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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel's Reservists Shift From Civilians to Soldiers in a Day

July 24, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Some are jolted awake by a midnight phone call. Others receive a brown envelope delivered to their door, or a text message on their cellphone. The directive is the same: Report for duty.

Thousands of Israeli military reservists were mobilized over the weekend -- and some of them are already on the front lines.

"We're about to go in," said Amir K., 29, who had expected to spend Sunday, the first day of the Israeli workweek, at his job as a lab technician. Instead, by day's end he was deployed with his unit on the Lebanese border.

Although many countries have a military reserve, very few call upon it with such frequency -- and such alacrity. Because the battle lines in Israel's wars lie so close to home, the transition from workaday routine to a soldier's lot can take place within hours.

"I dropped everything and went," said Moti C., a 35-year-old who works in high-tech and reported to base to see where his unit would be sent. Like other reservists, he is prohibited by army rules from allowing his full name to be used for publication.

"I believe it's what we have to do," he said.

Many of the reservists are bound for the West Bank, where they are replacing better-trained regular army units that are heading to the Lebanese border. Some reservists are in specialized combat-support units.

But others were sent to the northern frontier alongside elite combat units that have been making limited forays into Lebanon.

The Israeli military refuses to say how many reservists have been called up, but some media reports put the total as high as 18,000 -- an enormous number in a country whose population is under 7 million. The military does not disclose the size of the army or reserves, but defense analysts estimate there are about 100,000 regular troops and five times as many reservists.

Almost all Israelis seem to know someone who is doing miluim, or reserve duty, in this dozen-day-old war.

Reservists say going off to fight is harder now than when they were teenagers doing their mandatory army duty. Young conscripts tend to be eager, and they try hard for places in elite Israeli combat units.

"It's different when you're a kid -- you feel you want to experience battle," said Udi M., a 38-year-old staff sergeant in the reserves.

For men his age, though, the goodbyes to wives and children are wrenching. The last time Udi M. was called up, during Israel's 2002 offensive in the West Bank, his children were too young to understand the perils.

"The oldest is 10 now, he surfs the Net, he knows everything that is happening, so the younger one, who's 6, is very aware as well," he said. "They ask all kinds of questions -- 'How dangerous is it? When will you be back?' -- questions I can't answer."

Perhaps due to the perspective that age and experience bring, reservists are likelier than their counterparts in the regular army to question whether Israeli military actions are justified by the threat the country faces.

At the height of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, reservists who came to believe the army was using excessive force against civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip spearheaded a "refusenik" movement.

With this call-up, however, fewer such questions have been asked, even though Israel faces international criticism over mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon.

Echoing the view of Israelis as a whole, nearly all reservists interviewed said they strongly believed Hezbollah was to blame for endangering Lebanese civilians by building a military infrastructure in their midst.

Military authorities do not usually disclose figures on how many evade reserve duty, but commanders have said this time that nearly everyone called for duty was turning up.

In the early years of statehood, shirking reserve duty would have been unthinkable, but in the last 10 or 15 years, evasion became much more common and carried less of a social stigma. Reservists also formed a movement to protect their rights when called up, such as job security.

Now, almost to a man -- and they are almost all men; women are eligible for call-up only until the age of 24 -- reservists say they believe that Israel must defend itself against an unprecedented wave of Hezbollah rocket attacks, which have killed 17 Israelis since the confrontation began.

"The feeling this time is that it's a war for home," said Aryeh S., who owns a chain of homedecor shops.

At 48, he no longer faces mandatory call-ups, which end at about age 40. But he volunteered and was sent to the border. His son is in the army as well.

"I had reserve duty in the first Lebanon war, and I hoped there wouldn't be another round," he said. "But this is our reality, and this is what we've got to do."

Reservists also tend to feel a solidarity with others in their unit, which almost always stays together for one call-up after another.

"There's a real feeling of togetherness," said Avner I., a 35-year-old theater manager mobilized over the weekend.

Although reserve soldiers are often kept away from battlefield hotspots, they can easily find themselves in the worst fighting. During the intifada, it was a reserve unit that suffered Israel's worst one-day military death toll, when 13 soldiers were killed in the West Bank town of Jenin.

And Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser -- the two soldiers captured in the July 12 Hezbollah raid that sparked the current fighting -- were reservists, serving on what was thought to be the quieter northern front while regular units were taking part in Israel's offensive in Gaza.

Although almost all hoped for a short war, the newly minted soldiers said they were prepared for a long stint away from home.

"We're all Israelis, and we all know this is necessary," said Amir K., the lab technician. "At least for now."

*

Special correspondent Tami Zer in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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