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Israel's Army Reserve System Is Under Fire

Critics note that threats to nation have changed and that call-ups drain economy. Assignments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip hurt morale.

September 05, 2004|Gavin Rabinowitz | Associated Press Writer

MAALEH SHOMRON, West Bank — At home, Eran Kurtzer is a suburbanite with a wife, baby daughter and small insurance agency. But for six weeks a year, 33-year-old Kurtzer is an army major leading a company of paratroopers on patrols through olive groves on the hills of the West Bank.

He and his unit are among thousands of Israeli men who once a year are torn from their everyday routine and thrust back into uniform.

The disrupted lives and livelihoods that American reservists are discovering as they spend months in Iraq have been a way of life in Israel ever since it was born in 1948. The potbellied, unshaven reservist, rifle casually slung over a shoulder, is a beloved stereotype of Israeli life. Reserve duty is the backbone of the army and an institution that has shaped Israeli society well beyond the military.

But as the military evolves technologically, many are questioning the need for the reserves system, which drains the economy of tens of millions of dollars a year in lost trade and wages. The issue has become more acute in part because the mission has changed. Reservists trained to defend the country from Arab armies increasingly are assigned to police the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that hurts morale.

Israel's founders established the reserves to deal with a dilemma that persists today. Surrounded by populous and hostile Arab neighbors, they needed a large army. But with a small population, they couldn't afford to employ hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers.

The solution was conscription for all 18-year-old males for three years, followed by one reserve tour a year and more in times of emergency. Women also are drafted, and some unmarried ones are in the reserves.

The military does not disclose how many soldiers it has. According to Jane's World Armies, Israel's standing army of about 125,000 can jump to 500,000 with rapid mobilization -- 250,000 of them within six hours.

The system has been tested in five wars, most rigorously in the 1973 Mideast war, when Egypt and Syria attacked on Yom Kippur, and thousands of reservists were yanked from homes and synagogues and rushed to the fronts. Many ended up serving four months or more until the Middle East quieted down again.

In four years of conflict with Palestinians, reservists have had to work long, tiring shifts guarding roadblocks or Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians regard the settlers as usurpers of land they claim for a future state.

Many reservists are among the 970 Israelis killed in the Palestinian uprising. The death toll on the Palestinian side is 3,061.

Like all Israeli soldiers, reservists are reviled by many Palestinians as representatives of an enemy occupier. But at roadblocks and checkpoints, it's not uncommon to see Palestinians standing in lines manned by reservists, who are considered more patient and easygoing.

The burden on reservists has eased somewhat. They no longer must show proof when they leave the country that the army doesn't need them. They are notified of call-ups six weeks in advance. Students called up during exam time can take tests later.

Soldiers can be called up for 36 days a year and officers for 43 -- longer if necessary. Combat soldiers are in the reserves until age 40. The maximum age for service, 51, is being reduced. Still, a standard feature in many Israeli homes is the "reserve kit"-- a portable coffee maker and a backgammon board.

Kurtzer lives with his family in Shoham, a bedroom community outside Tel Aviv, and runs his agency with three employees. But when the call comes, he is responsible for guarding five West Bank Jewish settlements. He calls it "the surreal switch."

At his headquarters in the settlement of Maaleh Shomron, Kurtzer sits at a makeshift desk, surrounded by maps and charts. On the desk are two pictures of Adi, his 5-month-old daughter.

"Mentally, it is harder for me to be here now," Kurtzer said, gesturing at the pictures. "Two days ago, my wife called to say Adi rolled over for the first time. You want to be there the whole time; it just eats you up inside when you're not there."

Abandoning his work is just as problematic. The army tries to pay the reservists their lost salaries, but Kurtzer has no one to run his office in his absence.

"At 11:30 last night, I was out in the field, on the phone, trying to sort out a specific problem for a client," he said. "If I can't sort out her problems, she will leave me."

Eyal Nakash, 26, is a third-year medical student. He is also a reserve platoon commander based in Yakir, a nearby settlement. With two weeks' stubble, beads around his neck and an earring, he looks more student than officer.

After being called up on short notice during Israel's 2002 massive incursion into the West Bank, Nakash was released a week before exams. "Some of the lecturers aren't very sympathetic" in helping make up for lost material, he said.

This year, his reserve duty fell during his vacation.

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