Israeli Military Service Unites Generations

Eitan Cohen, second from left, reflected on the stakes of war with his girlfriend and parents on the day before he joined his army reserve unit.
Eitan Cohen, second from left, reflected on the stakes of war with his girlfriend and parents on the day before he joined his army reserve unit. (By Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

TALMEI MENASHE, Israel -- In the hours before he went to war, the family of Lt. Yair Cohen offered him time-tested advice around the breakfast table, some of it personal, some of it practical. Unlike the young soldier, they had been through this before.

"You're an officer now, so look after your soldiers, and always, always keep your eyes open," said his father, Yossi, who fought alongside two brothers in Israel's wars of 1967 and 1973 and was a 3-year-old child when his own father lost a leg to a land mine while fighting for the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.

"Oh, and you will get hot," he added, moments later. "Bring more water."

"That's not going to be what saves him," joked Yair's older brother, Eitan, who served in Lebanon eight years ago and had just been called up as a reservist in his brother's infantry unit. "Be safe," he said quietly. "Don't be a hero. I might see you up there soon."

Because of Israel's small population and frequent conflicts, war is an experience common to every generation, passed from fathers to sons in families such as the Cohens'.

Thousands of soldiers have made their way to Israel's front lines in recent days, including young conscripts serving compulsory three-year tours and the more seasoned reservists called up last week for the conflict with the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. Government officials said Monday that they planned to intensify the ground campaign underway in a clutch of small Lebanese border towns.

Much has changed since Israel fought for survival in a series of wars that began when the country was established in 1948. With the region's most potent military and a modern economy, it faces fewer of the existential threats that dominated earlier days.

"It's a more individualistic society than it used to be," said Rachel Levy-Skiff, a psychologist at Bar-Ilan University. "There's less of a sense that everyone's fate is linked together, that everyone is at risk."

After the storied military victories of 1967 and 1973, Israel went through more grinding and divisive conflicts, including the 18-year occupation in southern Lebanon that ended six years ago and two Palestinian uprisings, which began in 1987 and 2000. These military operations prompted a period of self-examination in Israel about the role of the military. By contrast, the current Lebanon conflict has met with overwhelming support among Israelis. The fighting was touched off when Hezbollah seized two soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12 and killed eight others.

The army said recently that more than 100 percent of reservists are reporting for duty, meaning many who have not yet been called up are appearing anyway.

"If the government hasn't convinced a majority of civilians that what they're doing in terms of an operation is right, people simply won't come for reserve duty," said Michael Oren, an Israeli historian and author who served as a paratrooper during the country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. "But when people perceive a war is necessary or justified, like this one, you see a level of motivation that equals anything Israel displayed in previous years."

About a mile from the Cohens' home, Plina Binyamin, 50, said goodbye to her son Idan, 21, a communications officer, and her husband, Moshe, who at 50 is too old to be called to the army but volunteered for service along with 15 other members of his old paratroop unit.

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