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Israeli Reservists Think of Home As They Fight Hezbollah in Lebanon

August 9, 2006
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Serving as part of Israel’s offensive in southern Lebanon has raised several major concerns for Avi, a 34-year-old social worker turned reserve soldier. First, there’s the risk of Hezbollah sniper fire and mortar barrages. Then there’s the chafing from the ill-fitting boots Avi was issued in the rush of his regiment’s eight-hour call-up notice.

But the most pressing of Avi’s preoccupations is what he’ll tell his wife when he finally makes it home.

“She thinks I’m patrolling the border on the Israeli side, that we reservists merely replaced the regular troops who went into battle,” he tells a reporter embedded with his unit during a break in a path-clearing mission between the Lebanese villages of Yaroun and Bint Jbeil.

“When we first set off, I had enough cell phone reception to call her occasionally and keep up appearances, but now we’re further in, and out of touch,” he says. “It’s a problem.”

With thousands of reservists joining the month-old war against Hezbollah, the dilemma faced by Avi — who didn’t give his last name for fear of worrying his wife — is familiar to a growing number of households in Israel. And as casualties mount, tragedy never seems far off.

A Hezbollah Katyusha rocket fired into northern Israel on Sunday killed 12 reservists while they awaited deployment in Lebanon.

“Husbands, fathers, brothers who won’t return, wives crying over graves, children orphaned,” the Yediot Achronot newspaper mourned.

Fighting has been intense on the ground, too, especially around Bint Jbeil, the sprawling Hezbollah stronghold that is the final destination of Avi’s regiment.

At least two of some 20 soldiers killed in close combat at Bint Jbeil have been reservists. News of the casualties reaches Avi’s regiment incrementally, reported over the military radio and passed along from soldier to soldier.

Most of the troops, who range in age from 22 to mid-40s and hail from a variety of professions, shrug it off.

“There’s only one thing that’s important, and that is completing our assignment,” says Liraz Shmueli, a 30-year-old from Jerusalem. “There’s no point in nursing doubts. If we don’t do the job, then who will?”

To be sure, the mission gives the 200-strong regiment much to think about. They must escort two bulldozers that grind up a path through rocky scrub deep in the Hezbollah heartland.

In a grim irony of an asymmetrical war in which the enemy pops up to fire anti-tank missiles at choice targets and then melts into the countryside, Israel’s armored vehicles must be protected by exposed foot soldiers.

The troops prefer to move at night, believing that Hezbollah — unlike the Israel Defense Forces — doesn’t widely issue infrared goggles to its personnel.

The belief that nighttime is safer appeared to have been proven correct a day earlier when, 30 minutes into an afternoon foray around the rich tobacco fields that grace Yaroun’s outskirts, eight mortar shells were fired at the reservists. They escaped serious casualties only by leaping into an irrigation ditch.

Maneuvering over such treacherous ground in the dark has its dangers too, especially given the fact many of the troops are not exactly in the fighting fitness of their conscript days.

One portly man is laid up with a slipped disk, another with a sprained ankle. They await evacuation to the border in the back of the next available tank that passes.

But there are no complaints from the others, just an equanimity born of fatigue and quiet dedication.

According to a platoon commander, three of the regiment’s men backed out at the border, saying they had “premonitions” they wouldn’t come out in one piece. No one resents them or calls for a court-martial.

“We had more than enough people calling and volunteering to take part,” explains the officer, architecture student Eyal Yossinger, 29.

Two bulldozer drivers, both in their mid-20s, crack jokes in a bid to lighten the regiment’s spirits. Others bring out a camping stove to make Bedouin-style coffee to offset the cold, tinned field rations.

The older soldiers use the breaks in the trek to catch up on sleep — oblivious to the constant whiz and thump of Israeli artillery and Hezbollah rockets overhead — or discuss politics.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now appears set on re-establishing, de facto, the Israeli buffer zone in southern Lebanon that was abandoned in 2000. How long that will last is a matter of debate.

No Israeli official wants to reoccupy Lebanese territory, and Olmert says Israeli troops will withdraw as soon as a foreign peacekeeper force deploys. But some say that’s far off.

“Look at what the peacekeepers did in Bosnia — nothing!” says Oleg, a sergeant who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. “My concern is that we are going to be doing a lot of reserve duty in southern Lebanon from now on.”

There are things that give encouragement, though. Military officials talk of more than 400 Hezbollah fighters killed and several more — dozens even — captured in battle. They eventually could be traded for two Israeli soldiers the terrorist group has held since a July 12 border raid that triggered the war.

The fact that the Hezbollah captives surrendered to incoming troops suggests both that the vaunted Shi’ite fanaticism is not uniform and that Israel’s reputation for fair play precedes it.

“That’s why we always win our wars in the end — because we have a moral code,” says Lt. Col. Nissim Houry, the regiment commander and a building contractor in civilian life.

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