Nahal's Battalion 50 has over 70 lone soldiers who came to Israel from abroad - most of them from the US.
By YAAKOV KATZ
They all fought in the Second Lebanon War and have since conducted patrols along Israel's northern border. Last week, close to nine months after the war against Hizbullah ended and with talk of a possible new conflict by summertime, the soldiers of Battalion 50 of the Nahal Brigade took to the hills of the Golan Heights for five weeks of training, which commander Lt.-Col. Zion Razon says will prepare them for the challenges to come.
Battalion 50 is just like most of the other infantry units in the IDF. During the war, its soldiers fought with the rest of the Nahal Brigade in the central sector of southern Lebanon. The battalion lost one soldier on July 12, the first day of the war and the same day reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped.
But this battalion is slightly different. When walking among the soldiers, one hears not only Hebrew, but also English and sometimes additional languages, as well. Battalion 50 has one of the highest concentrations of lone soldiers who came to Israel from abroad to serve in the IDF - over 70 - hailing mostly from the United States, but also from Holland and other European countries.
Many of these soldiers come from families of Israelis who left the country years ago. They have decided to return to serve in the IDF as part of Garin Zabar, a unique project launched in 1991 and responsible for bringing hundreds of young Israelis back from the Diaspora to serve in the military.
The new recruits spend their first three months in the IDF together at a kibbutz where they study Hebrew and get to know one another. They then have the opportunity to serve in any of the various IDF units, although many of them enlist in Battalion 50, which has become synonymous with Garin Zabar.
One of these soldiers is Sgt. Ron Even, born in Houston, Texas to an Israeli father and an American mother. He joined the IDF in July 2004 at the age of 20. Since November 2006, he says over 120 people have joined the IDF through Garin Zabar. Even served as a squad commander during the Lebanon war and says that while he realizes now that Israel might not have achieved all of its goals during the war, he still feels that Israel walked away winning. "The talk of failure doesn't have an effect on me," Even said. "I know what I saw personally, and we did a good job. We pushed Hizbullah back, found weapons and destroyed their infrastructure. I can't say if it's a win or a loss, but I was fighting for my country, which is what I came to do."
Sgt. Noah Steiner, who came to Israel from Los Angeles two-and-a-half years ago and now lives in Tel Aviv when he is not with his unit, agrees with Even's assessment of the war. "I thought we were doing very well," he said, adding that the most memorable moment of the war for him was when he walked back into Israel after the cease-fire went into effect. "Walking back and passing the fence was an unbelievable feeling. Like, 'Wow, I am back in Israel.'"
Both soldiers emphasized the importance of the training exercises the battalion is currently conducting in the Golan Heights.
"The things I did during the war were things I wasn't necessarily trained for," explained Even. "These were things that elite units were trained to do, like carrying 80 pounds on my back. That was new for us and now we are learning how to do it."
Battalion commander Razon explained that the training was focusing on large-scale operations in conjunction with armored and artillery units.
"We are working a lot on our cooperation with other branches of the military," he said. "There is already a change and a major improvement. Soldiers are getting better at conquering hilltops and chasing after the enemy."
Following the training period, Razon will return with his men to the Lebanese border where they will serve as the first line of defense in case of another Hizbullah attack.
"I'll return to the border with a feeling that the battalion is ready," Razon said. "And, I'll be prepared to give a better response to the threats and the challenges ahead."
After the army, Even says he plans to stay in Israel and go to university. "I might take a year off and go on a small trip, although nothing intense like most Israelis do by going to India or Thailand," he said. "My big adventure is coming here. It might be less relaxing than the Far East, but I'm definitely getting a lot more in the army than I would get in India."
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