On the Gaza-Israel border, Israeli reservists weigh a ground assault

As trucks hauled armored vehicles in southern Israel, thousands of reservists headed to training bases, resigned to a ground assault: If the rocket fire doesn't end, said one, 'we'll have no choice.'

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Israeli soldiers patrol the border near northern Gaza; a ground invasion of the Palestinian-held territory may be imminent.

On Saturday, Israel’s army seemed poised to launch a ground assault into the Gaza Strip after four days of war with Hamas, as flatbed trucks hauled armored vehicles around southern Israel and thousands of reservist call-ups donned rumpled uniforms en route to training bases.

The call-ups, whose numbers could be expanded to 75,000, make de-escalation more difficult because the move raises expectations in Israel for a ground assault and shortens the window of decision for the final order to deploy the soldiers. 

The veteran soldiers are considered the army's backbone, and several thousand were served notice on Friday, getting emergency draft notices in the middle of the Israeli weekend. 

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"We are going to do what needs to be done, We’ll show them that no one is better than Israel,’’ said Yaniv, a 36-year-old medical officer with a paunch and an M-16 slung over his shoulder.

As he ordered a cappuccino at a gas station rest stop, he declined to ponder whether the operation would succeed in snuffing out rocket fire from Hamas militants. 

"I’m not a general. We are going to finish this off and bring quiet" to southern Israel, he said.

Focus on air attacks

So far, Israel has been focusing on air attacks in the conflict, but a ground invasion is expected to put added pressure on Hamas, just as in 2009.

In the past four days, Israeli aircraft have carried out 1,000 strikes on Hamas and militant targets with precision munitions, leaving 37 Palestinians dead, nearly half of them civilians. Meanwhile, Hamas and affiliated militant groups continue to launch rockets, raising the prospect of a ground assault.

"As in every air operation, there are limitations," said Brig. Gen. Eden Attias, who said the rocket fire was expected. "We didn’t anticipate to wipe out the long- and medium-range rocket fire in a few days. It will require more effort."

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said Saturday that he saw "some indications" of the potential for a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, though he offered no guarantees. 

Resigned to ground offensive

Many of the Israeli reservists said they were resigned to joining a ground offensive even though they could not articulate a clear goal beyond the government’s purpose of snuffing out rocket fire and hurting Hamas’s strategic assists.

"Nobody likes to go to war," said Guy, reservist, also 36, from Tel Aviv, who left behind a wife and three children. Though the stated purpose of the operation is to "deter" rocket attacks, he said the fighting will end only when "there is peace."

In their late 20s and 30s, most of the reservists are veterans of decade of Israel's major mlitary operations: Gaza in 2009, Lebanon in 2006, and the West Bank in 2002. Their willingness to enlist is seen as a barometer of social solidarity and patriotism, but they have been known to criticize operations gone awry.

"I'm excited, but I'm also shaking,'' said Orel, a 24-year-old combat engineer from the northern Israel town of Nahariya. "I do this out of love for my country.  I have friends in southern Israel and it's not logical that they have to hear sirens all the time.'' 

The reservists are in a holding pattern, waiting to see whether there will be an invasion or whether they will be able to go home. The military only has a short time to hold tens of thousands of men away from job and family.

"The army keeps on telling soldiers: tomorrow, tomorrow. Meahwhile, we’re making serious preparations," said Itzik, a reservist from the southern Israel town of Ashdod who said he expected to be ordered in. "I think it's going to be larger than you think."

The highways of southern Israel were mostly deserted on Saturday, thanks to the weekend and the rocket fire, but there was a pronounced presence of military and police forces on the roads.

The military erected roadblocks on southern Israeli highways, creating closed zones in an effort to keep a fog around the army's movements.

A 20-something soldier, who fought in the last Gaza war and was taking a break from duty in Ashdod, said he doesn't think it's a good idea to go into Gaza on the ground. Why? "Because soldiers will die." 

In the parking lot outside one army base, buses full of soldiers wound their way through supply trucks and reservists parting from friends. As a Palestinian rocket was intercepted by an Israeli defensive missile, Lior, an infantry soldier from southern Israel, said he still held out hope for a cease-fire that would avoid deaths. But if the rocket fire doesn’t end, a ground offensive is inevitable.  "We’ll have no choice," he said. 

Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report. 

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