The signs of Israel’s massive mobilization for a potential ground invasion of Gaza are all around here.
The highways are strewn with military vehicles – trucks full of ammunition, armored personnel carriers and tanks – as well as civilian cars and buses packed with reservists heading to bases to train and prepare for the next phase of Israel’s response to Hamas’s terrorist attacks. A formation of armored personnel carriers lies still in a field, facing Gaza, which lies just six miles away. Nearby, artillery guns deliver a steady thumping of strikes on Gaza.
This is a country on a war footing.
At a military base a dozen miles from the Gaza border, thousands of reservists flood through a narrow two-lane highway. They are answering Israel’s call for more than 300,000 reservists – one of the largest mobilizations in the country’s history – after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned his country will “fight back with a force and scope that the enemy… has never known.” At one point, the road looks more like a parking lot as bulky military vehicles and trucks cause a traffic jam.
The call-up amounts to nearly 4% of Israel’s population. And despite having a population 34 times smaller than the US’s, the call-up is nearly equal to the total size of the US’s military reserves, which stood at 331,992 as of August.
But beyond the scale of the call-up, reservists say it’s the emotions driving the mobilization that makes this one feel different. The brutality of Hamas’ terrorist attacks this past weekend – and the horror stories of civilians who were killed during the Hamas infiltration in the days since – have left an indelible mark on the Israeli public conscience.
“I’ve been in all the campaigns in the last 30 years – never, never something like this,” says Arnon Kamil, a 62-year-old Israeli reservist.
“Every person in Israel has lost someone. Every person…” says Kamil, his voice cracking with emotion.
Israel is still reeling from the shock of the attack. Heavily armed Hamas militants poured over the heavily fortified border Saturday and killed at least 1,200 people across several Israeli kibbutzim. Days after the attack, the extent of its horrors are still emerging.
On Thursday evening, Netanyahu’s office released “horrifying photos of babies murdered and burned by the Hamas monsters.” Three photos showed two babies whose bodies had been burned beyond recognition and a third bloodstained infant’s body.
“It’s a very emotional moment,” says Or Levi, another reservist. “When you see children, children die – and kidnapping – it’s like an animal, it’s not…,” his voice tailing off.
Although there are some exemptions, every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 is required to serve in the IDF. After finishing their service, many take lengthy trips overseas, a kind of post-service rite of passage. But since the weekend many Israelis living abroad have already rushed to get home to attend funerals, console their families – or to serve.
“The generation born since the Yom Kippur War have never seen anything like this,” says Guy, a 30-year-old who works in cybersecurity in London, who returned to Israel Wednesday to be a military reservist. CNN is not using his surname for safety reasons. Six of his friends attended the Supernova music festival that was targeted by Hamas militants. Two of the group have since been confirmed dead.
Those born after the Yom Kippur War, he says, “have had the opportunity to believe in peace and the two-state solution… we grew up with that… The people that go to these festivals participate as citizens of the world who essentially just want to celebrate life.”
Michael, another reservist CNN spoke to near a military base in southern Israel, said he had come home to serve.
“I’ve been in Amsterdam…until Monday morning. I came here, you know, to (return) to the army to fight those b*****ds,” says Michael, who works as an ambulance driver.
Michael, who declined to share his last name, said his family lives in Re’im kibbutz, where Hamas militants killed four people. “This is outrageous,” Michael says. “The feeling is tremendous. It’s unbearable.”
It is unclear if or when Israel plans to launch a potential ground incursion into Gaza. Many of the reservists CNN spoke to said they would receive training before any deployment. But none seemed to doubt where they would eventually be sent.