Dispatch From Israel: How a Reserve Preps for Combat

Israeli soldiers march in a gathering area near the Israel Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012.Ariel Schalit/AP Photo
Israeli soldiers march in a gathering area near the Israel Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. President Barack Obama on Sunday defended Israel's airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, but he warned that escalating the offensive with Israeli ground troops could deepen the death toll and undermine any hope of a peace process with the Palestinians.

Typically, Friday is a cheerful day in Israel as it is the first day of the weekend. But last Friday, it wasn't.

On the streets of Tel Aviv you could see students, executives, laborers, cabbies, and professors that dug up their old military uniforms from the bottom of their closets. Many of them hadn't worn them in years. Some of them were ill-fitting, as they had packed on a few pounds since their years of service.

Yosi is a lieutenant paratrooper who finished his mandatory military service five years ago. His story is similar to many other Israelis, and he has asked us not to print his last name. Last Wednesday, in the middle of his engineering class at the University of Tel-Aviv, his phone rang. He heard an automated message: "The order #8 for immediate mobilization is en route to your house."

The first thing he thought about was his wife Naama, who he married just 6 months ago. He timidly reveals that he thinks she is pregnant, and that he is terrified of leaving her alone in Tel Aviv, as it will probably become a missile target for the first time.

"After telling Naama, I called my comrades in the unit, the guys who I served with. They were all on their way home to pack their bag and say bye to their families." When Yosi got home he smelled the scent of chocolate cookies that Naama was baking for his trip.

Naama, a 24 year-old school teacher, admits that she is afraid: "I don't want you to say goodbye, and the only thing I ask is that you be careful." Before he leaves, Yosi gives her a book on scuba diving that he was going to give her on her birthday. They recently took a scuba diving course in Eilat, on the Red Sea. "When I get back we'll celebrate your birthday," he tells her. "Don't try and be a hero," she begs him.

On the way to the base, Yosi stops by his parents' home in Petaj Tikya to say goodbye. His mother is nervous. His father, Moshe, who is 52, calls his old artillery unit to ask why they haven't been called yet. The three of them discuss the terrible reality of the war. Moshe tries to keep his spirits up: "Between you and me, we have been forced to fight in enough wars for several generations, and every time we pray that it's the last one."

I ask Yosi if he feels for the hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians that will die in the war. He responds instantly. "I assure you that I don't miss the streets of Gaza and I don't like the fact that there will be civilian casualties on both sides. It's terrible, but it can't be that Naama has to go through her pregnancy with the fear that a rocket will fall on us."

I remind them that in the past there have been Israeli officers and soldiers that have been found guilty of war crimes. He doesn't respond. Moshe says: "Now you have to go into battle with your lawyer at your side."

Shortly before midnight, the young man who just a few hours was studying at the university arrives at his base in Southern Israel and hugs his comrades. They get organized and sign their social security papers so that they can be paid for their service. In the form, he indicates that his life insurance should go to Naama, just in case anything happens.

That night, the reserves, all between the ages of 22 and 52, sleep four and a half hours. At 7:30 am, they wake up, eat breakfast, and receive their arms, bullet-proof vests, and helmets. On the way to their first training session, Yosi sends a message to his mother and wife saying "Don't worry, I'll be back."