Israeli reservists frustrated, willing to fight in Gaza again

At 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, two days after the current round of fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas began, the phone rang in Rafi’s house in Jerusalem, calling him up for reserve service in his combat infantry unit.

Rafi, 28, who, like all the reservists interviewed for this story asked not to use his last name, threw a few things in a duffel bag, left his wife and his biotechnology start-up company and reported to a pre-arranged assembly point in Jerusalem. The reservists boarded buses and were driven to their supply base. Within hours, they were down south, near Israel’s border with Gaza.

The reserve troops trained on Saturday even though it was the Jewish Sabbath when Orthodox Jews like Rafi do not usually drive, use electricity or fire a gun. But Israel’s rabbis have ruled that during a time of war, the religious laws may be violated. By Sunday, they were ready for the ground operation in Gaza.

“I thought it’s about time – [Hamas] had been firing a lot of rockets on the south and building up their weapons stocks, and Israel cannot allow that to continue,” Rafi told The Media Line. “We kept training on the specific tasks that my unit was assigned to – learning the map and studying the trail we’d be taking into Gaza.”

After four days, a cease-fire was declared and Rafi, along with the 50,000 other reservists who had been called up, was demobilized and sent home.

“For about 15-minutes I was boiling with anger, because I don’t think the cease-fire is going to hold. We had an important job to do that is not being done,” he said. “But after 15 minutes I started thinking of the bigger picture and realized that the government is considering other issues like Iran and Egypt. In the bigger picture, it was probably better to solve the problem outside the field of battle.”

Not all reservists are this sanguine. Shai, 44, a tank commander and the father of three boys, did not have to obey the mobilization order for his unit as soldiers are not required to do reserve duty after age 40. Yet, he volunteered, eager to join the expected ground operation in Gaza.

“All of us in the unit badly wanted to go inside Gaza because we wanted to stop the rocket fire and you can’t do that unless you bring in ground troops,” he told The Media Line. “We knew we would lose soldiers but we wanted to do it for our country and for quiet.”

Shai thinks the truce will not hold, and those called up were being used for political maneuvering in advance of Israel’s election. He says the soldiers were sent to the border just to scare Hamas, with no real intention of launching an actual ground operation. He feels it is only a matter of time until the rocket fire resumes and he gets another call-up.

“Next time, I and my friends might not come,” he says angrily. “Since we’re over 40 it’s not mandatory. If I were outside Israel on vacation, I wouldn’t come back to be used as a pawn in a political game.”

Reservists play a more important role in the Israeli army than in perhaps any other army in the world. While Jewish men are drafted at the age of 18 for three years, and women for two, many men continue to perform reserve through their thirties. According to army figures, there are 176,500 active personnel and 445,000 reservists. Many Israelis routinely leave their families and businesses for up to a month each year, often a difficult disruption.

“I missed five days of school, two tests and one assignment,” Aharon, 26, a paratroop reservist who is studying law and business told The Media Line. “It was a horrible waste of time.”

He added, however, that he would show up if he was called again.

University officials said they would make special accommodations for students who had been called up, and most workplaces are used to employees taking time off for reserve duty. Aharon’s response is typical, say Israeli military officials.

“In times of crisis, the reservists show up and this time more people turned up than were needed,” army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich told The Media Line. “In my own unit, I called up two reservists and got dozens of phone calls from people who wanted to come and serve.”

Some military analysts say reservists’ frustration with what they saw as an inconclusive end to the fighting is natural, and will diminish over the next few months.

“They were called in to fight – they left their families and businesses and wanted to achieve victory,” Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service and former commander of Israel’s navy, told The Media Line. “We did not achieve victory or unconditional surrender the way wars used to end in the past century. You finish your training and then the operation is cancelled – it’s very frustrating.”

Other military analysts say that soldiers should be grateful that the ground operation was canceled.

