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The Things They Carried

I’m not supposed to be here. This vast training base near the Gaza border where thousands of reservists are preparing for battle is off-limits to the press. Still, everyone in Israel knows someone, and my travelling companion knows a senior army commander who’s willing to break the rules. “Just say you’re my friends,” says the commander, who picks us up in his car near the gate.

The commander, whom I’ll call Shmulik, is eager to slip us in. He wants us to meet his men, to tell the world the truth about Israel’s soldiers. Tomorrow morning, he says, they’re crossing into Gaza. “And you have to see them. They want to go in. Not because they like war; but because they believe there is no other way. Many of them are family men, some with newborn babies.” Words don’t come easily to him, but he wants us to understand: Young Israelis are as idealistic as any generation this country has produced. Perhaps more so. In today’s less ideological Israel, virtually anyone who wants to can evade military service, especially reserve duty.

I ask Shmulik whether he thinks the army should press on. “We’ve done enough devastation inside Gaza,” he says. “We’ve made our point. Now we should pull out. We will say that if you continue shelling our towns we’ll come in and do worse.” He returns to silence. He doesn’t want to continue this discussion, not on the night he’s preparing his men for war.

In the tent camp, there is no shouting or rushing about. Reservists clean their guns, load trucks, form circles for final briefings. I’m not used to such quiet among so many Israelis.

No rockets have fallen on this base, notes Shmulik. “Here we are, right on the border. But they’re not interested in hitting soldiers, only civilians.”

As we enter a tent, a soldier warns, “Get ready for the smell, it’s infantry.” No one salutes Shmulik, who is greeted by his first name. The reservists are packing: They will be carrying at least 30 kilos on their backs. A soldier crams snacks into his backpack: “Battle rations,” he says.

One religious soldier shows us how he’s squeezed phylacteries into a small pouch. “There’s no room for a prayer shawl,” he says, “but one of us will bring one in for everyone.” An architecture student with a Mohawk haircut says, “I just want this to be over. If we’re going in, let’s go in already, and get out.”

Outside, at a picnic table, a group of reservists, some wearing woolen caps against the night chill, are engaged in a venerable IDF ritual: boiling Turkish coffee in a finjan, a small tin pot. They offer us shot glasses filled with coffee. Some of them are students, some work in high tech. A young man with a shaved head joins us. “He’s from the CIA,” someone says. “Chef In Action,” the guy with the shaved head explains the joke. He is in fact a chef in one of Tel Aviv’s up-and-coming restaurants. “We hear the food there is nothing to get excited about,” someone says. “Not like what we get here.”

A large young man introduces himself in English: an immigrant from Canada. A friend of his prods, “Tell them about your daughter.”

“She was born three weeks ago,” says the Canadian immigrant. “She’s in an incubator.” He shows me her photograph on his cell phone.

His friend says, “The army gave him a choice, he didn’t have to come here.”

This is the first generation of Israelis without leaders. There is no one to inspire them, no one with moral credibility to urge them to sacrifice. Instead of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, there’s Ehud Olmert. But it doesn’t matter.

I recall a song, “A Night of Love with Civilians,” written by the late balladeer Meir Ariel, a paratrooper who fought in the battle for Jerusalem in the Six Day War. In the song, the paratroopers are embraced by Jerusalem residents just before the battle begins: “A shut-down street, its lights extinguished / but its heart opened / with drinks and sandwiches / in the hours before.” These reservists, though, want to feed us. Have some potato chips, they insist, another coffee. They want to reassure us, emissaries of the home front: Don’t worry, it will be okay.

My traveling companion raises his shot glass. “Should we toast to a victory party?” he asks.

“We don’ t have victory parties,” someone says.

A Russian immigrant whom the others have dubbed “KGB” approaches the group. “I have the sniper bullets,” he says.

“Bad sign,” someone says, laughing. “That means we’re definitely going in.”

“Why couldn’t we just continue bombing by air?” says a reservist from Tel Aviv.

“We wouldn’t have to be going in,” counters a religious soldier, “if we’d responded when they first started firing rockets.”

On the table are piles of snacks sent by grade-school children, along with their letters. “To the soldiers of the IDF, look after yourselves,” reads one. Another letter, filled with spelling mistakes, ends with this: “P.S. I don’t want to worry you, but I want you to know and to prepare yourselves that in another three months Iran will finish building an atom bomb to wipe the land of Israel from the map.”

Israel has known excruciating moments of self-doubt, even during war, but this isn’t one of them. Many Israelis feel anguished about Gaza’s suffering, but few feel apologetic. And Israelis have no patience for those critics unable to separate sympathy for Gaza’s victims with political conclusions that only strengthen the jihadists most responsible for Gaza’s suffering. Israel’s left-wing Meretz party has managed, as of this writing, to bring all of 1,000 demonstrators into the streets. And even Meretz supported the first week’s air offensive. One reason for the consensus is the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. At that time, Israeli leaders reassured skeptics that, if terrorists attacked over the international border, the IDF would have the moral legitimacy to return to Gaza. After thousands of missiles have fallen over the last three years, the IDF has belatedly done just that. The left knows its credibility is being tested: If Israel can’t defend Beersheva and Ashdod from the 1967 border with Gaza, it won’t be able to defend Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from the 1967 border with the West Bank. And, if Israel is unable to stop the missiles from Gaza, there will be very little public support for further withdrawals.

Still, there are doubts about the war. All week I’ve been arguing with myself: Maybe it’s time to stop, when our deterrence has been restored—when we convey self-confidence to the Middle East, precisely as we’re doing now. Why play into the hands of the terrorists, who are waiting for us in booby-trapped houses and schools and mosques? And if we topple Hamas, what then? Renewed occupation of Gaza? Handing it back to the ineffectual Mahmoud Abbas, who would be then accused of being an Israeli collaborator?

But there’s a counterargument that occurs to me only now: If our soldiers are ready to fight, to “go all the way,” as a reservist puts it, and topple the genocidal regime on our border, that motivation shouldn’t be taken for granted. How many times can we disrupt the lives of reservists and expect them to fight without ambivalence?

It’s time to go. Unwillingly, I recall another song, “Reservists’ Concert,” by Ehud Banai, in which he performs for soldiers on the front and imagines them dead: “And here they come without bodies / bright like the splendor of Heaven.” I linger on the handshakes, look at each of the young men carefully, trying to memorize their faces.

Two days later, on the front page of Maariv, there’s a photograph of the architecture student with the Mohawk, sitting with his friends in Gaza, smiling and pointing toward the camera. Most of the men, who look exhausted, wear helmets, but not the student: His haircut wasn’t meant to be pressed under a helmet.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi