Israeli reservists fight in Gaza but question what comes after the war

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — As Israel’s war in Gaza rages, it’s leaning on a backbone of reservists to fight — soldiers who say they are committed to serve but who are also divided over what comes next.

Most Israelis support the war against Hamas, which is seen here as an existential fight. But there’s no political consensus around how to manage the Gaza Strip after the fighting stops. It’s a question that has vexed Israeli leaders and their allies and is now on the minds of some reservists, as they weave in and out of civilian life.

“I really want to know what the end will be,” said Lia Golan, 24, a reserve tank instructor and student at Tel Aviv University. “And no one has told us what that point is.”

Golan served in southern Israel for more than two months after the war broke out Oct. 7. She said she’s troubled by the toll the uncertainty is taking: Israeli hostages in Gaza are turning up dead, soldiers are being killed and Israeli citizens are still displaced.


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But she wouldn’t hesitate to go back and serve when she’s called up again. People are “dying and fighting,” she said. “How can I say no to the reserves?”

Israel maintains a conscripted army but called up the vast majority of its 465,000 reservists in the early days of the war. It vowed to eradicate Hamas, which ruled the territory, after the group’s fighters killed around 1,200 people in Israel and abducted more than 250 others to bring back to Gaza as hostages.

Many of the mobilized reservists have since gone home, returning to their jobs, families, communities and studies. But as Israel struggles to stamp out the militants, it has called on reserve soldiers to deploy again with just a few days’ notice: Several reserve brigades are now fighting in Rafah in the south and participated in a recent operation in Jabalya in the north.

“A reserve unit is really a family,” said Ariel Heimann, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, and former chief reserve officer for the Israel Defense Forces. “And that gives a lot of power to the ability to fight.”

But, he said, Israel’s reserves are also like a rubber band: If you stretch them too far and for too long, they will eventually snap. “We have to be very careful in the use of the reserve forces,” he said, adding that reservists failing to report for duty, while not a problem now, “could be a problem in the future.”

Before the war, soldiers could expect to serve 54 days in the reserves over a period of three years to maintain readiness. But Israel formally declared a state of emergency in October, allowing the Defense Ministry to continually call up reservists with little notice or restrictions.

The ministry also recently proposed changes to Israel’s military and reserve laws, seeking to extend the service of both conscripts and reservists, but the amendments have not yet been sent to the Knesset for consideration.

Since Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza in late October, 293 Israeli troops have been killed, according to the military. The official tally does not identify which casualties were reservists, and the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment. It also declined to comment on how many reservists are currently serving.

In Gaza, the war has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. The military campaign has also caused widespread destruction, devastating towns and cities, wiping out critical infrastructure, and displacing most of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million people.

Just this month, nearly 1 million Palestinians fled the city of Rafah as Israeli tanks encroached on its outskirts. The operation there has cut off key aid routes and forced overwhelmed hospitals to close, leaving the masses of displaced with little food, water, shelter or medical care.

Israeli leaders have said they don’t want responsibility for Gaza, a territory Israel occupied from 1967 to 2005. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has come under fire for failing to plan for the “day after,” also opposes letting the Palestinian Authority govern.

The lack of strategic vision is tearing at Netanyahu’s fragile coalition and drawing fierce criticism from within his own war cabinet. On May 15, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave a blistering speech warning against Israeli military rule in Gaza, which he said would result in more bloodshed and drain Israel’s economy. Three days later, war cabinet member and Netanyahu opponent Benny Gantz threatened to resign if no postwar plan was approved by June 8.

But some reservists said they saw military occupation as the only way to end the war — and to prevent another one. Those views align with a plurality of Israelis, 40 percent of whom think Israel should govern Gaza after the war, according to a Pew Research Center poll published Thursday.

“The only solution is to go back to Gaza, like before 2005,” said 38-year-old Yechezkal Garmiza, a reserve soldier in the Givati Brigade.

At a sandy staging ground for tanks resupplying troops in Jabalya, he said Israel should also rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza, which were dismantled when Israeli forces withdrew. Garmiza lives with his wife and four young children in the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank, but has been home only for short periods since the start of the war.

If the military doesn’t rule over Gaza, “everything will come back again and again,” he said, referring to attacks by Palestinian militants. “We need to finish the job.”

Ariel Shauliyan, 41, is also a reservist and Garmiza’s neighbor in Nokdim. “We are frozen in place,” he said. “We still think that military rule like there was in the second intifada is correct.”

Shauliyan, a father of three, said that like Netanyahu, he doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority to control Gaza. Its forces were routed from Gaza by Hamas fighters in 2007 — and Shauliyan doesn’t think the same approach will prevent the militants from returning to power.

“It’s a problem,” he said of what he saw as Israel’s only options. “We need to understand that it’s a long fight.”

As the war picked up, people, schools, businesses and veterans groups across Israel marshaled support for reservists who lost work, fell behind at university or needed psychological care because of their service.

Communities came together to provide food and child care to households where one parent or both had been called up. The Ministry of Defense called up mental health officers in the reserves, set up an around-the-clock emergency hotline, and also beefed up resources for reservists before and after discharge.

Reserve combat engineer Avichai Levi, 41, said he hasn’t received nearly enough support from the Defense Ministry for his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which developed after he completed his mandatory military service more than two decades ago.

His condition has worsened since Oct. 7, he said, after he spent more than half of the months-long war driving a D9 armored bulldozer in Gaza, demolishing buildings across the territory. In May alone, he was deployed to Rafah in the south and Jabalya in the north, where the military just concluded a weeks-long operation.

“I have almost been killed so many times,” said Levi. But the hardest thing for him is returning home to Rosh Haayin in central Israel, where he struggles to sleep. He said he’s often able to rest only after sunrise, on the couch next to a maroon patterned blanket he looted from a house in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp.

For Levi, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza nearly 20 years ago was a “disaster,” because Hamas was able to seize control soon after the withdrawal, leaving Israel exposed to attacks on its border.

When Israel occupied Gaza, Palestinians kept their heads down, he said. Then he added: “We can’t leave without an absolute victory.”

But not everyone believes Israeli military control is the answer — even if they want to see Hamas defeated. Oren Shvill, 52, is a reserve special forces commander and co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a group of reservists and ex-reservists that helped organize protests against Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul last year.

Shvill’s eldest daughter is also a reservist, and his son is a conscript. His wife spent months at home alone while her family served.

“I hope there will be a solution, an international body that can come and run this area,” he said of Gaza. “There are people there. There must be something. But no Hamas.”

Shvill and his group recently started protesting again, attending weekly demonstrations calling for Netanyahu to resign.

“Netanyahu has interests that contradict with ending the war and bringing back the hostages,” Shvill said, referring to what he described as the prime minister’s efforts to stay in power and avoid looming corruption charges.

But back on the border, Moshe, 28, a reservist and light machine gun operator, said that now wasn’t the time to protest the government. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used so he could freely discuss his views as a private citizen.

Israel needs “a fresh start after the war,” he said, as outgoing artillery boomed and a fighter jet rumbled overhead. But right now, “you don’t want to create more chaos,” Moshe said.

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