. However, following the Supreme Court ruling on the case of Laura Milo in 2004, the clause allowing exemption on grounds of conscience for women was reinterpreted as applying only to exemption on religious grounds. Since January 2005, both men and women are referred to the internal military “Conscience Committee”.

In practice, the only kind of conscientious objection that may sometimes be recognized is pure and total pacifism. Our experience shows that indicating agreement to perform any kind of function in a military or police force in any hypothetical situation means one’s application for conscientious objector status is automatically declined. Moreover, pacifist conscientious objectors who openly discuss their political views, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the committee hearing when asked about it, almost never receive recognition.

In terms of procedure – up to recently, there was no official document in existence that detailed the procedures followed by the Conscience Committee. Recently we were able to obtain from the military a document which military authorities claimed details the committee’s procedures. However, the content of this document does not seem to match the actual procedures followed by the committee.

Exemption for women on religious grounds

Paragraph 40 of the law allows observant religious women to receive exemption from military service after submitting an affidavit stating their adherence to Orthodox Jewish religious custom. In addition, paragraphs 39 (3–5) allow exempting women on the grounds of “conscience or a religious family way of life”. As noted above, the Supreme Court decided to interpret away the “conscience” part of this provision. The procedure now doubles the procedure under paragraph 40, but for more complicated cases. The committee working under these provisions in fact only examines requests for exemption by Jewish women. Women of other religions are not known to have been exempted under this procedure.