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Israeli Military Service Unites Generations
Small Population and Frequent Wars Make for Shared Experience in Uniform

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A10

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.

"Idan is not going to Lebanon, but my husband is my problem," she said. "I know him, and I know he will try to go as close to the front lines as he can. He is not afraid of anything."

Before they left, she said, she programmed their cellphones to send an instant message that says, "I'm OK." She said she saw a story on television about a soldier who had sent his father, a former general, a text message from the battlefield saying he had been lightly wounded but was fine.

"They only have to press two buttons," she said. "I want them to do it all the time."

Before he left Talmei Menashe, Yair Cohen, 21, put on olive-green fatigues and stuffed a backpack with a spare uniform, a few pairs of socks and underwear, a towel, a minidisc player and a cellphone.

The phone call he had long expected had come at 10:30 the night before. "You need to get up here tomorrow," his commanding officer said, from a base near the Israel-Lebanon border.

Yair "woke me up with his shouting, he was so happy," said his mother, Rifka, during a hastily arranged farewell breakfast in this small village near Tel Aviv. "All I asked him is to call me every day, or more."

"We're going to be in combat," said Yair, appearing more excited than nervous. "I lost some friends there last week, and it's important for me to be there."

His rifle on his shoulder, he said his goodbyes. His brother, wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt on his last day of summer vacation, helped zip the small pockets of his bag. His father kissed his forehead. Yair walked to the car with his arm around his mother, who drove him to the bus station for the drive north.

"I remember when I was gung-ho like that," said Eitan, an economics student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Like his brother, he serves in the army's Golani Brigade, which has suffered a large share of Israel's casualties in recent days.

"It's different now, once you've left the army," he said. "I keep thinking, okay, when I go up there tomorrow, I don't want to take too many risks. I don't want to do anything stupid."

Returning to the house, Rifka served chicken curry, beans and rice less than an hour after they had eaten breakfast. "Meals help pass the time," she said. "It was hard to say goodbye."

"Please understand, it is not that we love fighting," said Yossi Cohen, who looks at least a decade younger than his 61 years. "My profession is farming. But you have to do it because this is your life."

"Don't let him say that," his wife said, shaking her head. "The truth is he loved to go on reserve. He'd do it even now. Thank God he was never wounded."

"The military is like a roulette," said Yossi, smiling. "It was my luck, nobody pulled my number." He showed photographs from his army days: a desolate refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in the 1970s, a patrol through the West Bank city of Hebron.

"I've been there too," Eitan said, recounting the story of carrying a severely wounded soldier under his command to safety. The soldier later died. "All I really remember is how heavy dead people are," he said. "And that you never get tired until things calm down. Then you can hardly move."

As he spoke, his girlfriend, Ruth, sat beside him at an outdoor picnic table in the shade of a macadamia tree. Silent at first, she appeared to grow more and more nervous as the conversation progressed.

"Maybe I am the only one, but I get afraid. I get very emotional," she said. "His mother says she keeps everything to herself. She's used to this. I am not like that. I want to know where he is all the time, everything he can tell me. I just don't know what to think, you send them out and don't know if they'll come back."

Special correspondents Tal Zipper in Talmei Menashe and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company