Israel hastily musters its citizen army

JERUSALEM (AP) — Roy Bass emerged from the Mediterranean waves at noon Friday for a Popsicle break when, surfboard in hand, he heard his cell phone ringing on the beach. It was a recorded message: “An emergency draft has been activated.”

Four hours later, the 27-year-old computer programmer was at an army base, in full uniform, preparing to head to Israel’s northern border, where troops were massing to take on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israel’s mighty military is comprised of thousands like Bass _ ordinary civilians who, at a moment’s notice, respond to the call to arms.

On Friday, several thousand reservists were drafted for immediate, emergency duty. By Friday night, the army chief of staff announced the response was full, plus thousands who volunteered on their own initiative.

“The reserves have proven themselves once again,” said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff.

The enthusiastic response highlights the intimate relationship Israel has with its army. Nearly every Jewish Israeli has served in the army, and opinion polls consistently show the army to be the country’s most trusted institution.

Since Israel became independent in 1948, reserves have been the backbone of its military, conditioned to drop everything and be mobilized within a day or two to back up the far smaller core of active duty soldiers. Men from all walks of life _ and increasingly women with special skills _ instantly become soldiers again.

Israel’s standing army of about 186,500 troops can jump to 631,500 with rapid mobilization, according to figures from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

The system has proven effective in all of Israel’s wars. In 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked en masse on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, thousands of reservists were summoned from their homes and synagogues and rushed to the front lines to push back the offensive.

Despite Israel’s increasing reliance on technological superiority, military service remains a rite of passage. All 18-year-old men are drafted for three years and will continue to do reserves for about a month a year into their 40s, by which time many will have sons in the army or reserves. Women are drafted for two years.

As Israel’s military dominance has grown, it has become less reliant on its reserves. The retirement age has been gradually lowered from 51 to 40 in some cases, and the number of reserves called up has steadily dropped, with the army focusing more on those with specialized skills, such as air force pilots and intelligence officers.

Some view the task the way Americans view jury duty _ boring and disruptive, especially for college students and the self-employed. Most, however, welcome it as a break from the rigors of daily life, a chance to bond with old comrades in a setting where a backgammon board is often a more important accessory than a rifle.

In peacetime, a reserve stint is something to be haggled over with a commanding officer with all sorts of excuses _ a college exam, an overseas vacation, a spell of dental surgery.

But when the call-up is an “Order 8,” military parlance for an emergency summons, the response is visceral.

“All of a sudden it becomes a real war, it changes everything,” Bass said by cell phone from his base in northern Israel.

Bass serves annually in his armored battalion, but this is his first Order 8.

Where once Israelis were drafted to war by air raid sirens, passwords over the radio and recruiters going door to door, today they are summoned by computerized calls to their cell phones.

When Bass got his call-up, he sped home and swapped his bathing suit for an army uniform.

“There was no dilemma, no doubt in my mind because it is something you grow up with, that this is the most important thing there is,” he said. “It’s ingrained deep inside you _ if they call you, you go.”

Even without a war, reservists are as much at risk as regular soldiers. The two soldiers who were kidnapped by Hezbollah on the Lebanon border, triggering the current round of fighting, were reservists.

Ephraim Sneh, a lawmaker and former general, said his three parliamentary assistants were drafted for emergency duty. He said those who are called are genuinely needed and, therefore, “whoever serves, serves with joy.”

“The destiny of Israel is the hands of the few, and we owe our lives to the few,” he said. “Those who are on the front lines were always the few, but thanks to these devoted people we are still here.”