Facing a military campaign with no end in sight, tens of thousands of soldiers in Israel find themselves in a holding pattern.
For the 360,000 reservists who have been called up as Israel goes to war in Gaza, there are plenty of ways to conjure up nightmares: taking part in a combat operation that accidentally kills an Israeli hostage held by Hamas, confronting Hamas fighters as they pop up from tunnels in a chaotic urban landscape or simply coming upon a Palestinian child who strays within rifle range.
For now, though, the hardest part is the waiting.
“They’ve been talking about us going to the front for two weeks now,” Master Sgt. Noam Ashkenazi, 26, a law student at Tel Aviv University, said on Thursday. He is serving as a medic in a unit training at a military base in southern Israel, about 12 miles from the Gaza Strip.
“When there won’t be an alternative, then there won’t be an alternative,” he said. “But today, I’d prefer not to go in.”
At the Aroma Cafe in Urim Junction, a few miles from the border, the line stretches to the door as soldiers, many of them reservists, wait to order coffee, cheese sandwiches and a pastry, if they get there early enough. Cigarette butts pile up in ashtrays; soldiers fiddle with takeaway coffee cups, long ago drained of their last drop; and guns rest on their laps as they while away the time.
Yoni Erez, 34, a doctor serving with a unit just across the border, said: “It’s well known that if you don’t use a reservist within 10 days, you start hearing about it. There’s a lot of trepidation, but also a will for retribution.”
There are signs that Israel’s compulsory mobilization, the largest since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, has begun to get serious: Eight reservists have been killed in Gaza since the Israeli military launched its ground operation a week ago. That is a quarter of the army’s total casualties, and the number is likely to grow as more troops pour into Gaza City to root out Hamas militants.
The phased nature of Israel’s ground assault has allowed the army to continue training the reservists since they were called up after the Hamas attacks that killed 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers on Oct. 7. But little can prepare these citizen soldiers for the rigors of combat on a scale they have not seen since thousands of reservists were deployed into southern Lebanon in 2006 to battle Hezbollah.
Teachers and tour guides, lawyers and software engineers, these reservists face the likelihood of being away from their families for weeks in a prolonged military campaign that raises thorny questions about the humanitarian toll on civilians. While the Hamas massacre has filled many with fury and a sense of mission, some dread the idea of harming Palestinian women and children.
“I’m someone who was taught to see both sides,” said Master Sgt. Gavri Schnider, 28, a social worker from Rishon LeZion, “and in my opinion, the kids on both sides are the No. 1 victims in this situation.”
Sergeant Ashkenazi argued that “the Gazans aren’t innocent; they aren’t angels.” He said he believed the claims by Hamas that many of the people who seized hostages were Gaza residents not associated with the group. “It’s hard to show compassion in this situation,” he said. “On the other hand,” he added, “they’re miserable. They’re simply refugees. They don’t have a home.”
Historically, reservists played a central role in Israel’s wars, fighting heroically on the front lines. But Israel’s professional army has grown and its economy has become more prosperous, with gourmet coffee shops as common as kibbutzim. The Israeli military is now more careful about how it deploys reservists, keeping most away from the front lines in favor of jobs like patrolling villages or guarding transportation routes.
“Israel got yuppified,” said Michael B. Oren, a onetime regular soldier and reservist who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
“In the old days, people would leave their farm to go fight, like Cincinnatus,” Mr. Oren said, referring to the ancient Roman politician who saved the state from an invasion, retired to his farm, then returned to Rome as its leader. “Today, Cincinnatus is not a farmer, but works at a tech company.”
A major change came after the Lebanon war: Dozens of reservists were killed after they were thrust into combat in the last days of the invasion. That prompted an outcry, leading the Israeli military to overhaul the system. The military shrank the size of the reserves, cutting many less well-trained members. Today, less than 5 percent of Israel’s population serves in a reserve unit.
The military has created tiers of reservists, from highly trained troops who serve in elite units or pilots who fly fighter planes, to less well-trained people who police settlements in the West Bank or patrol villages along the Lebanese border. But elite reservists are deployed in Gaza, some in units that include professional soldiers.
The diverse economic and social backgrounds of reservists means that some are openly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, even as they fervently believe in the military’s mission. Along with their army-issued fatigues, some wear T-shirts emblazoned with the symbols of the mass rallies last summer against Mr. Netanyahu’s overhaul of the Israeli judiciary.
With time on their hands, political debates are common. “You’ll have guys poking fun at each other, saying, ‘I hope you don’t go back to the demonstrations when you go home,’” Dr. Erez said. “It’s not very contentious. People realize that this is something important; they agree that something bigger is going on.”
There are consequences for being too outspoken. On Monday, Israeli news media reported that an air force reservist was fired for criticizing Mr. Netanyahu in a private WhatsApp group. “Political comments while serving in uniform is against the rules,” an Israeli military spokesman said.
Military analysts said the opposition toward Mr. Netanyahu could spell trouble for Israeli commanders if the reservists were asked to take part in operations that could endanger the 240 people being held by Hamas. The government’s handling of the hostages has touched a nerve with the public.
“The risk is that the issue of the hostages is not settled soon, and we see a danger to the hostages in the ground operation,” said Yagil Levy, a professor and expert on the military at the Open University of Israel. “You may see a kind of protest and even resistance among some units in the military.”
In the idle hours, rumors and dark theories can take root. “They tell me that they take a kid who is 8 or 9 years old, pack him with an explosive vest and send him,” Sergeant Schnider said of the militants in Gaza. “What are you supposed to do? I really don’t want to get into that situation.”
While reservists tend to be older and in less prime physical shape than regular soldiers, military officials insist that their training and equipment is up to the task in Gaza or elsewhere. Some former commanders argue that their accomplishments outside the military are a net plus for the war effort.
“The reservists may run slower, but they are level-minded,” said Brig. Gen. Ari Singer, a former chief reserves officer of the Israeli military. “The leadership in the reserves is more authentic, not related to the ranks you have on your shoulder.”
Still, reservists may also become restive if their tours last too long. Many are married with children, and the call-up has disrupted work and family.
Manuel Trajtenberg, the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, estimated that about 500,000 workers were off the clock because of the mobilization and the ripple effects on spouses forced to interrupt jobs to take on domestic duties.
The loss of so much labor, he said, is likely to cause a rare, significant decline in Israel’s per capita economic growth.
For Ilan Levin, who runs a tour business in Haifa, work came to an abrupt halt after Oct. 7, as tourists canceled trips to Israel. Four days after the Hamas attacks, Mr. Levin, 53, a former paratrooper, volunteered himself and his four-wheel-drive Land Rover to the military. Now he is ferrying soldiers to patrol duty in the north and across sand dunes near the Gaza border.
“I’m not a gung-ho person,” he said, “but given the circumstances, there’s a consensus among Israelis that we cannot go back to where we were before.”
Mr. Levin said he had gone on patrol with the reservists, most of whom are in their early 20s, and offered wisdom from his own service three decades ago. (Always look up, he told them; the threat in modern warfare often comes from drones.) As a student of history, he said he encouraged conversations about the necessity of dealing with the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah.
“If I wanted to join an infantry unit, they would probably have laughed at me and sent me packing,” he said. “But they need four-wheel drives.”
Natan Odenheimer and Adam Goldman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.