TEL AVIV – The Israeli Army is searching for hundreds of weapons and tens of thousands of munitions — from its own former soldiers.
It turns out that many soldiers have ended their service by walking away with memorabilia.
The military is now pleading with them to bring back their boots, sleeping bags and cold-resistant suits — not to mention guns, grenades and ammunition. No questions asked.
A month-long campaign is underway across the country with the motto “Clear out your closet — Return equipment to the army,” stressing there is no risk of prosecution.
Officials have opened 100 collection points at bases and police stations.
Outside an army headquarters in Tel Aviv, three soldiers were positioned on the sidewalk while men and women of various ages arrived with cardboard boxes or plastic bags.
Some avoided getting out of their cars, apparently too ashamed for making off with the items or having neglected returning them for so long.
Nearby, a bucket gradually filled with equipment and uniforms.
De-miners were ready to intervene in case any of the deliveries still posed a danger.
In three weeks, “thousands of people have done their duty,” the commander of the operation, Brig. Gen. Yoram Azulai, said.
“And I can assure you that we have not taken one name,” he quips.
An army spokesman said so far the collection has yielded 220 firearms, 20,000 parts of uniforms, 700,000 bullets or grenades, 1,000 explosives and 1,300 pyrotechnic devices — particularly popular at weddings for fireworks.
Some of the items could even be worthy of a museum.
“A kibbutz decided to give up the cache of illegal weapons it held for decades,” said Azulai.
“An officer who served during the War of Independence returned a gun dating from 1948, while we also recovered weapons from the Yom Kippur War” in 1973.
Azulai said the danger of an accident or of weapons being stolen are serious concerns.
“In everyday life, it is very common to come across people who use military equipment for leisure,” he said.
“But in Israel and in an enhanced security environment, this is a very bad idea.”
“(A man) could blow up his house, endangering the lives of his children and other civilians. And of course, this material could fall into the wrong hands, those of criminal or terrorist organizations,” Azulai said.
The issue resonates because military life touches nearly all Israelis.
Men are conscripted for 32 months and then spend years in regular reserves duty, while women serve two years.
Many have found post-military uses for their gear.
A one-piece, cold-resistant “Hermonite” suit can be used in winter, the rugged olive green uniforms and boots are perfect for gardening and outdoor work, and comfortable military sleeping bags are popular for camping.
Infantry helmets have been put to use for weekend motorcycle rides.
Those who hold onto of such gear tend to fall into three broad types, said Azulai.
They include the “nostalgic” who wants to hang on to memories; the “cautious” who feels under-equipped, especially in case they are again called up for reserve duty; and those who simply neglect to return the gear.
A previous collection campaign in 2008 led to the retrieval of equipment worth a reported 7.5 million shekels ($2 million), with the army able to re-use goods worth 4.5 million shekels.
But “when you see the defense budget (60 billion shekels), it is a drop in the sea,” Azulai said.
Israel “does not rely on what people bring to win the next war.”