(photo credit: )
Burning trees mark where Katyushas have fallen along the dark Northern Road. A busload of reserve paratroopers drives slowly by toward the border. With their faces painted in green and black and their equipment and weapons covered in camouflage nets, the men are tense, expectant.
It would be the first time inside Lebanon for the battalion during the current fighting, though many of the soldiers have considerable experience there from before the 2000 pullout.
The usual nervous infantry jokes run the length of the bus - "We're going for a vacation out of the country," and, "I hope the bungalows are decent there." Suddenly Maj. Yossi's cell phone rings. "Turn around," he tells the driver. "The operation is canceled."
The effect is surprising. "What's going on?" Amir, the machine gunner, asks in exasperation.
"What happened? Were we late?" demands Uri, the squad commander.
"Great. How am I getting this paint off? There's no hot water on base," complains Ariel, the sharpshooter.
Faced with the officers' silence - they also have no idea why the operation was canceled - the men soon quiet down. Two dozen paratroopers watch in frustration as the night-time northern Galilee rolls by.
Meanwhile, in a kibbutz on the northern border, soldiers from one of the army's elite units share the paratroopers' fighting spirit.
For Cpl. Netanel, the worst part of fighting in Lebanon is that "Mom is worried. I try to tell her everything is okay, but she's still worried."
"This is important to do," says Lt. Yehoshua. "We have some lightly wounded in the unit, but we killed five Hizbullah guys on our last assignment."
Yehoshua is also thinking of his family. "Combat in Lebanon is more difficult than in the territories because it involves the home front. The whole country is under attack."
The good news, he says confidently, is that "this means we have more support from the nation." He smiles and points to a six-foot-high stack of boxes next to the unit's combat equipment. "We're being flooded with care packages faster than we can eat them. My friends from the army [visiting] Thailand are suddenly calling."
Capt. Tzahi commands an artillery battery that has been hammering south Lebanon non-stop for over a week. He is a reservist, but only officially.
"I finished my regular army service on Sunday and got mobilized for the reserves on Friday," he says with a smile. "I didn't know army mail could move that fast."
Although he had to cancel a post-army trip to Ireland with his girlfriend - "which was already delayed because of the fighting in Gaza" - he was happy about the call-up.
"We will do this until they tell us to stop. Everyone here understands this fight completely. That's what's great about reservists," he confides happily. "They get an order, they know it's for real. So they're more serious."
As for the response to the call-up, the main problem has been "sending people home. Some people who are medically unfit for combat showed up last week just to hang out with the guys and to help with logistics," Capt. Tzahi says.
Sitting in a tent in which artillerymen have eaten and slept for days without the luxury of a shower, napping fitfully between bone-jarring booms from nearby batteries, Ran and Kobi, both residents of the North, seem to confirm their commander's words.
"We understand the goal," says Ran. "My family is in Karmiel, and we're not running away, no matter what." Besides, he says, smiling, "it's a good feeling, the reserves experience. Just look at that," he says, pointing at what has become a regular feature of IDF bases in the North: a huge stack of care packages sent by families, locals and assorted nonprofit organizations.
Kobi is less relaxed. A resident of Haifa's bayside suburbs, his father and a brother are also serving in the army, while his mother and another brother are holed up in a bomb shelter back home. "I kept going to work when the rockets started falling," he says defiantly. "They can't stop me."
"I've got no problem with the call-up, just as long as we win," he declares, adding vehemently, "That's what everyone here thinks."
Back on the bus with the paratroopers, squad commander Uri confides, "I hate cancelations. Once you work up the nerve, it's exciting. You're ready, you're on edge. They started the fight, and you want to go in there and finish it."