Friday, 11 August 2006

Israeli Army officer mourns deaths of fellow reservists

Doctoral student was in Seattle

BOSTON GLOBE | August 11, 2006

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

KFAR GILADI, Israel -- This time last week the Israeli Army officer was a doctoral student in electronic engineering enjoying a vacation in the United States after delivering a paper at an academic conference in Seattle.

But after seeing the deaths of 12 Israeli reservists in a Katyusha rocket strike in far northern Israel last weekend, he jumped on a plane and flew to join the reserve artillery unit he commands.

By yesterday, 31-year-old Major Eado -- army regulations prevent him from giving his full name -- stood overlooking the spot where those 12 men died on Sunday and directed a unit of 155mm howitzers firing shells at Hezbollah targets deep inside Lebanon.

``I saw it on CNN and I was heartbroken," he said as the cannons pounded. ``I told my wife, `See you later,' and came back here. I arrived two days ago. My wife is still there. I feel much better over here. I've been with these soldiers for the past 10 years. They train with me every year. They don't have to do that. If they come every year for 20 or 30 days, leave their families, I feel I owe it to them and to the country, but first to the people I serve with. It was the worst feeling you could imagine, being there while they were here."

The major and his men were among 30,000 reservists mobilized to join Israel's war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

If the Israeli government goes ahead with its plan to extend the ground war deep inside Lebanon, a similar number can expect to receive the call-up orders in envelopes through their doors in the next few days.

The Israeli Army refuses to reveal the size of its manpower, but the conventional wisdom is that the standing army of conscripts and professional soldiers is around 170,000, with some 400,000 reservists who could be mobilized in time of war.

Reserve soldiers serve 20 to 40 days each year to keep them up to date with technology and the latest tactics.

Thousands of reservists waited this week in dozens of tanks, armored cars, and military support vehicles lining the roads near the Israel-Lebanon border.

Shai, a 24-year-old student from Ashdod, said he was called up more than a week ago and was waiting to be sent in to Lebanon.

In a briefing near the Israeli border village of Zarit, Major Avi Ortal, chief of operations for the reserve Alexandroni infantry brigade and a lawyer in civilian life, said his soldiers had no doubts about their duty despite losing three men last week in a battle with Hezbollah.

``I feel that the war is very moral. The fact that Hezbollah is sitting on our borders, kidnapping our soldiers, invading our sovereignty, threatening the civilian population on the borders is something that we had to stop," Ortal said as plumes of black and brown smoke billowed into the air behind him from Hezbollah villages where his men were fighting, supported by Israeli artillery.

``The morale and the motivation of the soldiers in our brigade is very high. It emanates from the legitimacy of the war. The people feel that they are fighting for the northern civilians. The motivation comes from the inner feeling that we are doing the right thing," he said.

Raviv is a 27-year-old commander of a reserve artillery unit on another hill near Kiryat Shemona .

``I was sitting with my year-old son in our house in Carmiel two weeks ago when a Hezbollah rocket hit a house 50 meters away. There was a huge boom. I felt it in my own house," he said.

His wife and son had to leave the danger zone to stay with her parents while Raviv reported for reserve duty.

He said he had no hesitation, but would be happy to resume his normal life as an engineering student and part-time security guard.

``I feel that when my country needs me I am ready to come and defend it," he said.

David, a 30-year-old graduate in political science and international relations, helped aim the shells.

``It was a good decision to withdraw in May 2000, but no one made sure that both sides lived up to their side of the bargain," he said. ``Israel didn't completely, and neither did the Lebanese. The international community did nothing to stop the rise of Hezbollah and now we have to dismantle them."

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