“A wise soldier is never angry about not fighting and an experienced soldier does not feel bad if something was canceled,” Major General Emanuel Sakal, the former head of Israel army ground forces, told The Media Line. “With or without the reservists the story of Gaza will repeat itself again and again. There is no simple solution and the frustration the reservists felt is the same frustration all Israelis feel.”










‘Saving Lives Is Just Something That’s in Our Blood’

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Gil Wiener, the husky soldier who dragged out the first survivor of the Nairobi bombing to be saved by the Israeli dog squad last weekend, is a 29-year-old architecture student working his way through college as a lifeguard at the Hebrew University swimming pool in Jerusalem.

Like him, most of the 170 skilled officers and men who flew to the Kenyan capital within 24 hours of the explosion that wrecked the U.S. Embassy are reservists. They are recruited from all branches of the armed forces during the last year of their three-year compulsory service and trained on simulated disaster sites. Back in civilian life, the volunteers are annually called up for one week of intensive refresher courses. A permanent-alert staff is primed to mobilize them at short notice.

“My men are not the strongest soldiers in the army,” the commander of their training base, Maj. Ronen Greenberg, said this week, “but they have to be pretty strong — and they have to have a talent for technology. They must know how to handle sophisticated equipment, and how to fix it quickly if it malfunctions during an emergency.”

They are taught patience and extreme caution. Gil Wiener and his team kept their Kenyan survivor talking for six hours before they got him out of his steel-and-concrete trap. Their commander insisted that they work only from the side and above. Although the man had an almost severed leg and head injuries, rushing the operation might have brought tons of rubble down on rescued and rescuers.

The emergency unit was established during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon after an explosion demolished an army administrative block in the port city of Tyre, killing 89 soldiers and secret service agents. Since then, it has seen service at home and on humanitarian missions on three continents.

It rescued Israeli civilians from Tel Aviv flats hit by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. In the mid and late 1980s, it joined the hunt for survivors of massive earthquakes in Mexico and Armenia and flew in food, tents and medical supplies. In 1994, the unit extricated dead and wounded from the four-story Israeli Embassy building blown up by Islamic fanatics in Buenos Aires. The army also sent a medical-aid team, protected by 270 infantrymen, to Rwanda during the 1994 civil war, and firefighting helicopters to help put out a huge blaze at a Turkish arms factory in 1997.

Defense Ministry officials in Tel Aviv hailed the Nairobi mission as a debt of honor. Kenya joined most African states in cutting diplomatic relations with Israel after it invaded Egypt, a fellow African country, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But Kenya maintained close economic links with the Jewish state. Hundreds of Israeli specialists worked on industrial and agricultural development projects there. Kenyan managers and technicians studied in Israel.

In July 1976, Kenya secretly allowed Israeli transport planes to refuel in Nairobi after their epic rescue of hijacked airline passengers from neighboring Entebbe. Ehud Barak, now leader of the Labor opposition, commanded the Nairobi backup group.

Some of the team sent back to the Kenyan capital this weekend are veterans of the Buenos Aires and Armenian operations. They are among the least flamboyant of Israeli soldiers. They expect to bring out more dead than alive. It is a sobering thought.

When the Nairobi crowd lauded Gil Wiener on Saturday night, he remonstrated: “I’m no hero.” Another rescuer said: “Saving lives is just something that’s in our blood.” During that first rescue, the survivor, Sammy Ngana, was suffering so much pain that he begged the Israelis to let him die. “I’m a doctor,” said Lt. Nahum Nesher, one of the team. “I won’t let you die.”

The men do their job, with no time for sentiment. Greenberg, the chief instructor, confided that during 10 years as a rescuer, he experienced only one “happy ending.” He located an elderly woman trapped in a Tel Aviv flat shattered by one of Saddam’s Scuds. “While we were trying to get her out,” he said, “I asked her about other people who might still be in the building. A year later, she spotted me at an army exhibition. She remembered every question, word for word. I hadn’t even recognized her.”