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.
"Nobody really wants to go into Lebanon," said a 28-year-old reserve paratrooper who provided only his first name, Yonaton, out of concern that he would face reprimands for criticizing the military. "We are just not ready -- not in terms of training, or on a weapons basis. It is an absurd situation. Hezbollah has better weapons than we do."
Yonaton, a sergeant, said that when he reported for duty recently with his reserve unit, "there was a serious lack of gear."
"There are a lot of guns, but we were missing the appropriate guns, and appropriate scopes to put on those guns," he said in an interview in Jerusalem while taking a one-day leave before moving to the border. "And basically there is no armor whatsoever. There is not one bulletproof vest in my company.
"I read in one of the Israeli papers that the army claims that the reservists are getting the same equipment as the regular soldiers -- and that is a lie," said Yonaton. "The difference is so great that it's almost a joke. It is a disgrace."
"This is a time of war, and it takes time sometimes to get everyone organized," said Capt. Noah Meir, an Israeli military spokeswoman. But she added, "We do not send any soldier or officer into combat who's not prepared, who's not geared up and not well trained. They won't go into battle without equipment."
Some political leaders have expressed concern.
"They are not ready -- not regarding equipment and not regarding infrastructure," Yuval Steinitz, a member of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said earlier this week. "In general, home command was not ready for this."
The wives of several dozen reserve soldiers wrote a letter this week to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and defense officials to "protest with a loud voice what is occurring in the field." The women said their husbands, who are now in southern Lebanon, have complained about inadequate equipment, such as outmoded helmets, insufficient night-vision equipment and insufficient amounts of food, in addition to chaotic mission plans.
Reserve soldiers from the Egoz, an elite infantry unit stationed near the Lebanese border in the Golan Heights, said that only their officers had been issued night-vision goggles.
"Look, the IDF is not the American Army," said Sgt. Lavi Zadok, 26, a law student at Tel Aviv University, using the abbreviation for Israel Defense Forces. "I would say they have given us the minimum, nothing more. When we were soldiers, we had everything we needed."
First Sgt. Adi Berkowitz, a reservist who suffered shrapnel wounds in a mortar attack near the Lebanese village of Marjayoun on Wednesday, said the army should be doing more to equip soldiers like him.
"It's a war, and in a war everyone, not just the regular soldiers, should be getting efficient and quality equipment," he said as he recovered at a hospital in the Israeli border town of Tzfat. "But on the other hand it is not in the soldier's mentality to complain. You get what you get."
Several soldiers said they had problems with their equipment but did not want to disclose them publicly because they thought it would encourage their enemies.
Sgt. David Shlomo, a medic, said he had been issued only one IV tube, rather than the eight or nine he carried with him when he was on active duty. "There were a lot of things I had then that I don't have now," he said. When he was asked to elaborate, other soldiers told him to stop talking.
"Everything you are saying right now, the Syrians will be reading," one said. "Why would we tell them our weaknesses?"
Moore reported from Jerusalem.