Reservists have a special place in Israeli folklore. Comedy shows and cult films, like Halfon Hill, have perpetuated the image of the fat and balding warrior, wearing an ill-fitting uniform, awkwardly dangling his M-16. He is torn from his family each year for a month of endless backgammon tournaments and frustratingly long hours at checkpoints on back roads in some far-flung corner of the Jordan Valley.
This image of course is only partly true. For 55 years, the reservists were seen as the backbone of the IDF in any potential war, while the regular units were supposed to act as the country's first line of defense in times of national emergency, hanging on until the reserves turned up. The Yom Kippur War with its trauma of unpreparedness remains the classic example of this principle.
As a result, calling up the reserves has historically been the surest signal that things are getting really serious. The call-up has wide-ranging implications, not only on the military scene but also political, social and financial. As a result, the reluctance to use the reserves has always been great, and the call-up of three divisions decided upon last Thursday was the largest since at the outset of the 1982 Lebanon War.
There is, of course, another side to the coin, the fear of calling up the reserves too late.
Since the pullback to the security zone in 1985, reserve units haven't served in Lebanon.
Officially the reason was the relatively short span of their yearly stints that didn't allow for enough acclimatization in the intensive operational environment, but there was also a preference not to put the fathers of young children at risk. Instead they were sent to more routine security duties on the borders and the relatively less dangerous job of putting down the Palestinian intifadas.
Thousands of the miluimnikim preparing their kits for the next few days of operations were contemplating a return to the country that had been of their coming of age. "When I was a young soldier, all I thought about was eating, sleeping and sex," said Daniel, a 35-year old paratrooper who spent more than a year in southern Lebanon, "that reduced the fear factor."
Daniel sat on his kit bag loading bullets into M-16 magazines on one of the training bases where the reservists were going through abbreviated refresher courses on their weapons, first-aid procedures and the dangers of anti-tank missiles before being sent up north. "We didn't have wives and children to think of then," he said, "so now the feeling is very different. Still miluim has become a religion for us, turning up and doing your part."
But over the previous decade, fewer and fewer men have been turning up as only a small proportion of soldiers were being called up for reserve duty after their three years of regular service, and many others arranged exemptions for a range of reasons. A small percentage was carrying the load for the rest.
The army also began rethinking its reserve-regular balance. The financial burden of keeping hundreds of battalions battle-ready led to the disbanding of a number of brigades. Hundreds of reservists who called up their battalion offices at the outset of the current crisis were frustrated to hear that their units were suddenly not needed. Senior officers said this week that this policy will have to be rethought now.
But there is no question of demoralization in the divisions that have been called up. The commanders of the mobilized units are reporting that one of their main problems is that the high numbers of soldiers arriving is forcing them to make difficult choices - whom to send home.
One reservist on the northern border on Tuesday was Col. Othniel Schneller, a Kadima MK, who was touring reserve unions. He said that he didn't believe the massive call-up would cause public panic. "On the contrary, when the reserves are at the front, it gives the wide public a greater feeling of responsibility," he said.
He denied claims that the reserve units had been called up too late to influence the military situation. "If we had called up three divisions all a sudden, it could have had a dangerous effect on the Syrian front," he said. "They might have felt it was a declaration of war."
In addition he said a premature call-up of the reserves would have been a waste of valuable resources. "There are multiple considerations involved," he said. "The timing of the call-up has to be just right on the diplomatic, military and home-front time lines."
Accompanying Schneller was Col. Ofek Buchris, a former commander of the Golani Brigade's Battalion 51 and its Egoz unit, which were both involved in the heavy fighting in Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail. He acknowledged that budget cuts had damaged the level of training of the reserve units over the last three years, but said he wasn't worried about sending them into battle.
"Of course there will be casualties," he said, "but these are the people who will do the job. Believe me, the moment that the first bullet is fired at them, the miluimnikim will remember all the skills that the young regular troops haven't even learned yet."
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