At waystation, Israeli reservists ponder what's ahead

Putting home life on hold, soldiers prepare for fighting at Elyakim base, near Haifa.

Resting on foam mattresses in a crowded tent dorm, Lebanon-bound Israeli reservists bide time by cleaning their rifles and calming worried relatives via cellphone. Spurts of machine-gun fire echo from nearby hills.

"It's just training," explains Yaron Yaniv, a skull-tattooed sniper in the 9211 Nahal infantry battalion. "For the meantime."

The rumpled uniforms and two-day stubble of the reservists belie their role as the backbone of Israel's army, which has summoned thousands to widen a ground offensive against Hizbullah guerrillas.

Yet they are unsure what will snuff out Katyusha rocket fire on northern Israel: a US-sponsored cease-fire, or fresh strikes against an Iranian-backed militia they know cannot be eradicated by might alone.

"When you're a soldier, you don't think so big. You want to make them suffer," says Mr. Yaniv as he slips shiny gold bullets into a rifle clip. "In the Middle East, if you want to be strong, you need to make people see that if they hurt you, they'll get hurt back. These are the rules of the jungle."

After three years of obligatory service, Israeli men remain in the reserves through their 40s, returning for annual training, patrols, and guard duty. Stories of resourceful reservists clamoring to reach the front lines to relieve regular forces contributed to the small army's scrappy image and proved decisive in Israel's early wars.

So the hundreds of combat soldiers at Elyakim weren't surprised when they were summoned during Friday night Sabbath meals by automated phone messages and by soldiers bearing conscription notices. With uniforms and gear prepacked in duffle bags, the reservists cancelled weekend plans and set out for the training camp near Haifa.

Yishai Brill, another sniper, says he waited a day before telling his family. The electrical engineer says that he wanted to make sure that the call-up was genuine. "I understood that this is a real call-up," Brill says, "and that it's not going to be brief."

Many hope that US intervention will curtail the tour of duty. But in the meantime, even honeymoons have been put on hold.

It was at this way station between home and the war that the fighting came one step closer on Sunday. When the soldiers got news of a Katyusha rocket that slammed into a group of reservists waiting to be sent into Lebanon, the infantrymen at Elyakim bore witness to their own vulnerability.

"When they read the list off of people killed, it was dead silence," says Gilad Rosenzweig, an architect-turned-combat medic. "That was really difficult."

In between training, they are on permanent alert. When it becomes challenging to reassure family and friends back home, they fudge it. "I hope it finishes quick," says Yoni Shussman, a field-support engineer. "Through any sort of solution."

Ranging in age from mid-20s to late-30s, the Nahal reservists are old enough to count themselves among the veterans of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon than ended six years ago.

They know that the Hizbullah of 2006 has changed dramatically from the fighters they encountered then, with better arms and training. "If someone tells you he's not afraid, he's not normal," says Yaniv.

Many of the reservists say they agreed with the decision to withdraw from Lebanon in the hope that withdrawing to an internationally recognized border would bolster calm and reduce soldier casualties.

Just one year ago, the reservists were patrolling the border where Hizbullah abducted the Israeli soldiers. Back then, the border seemed peaceful, though they knew the Shiite guerrillas were watching them.

"I thought it was over. Now I think that was a mistake," says Mr. Brill. "Lebanon is a beautiful country. When you look at the view from the cracks in the outpost, you hope that one day you could go there with a passport instead of inside an armored personnel carrier."

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