JERUSALEM — For most citizens, Israeli military service is an important, albeit a compulsory, rite of passage. And often, those drafted feel like they want to hold onto a little army booty as a “keepsake” from their years of service.
In fact, it's not totally unusual to find Israelis using military garb in everyday life situations — think army-issued sleeping bags on camping trips, night goggles on midnight hikes or even a grenade or two decorating a bookshelf.
But holding onto military equipment — whether by accident or on purpose — is illegal and, if caught, could have serious consequences. It could also be dangerous, and the items could fall into unsavory hands, the Israeli army says.
That is why the army is holding a special three-week amnesty campaign, allowing former soldiers to return any and all military equipment — from any time period — no questions asked.
As part of the outreach to persuade people to turn in stray military equipment, the army made a series of videos for television and social media. In one clip, a man struggles to part with his well-worn and much-loved army issued sleeping bag. Scenes show him snuggled deep down inside, as he explains that it helps him "sleep like a baby.”
Another video shows a man pitching a military tent at a beach-side camping site. A friend asks him, "Where the hell did you get that?" A voice-over declares: "We won't ask questions."
“At first it was hard to persuade people to return things. They were worried they would get into trouble, but we worked hard to convince them there would be no questions asked,” said Brig. Gen. Yoram Azaulai, commander of the army’s logistics department, which is overseeing the campaign.
“Sometimes people take things because they want to hold onto the memory that they were part of a military operation or something and they think, ‘I will take this and then I can tell my grandchildren about it,’ ” he said. “Then they are too scared to give it back because they understand the gravity of what they have done.”
With the legal threat removed, the army said that the campaign, which started March 20 and runs through April 15, has seen thousands of people returning to specific locations countrywide all manner of equipment, including some super weird items that no one quite expected.
One community in northern Israel returned a “bunker” used by pre-state soldiers to hide their weapons and ammunition during the country’s 1948 War of Independence — although exactly how they kept it, and returned it, the officer would not say (no questions asked, remember).
A diving suit, some special periscope glasses that can only be used inside a tank, a tire from a military vehicle and even a gun, circa 1948, were also among the items returned over the last two weeks.
But what other kinds of military things have ended up decorating people’s living rooms?
— Some 130 guns, including Kalashnikovs, pistols, sniper rifles and RPGs, have been returned.
— Over 90 types of navigation equipment (compasses, binoculars, etc.)
— Over 7,000 different types of personal items (uniforms, vests, etc.)
— Over 500,000 different types of ammunition (from small ammunition to grenades and different types of bombs)
— Over 300 grenades
— Over 500 explosives
— Over 700 types of pyrotechnic devices
The last operation of this kind took place in 2008, but, according to Azaulai, lots of equipment went astray during the two large-scale military operations that took place in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, when thousands of reserve soldiers were called up to serve.
“The army departments have gone through some changes and we realized that there is a lot of equipment out there in the public and it could be dangerous,” he said.