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.”