'It's Hard to Have the Same Confidence'

A reservist, preparing with others to cross into Lebanon, pauses as tanks fire nearby. A public outcry over preparedness has caused Israeli leaders to moderate threats of wider combat.
A reservist, preparing with others to cross into Lebanon, pauses as tanks fire nearby. A public outcry over preparedness has caused Israeli leaders to moderate threats of wider combat. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 11, 2006

MENARA, Israel, Aug. 10 -- First Sgt. Lior Benrey, 27, who washes skyscraper windows in Tel Aviv in civilian life, was called to duty last week to help evacuate soldiers wounded in the field in southern Lebanon.

During his regular army service, he was trained on the Puma armored personnel carrier. But when he arrived for reserve duty, his platoon was issued an older model, the name of which he did not know and the likes of which he had never driven.

"When I was young, I used to want to get in there where the fighting is," Benrey said in an interview along a road leading into Lebanon from the hillside town of Menara. "It doesn't help that there are -- how should I say this -- equipment issues for reservists. It's hard to have the same confidence you're supposed to have."

In the string of border towns where soldiers gather before and after moving in and out of Lebanon, reservists can be distinguished from active-duty soldiers by their unkempt hair and uniforms -- and often, they say, by the poor condition of their equipment.

As increasing numbers of Israel's reserve soldiers are ordered out of their civilian jobs and to the front lines of combat, they are voicing growing alarm over inadequate equipment and training in the face of large-scale casualties in their ranks.

Two of the largest death tolls of the four-week-long conflict have involved reserve soldiers: Thirteen of the 15 troops killed in combat Wednesday were reservists, and 12 reserve soldiers died last Sunday when a Hezbollah rocket smashed into the parking lot where they were gathered, near Israel's northern border.

The combination of the high death tolls and the mounting discontent among the reserve troops and their families has reverberated through Israeli society, where both military service and reserve duty are mandatory. As much as Israel mourns the death of any soldier, nothing strikes closer to the soul of Israel than the deaths of reserve troops.

"It's dramatically different," said Yagil Levy, author of several books on the Israeli military and its relationship with society. "Reservists have jobs, families, children. They have a larger social network."

The public outcry over the deaths of the reservists Wednesday -- the same day the Israeli security cabinet authorized the military to accelerate its military operations in southern Lebanon -- prompted both political and military leaders to moderate their threats of a rapid escalation in combat.

"The minute troops set out to accomplish a mission, we must look in the eyes of every mother, every father and every child and say: We exhausted all other options," Defense Minister Amir Peretz told reporters Thursday. He and other leaders rushed to assure the public they would give the diplomatic process a few more days to work before sending large numbers of new reservists and active-duty soldiers across the border.

"Fifteen casualties in one day proves what price we could pay if we do not try to make the most of the political move," Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, referring to both the reserve and active-duty deaths on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the reports of a lack of equipment and proper training for many of the reserve units have spread like brush fire through Israeli society, where almost every Jewish citizen has a friend or relative now in combat or preparing for combat in southern Lebanon.

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