Friday, September 03, 2004

Israeli reservists deal with double lives of being civilians and soldiers

At home, Eran Kurtzer is a suburbanite with a wife, baby daughter and small insurance agency. But for six weeks a year, 33-year-old Kurtzer 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 since it was born 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 increasingly are assigned to police the Palestinian population in 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 could not afford to employ hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers."