Israel Hastily Musters Its Citizen Army

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 22, 2006; 4:26 PM

JERUSALEM -- Roy Bass emerged from the Mediterranean waves at noon Friday for a Popsicle break when, surfboard in hand, he heard his cell phone ringing on the beach. It was a recorded message: "An emergency draft has been activated."

Four hours later, the 27-year-old computer programmer was at an army base, in full uniform, preparing to head to Israel's northern border, where troops were massing to take on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israel's mighty military is comprised of thousands like Bass _ ordinary civilians who, at a moment's notice, respond to the call to arms.

On Friday, several thousand reservists were drafted for immediate, emergency duty. By Friday night, the army chief of staff announced the response was full, plus thousands who volunteered on their own initiative.

"The reserves have proven themselves once again," said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff.

The enthusiastic response highlights the intimate relationship Israel has with its army. Nearly every Jewish Israeli has served in the army, and opinion polls consistently show the army to be the country's most trusted institution.

Since Israel became independent in 1948, reserves have been the backbone of its military, conditioned to drop everything and be mobilized within a day or two to back up the far smaller core of active duty soldiers. Men from all walks of life _ and increasingly women with special skills _ instantly become soldiers again.

Israel's standing army of about 186,500 troops can jump to 631,500 with rapid mobilization, according to figures from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

The system has proven effective in all of Israel's wars. In 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked en masse on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, thousands of reservists were summoned from their homes and synagogues and rushed to the front lines to push back the offensive.

Despite Israel's increasing reliance on technological superiority, military service remains a rite of passage. All 18-year-old men are drafted for three years and will continue to do reserves for about a month a year into their 40s, by which time many will have sons in the army or reserves. Women are drafted for two years.

As Israel's military dominance has grown, it has become less reliant on its reserves. The retirement age has been gradually lowered from 51 to 40 in some cases, and the number of reserves called up has steadily dropped, with the army focusing more on those with specialized skills, such as air force pilots and intelligence officers.

Some view the task the way Americans view jury duty _ boring and disruptive, especially for college students and the self-employed. Most, however, welcome it as a break from the rigors of daily life, a chance to bond with old comrades in a setting where a backgammon board is often a more important accessory than a rifle.

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