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The Call to Action Takes Toll on Reservists’ Families — and Society

April 16, 2002
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For Debbie Shashua, it was only a matter of time before her 24-year-old son would be called up.

A reservist who is a sniper in a paratrooper unit of the Israel Defense Force, he is fervently dedicated to his unit, and if he hadn’t been called, she’s sure he would have volunteered.

“We were expecting it,” Shashua said. “We knew he would get it because of his age and the fact that he’s a sniper.”

Yet knowing what to expect doesn’t always ease the nerves of those whose loved ones are called up to fight.

“You’re more or less worried all the time, but it depends where they are,” she said. “I like to know where he is, and he calls me before and after a mission.”

As Israel this week marks a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and its 54th birthday with Israel Independence Day, the recent deaths of soldiers and reservists has cast a pall on an already tense atmosphere.

It was two weeks ago, during the Passover holiday, that Israel began looking like a country at war.

Now the call-up of thousands of reservists is taking its toll — both psychologically and financially.

Everyone knows someone who is donning that olive green uniform.

And men in their army greens, with duffle bags slung over their shoulders and rifles hanging down their backs, are now all over the place.

They are shopping in supermarkets picking up extra toilet paper, snacks and tea bags to round out army rations.

They are waiting at bus stops and stations for a ride to an army base and are eating burgers at a highway stop Burger Ranch.

“We’re heading Northeast,” said one reservist named Itzik, who was driving a tank carrier in a convoy that ended up in the Palestinian town of Tulkarm.

With blue-and-white flags fluttering atop their truck cabs, the tank convoys headed toward Tulkarm, Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem and dozens of surrounding Palestinian villages and towns in the West Bank.

In the early days of Operation Defensive Wall, the army said it may call up as many as 31,000 reservists for the IDF operation.

A full draft could include up to 600,000 Israeli reservists, security experts estimated.

Besides the life and death issues facing soldiers and reservists, there are other questions resulting from a major call-up, including how it might affect Israel’s already beleaguered economy.

The current conscription of some 28,000 Israelis is still only 3 percent to 5 percent of the workforce, and 1 percent to 2 percent of any given company, estimated Elan Zivotofsky, Israel analyst for the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

“That is not a meaningful number,” said Zivotofsky.

At the same time, if the draft continues for the next few months, it wouldn’t take long to affect the economy, he said.

For self-employed reservists, even a few weeks can wreak havoc on business.

Marcus Sheff, 38, a captain who served in the infantry, is now serving in the IDF spokesman’s office.

A self-employed advertising consultant, he has been on duty since the beginning of Passover, following the suicide bombing attack at a Netanya hotel seder that killed 27 people.

While he expected the call, it was impossible to “sort everything out” with clients beforehand, he said.

For now, he uses his cell phone to stay in touch, but doesn’t tell all his clients — most of whom are abroad — of his actual whereabouts.

“Some I tell, some I don’t,” said Sheff. “The U.S. clients are very supportive but they find it bizarre that I spend this much time in uniform.”

In academic circles, Hebrew University decided to provide student reservists with 1,500 shekels in financial aid.

The funds are intended to cover the cost of tutors and other expenses incurred to make up for material missed during reserve duty.

The draft coincided with the beginning of the spring semester.

The initial call-up was nearly two weeks ago.

Now more than a dozen Israeli soldiers and reservists are dead from military operations that also killed an unknown number of Palestinian fighters and civilians.

In the effort to wipe out the Palestinians’ terrorist infrastructure, units and troops conducted house-to-house searches in towns and refugee camps to find Palestinian terrorists and weapons caches.

It’s a risky type of fighting, one that often put soldiers face to face with the Palestinian fighters.

For many families, it’s hard to imagine that your own son is engaged in this type of guerrilla-like warfare. “He’s so fast and fit that he was one of the first guys in,” Danny Grossman said of his son, a 20-year-old paratrooper who is in the midst of his compulsory army service.

“He was kicking through walls, doing all these Starsky and Hutch type things. I could see him doing all of it. The situation is what stinks.”

The names of reservists are not supposed to reported in the media.

Many parents wait to hear from their sons, in order to avoid disturbing them during their mission.

“You just have to suck it in,” said Grossman, a former American Air Force and Israeli air force pilot.

“The best way to help him is to resist the temptation to call him. You don’t want him to have anything on his mind except the job on hand.”

That means the cell phone is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When the Grossmans’ son was in Nablus, he sent his parents text messages at least once a day or every other day.

When Shashua’s son goes out to a mission during Shabbat, when the family doesn’t answer the phone, he also uses text messaging to signal when he’s back from an operation.

If he’s going out on a mission at night, she gets up every hour to listen to the news.

Her husband, Menashe, sleeps with earphones. He is a former officer, she said, who understands the operations and knows the risks.

“I see it taking a toll on him, he’s very nervous,” Shashua said of her husband. “I’m surprised I feel as good as I do. Maybe I feel gung ho about the whole thing.”

For Lisa Grossman, it’s a matter of praying a lot and taking it one day at a time.

“I take a deep breath when I hear he’s okay,” she said. “Then I hold it for the rest of the day.”

A psychologist by profession, she said she has been finding it hard to listen to other people’s problems.

Her solution is to tell them that her son is in the army at the beginning of each session, a fact that most people can relate to.

She also makes herself completely available to her son if he gets off duty for a day or two.

“If he gets out, he’s the priority, and everyone knows that,” Grossman said.

And she always tells her son that if he has any doubt at all in a situation, “just shoot,” because he is “more important than the rules.”

Her husband said it seems to be easier for women to give that message than men.

“I’m a basket case,” he said. “It’s the asymmetry of our existence here. You’ve gotta be strong and not cave in because that’s what they’re looking for.”

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