- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

MAALEH SHOMRON, West Bank — At home, Eran Kurtzer is a suburbanite with a wife, a baby daughter and a small insurance agency. But for six weeks a year, Mr. Kurtzer, 33, is an army major leading a company of paratroopers on patrols through olive groves on the hills of the West Bank.

He and his unit are among thousands of Israeli men who once a year are torn from their everyday routine and thrust back into uniform.

The disrupted lives and livelihoods that American reservists are discovering as they spend months in Iraq have been a way of life in Israel ever since its creation in 1948. The potbellied, unshaven reservist, rifle casually slung over a shoulder, is a beloved stereotype of Israeli life. Reserve duty is the backbone of the army and an institution that has shaped Israeli society well beyond the military.

But as the military evolves technologically, many are questioning the need for the reserves system, which drains the economy of tens of millions of dollars a year in lost trade and wages. The issue has become more acute in part because the mission has changed. Reservists trained to defend the country from Arab armies are assigned increasingly to police the Palestinian population on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that hurts morale.

Israel’s founders established the reserves to deal with a dilemma that persists today. Surrounded by populous and hostile Arab neighbors, they needed a large army. But with a small population, they couldn’t afford to employ hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers.

The solution was conscription for all 18-year-old males for three years, followed by one reserve tour a year and more in times of emergency. Women are also drafted, and some unmarried ones do reserve duty.

The Israeli military does not disclose how many soldiers it has. According to Jane’s World Armies, Israel’s standing army of about 125,000 troops can jump to 500,000 with rapid mobilization — 250,000 of them within six hours.

The system has been tested in five wars, most rigorously in the 1973 Mideast war, when Egypt and Syria attacked on Yom Kippur and thousands of reservists were yanked from homes and synagogues and rushed to the fronts. Many ended up serving four months or more before the Middle East quieted down again.

In the past four years of conflict with the Palestinians, reservists have had to work long, tiring shifts guarding roadblocks or Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians regard the settlers as usurpers of land they claim for a future state.

Many reservists are among the 970 Israelis killed in the four-year-old Palestinian uprising. The death toll on the Palestinian side is 3,061.

Like all Israeli soldiers, the reservists are reviled by many Palestinians as representatives of an enemy occupier. But at roadblocks and checkpoints, it’s not uncommon to see Palestinians choosing to stand in lines manned by reservists, who are considered more patient and easygoing.

The burden on reservists has eased somewhat. They no longer have to show proof each time they leave the country that the army doesn’t need them. They are notified of call-ups six weeks in advance. Students called up during exam times get to take the tests later.

Soldiers can be called up for 36 days a year and officers for 43 — longer if necessary. Combat soldiers are in the reserves until age 40. The maximum age for service, 51, is being reduced in phases.

Still, a standard feature in many Israeli homes is the “reserve kit” — a portable coffee maker and a backgammon board.

Mr. Kurtzer lives with his family in Shoham, a bedroom community outside Tel Aviv, and runs his insurance agency with three employees.

But when the call comes, he becomes responsible for guarding five West Bank Jewish settlements. He calls it “the surreal switch.”

At his headquarters in the settlement of Maaleh Shomron, Maj. Kurtzer sits at a makeshift desk, surrounded by maps and charts. On the desk are two pictures of Adi, his 5-month-old daughter.

“Mentally, it is harder for me to be here now,” Maj. Kurtzer said, gesturing at the pictures. “Two days ago, my wife called to say Adi rolled over for the first time. You want to be there the whole time. It just eats you up inside when you’re not there.”

Abandoning his work is also a big problem. The army tries to pay reservists their lost salaries, but Maj. Kurtzer has no one to run his office in his absence.

“At 11:30 last night, I was out in the field, on the phone, trying to sort out a specific problem for a client,” he said. “If I can’t sort out her problems, she will leave me.”

Eyal Nakash, 26, is a third-year medical student. He is also a reserve platoon commander based at the nearby settlement of Yakir. With two weeks of stubble, beads around his neck and an earring, he looks more student than officer.

After being called up on short notice during Israel’s 2002 massive incursion into the West Bank, Lt. Nakash was released a week before exams.

“Some of the lecturers aren’t very sympathetic” about helping make up for missed lectures, he said.

This year, his reserve duty fell during his vacation.

The army recognizes the problems. Universities signed a commitment last year to help student reservists, said Brig. Gen. Ariel Heimann, the chief reserves officer, whose post was recently created to halt plummeting morale among reservists.

Morale is down because few relish policing the Palestinian population, and because it has become too easy to find excuses to skip reserve duty — a pregnant wife, an overseas trip, a religious calling, economic or health problems — so that those who do report for service have to pick up the slack.

Four years ago, 215,000 reservists were on duty at any given moment; last year, the number was 55,000, according to unofficial estimates.

“It is very depressing that such a small group does reserve duty,” said Lt. Nakash, the medical student.

Reservists, when not in uniform, are not bound by military rules designed to keep the troops out of political debates. They led the demonstrations that ultimately brought down the government after the Yom Kippur War, founded the dovish Peace Now movement, and recently stunned the public with an exhibition of photos documenting the brutalities of the occupation in the West Bank city of Hebron.

The army has been trying to phase the reservists out of dealing with the Palestinian conflict, said military expert Shlomo Brom, a retired general.

A few hundred reservists have refused on political grounds to serve, arguing that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is illegal. Many go to jail for more than a month and then are sent back to their units, where continued refusal results in more jail time.

Some units solve this problem by quietly reassigning objectors to service inside Israel.

Those who say the whole system needs an overhaul note that Israel is at peace with two of its neighbors — Egypt and Jordan — and the main threats now come from distant enemies with missiles, and from Palestinian suicide bombers.

But Gen. Brom said Israel can’t disband the reserve network. “As there is a threat from a large army like Syria’s, Israel will need these hundreds of thousands on call,” he said.

Besides, there are many who would miss the annual call. It’s a male-bonding experience, a chance to patch a rocky marriage, an escape from the rat race and an opportunity to recharge ideological batteries.

“I’m proud to be doing this … . It’s a privilege, not a burden,” Maj. Kurtzer said. “We are the good citizens of Israel.”

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