Deaths of 12 reservists shake Israel


AHITUV, Israel -- Muffled sobs arose as the coffin of Daniel Ben-David, a husband, father and part-time paratrooper, was lowered into the ground yesterday, a scene repeated across Israel as the country buried a dozen army reservists killed a day earlier in a rocket attack.

For Israelis, the deaths were a stunning communal loss, not only because the death toll was the highest among soldiers in one attack since warfare with Hezbollah erupted July 12, but also because those who died were ordinary Israelis called to military service days ago.

Reservists occupy a peculiar place in the Israeli consciousness. Once mobilized, they no longer are civilians but fall into a category distinct from those of career soldiers or conscripts.

The concept of a citizen army is ingrained in Israel's national ethos, dating to the days of early statehood, when reservists got their call-up orders via their unit's code names read by a solemn announcer in scratchy radio or TV transmissions.

Because they range in age from their late 20s to their 40s, reservists who die in wartime leave a more complicated legacy than do their younger compatriots, and one that sends out wider ripples into Israeli society.

They are more likely to leave behind wives and children, careers and colleagues, and, in many instances, a gaping hole in small communities.

All of that was true in the case of Ben-David, 36, who was born and raised in the farming community of Ahituv, a local boy who chose to settle into manhood there. When he married, he brought his wife, Yifat, home with him, and they began raising their three young children.

The crowd at his funeral exceeded the population of Ahituv, a hamlet of about 800 people in the rolling hills northeast of Tel Aviv.

Nearly everyone in town turned out on this sun-drenched afternoon to pay their respects. They joined hundreds of others drawn from the overlapping circles of Ben-David's life: his friends from his work as a sales manager, his army buddies, his wife's family and friends, and childhood playmates who had moved away.

While people waited for the coffin to be borne to the gravesite, they talked quietly of little else but the war in Lebanon, whether Israel's survival is at stake in the confrontation with Hezbollah, how long the conflict might last and how many lives it will cost.

All that was put aside in a burst of sobbing as Ben-David's father, Benjamin, delivered a eulogy to his youngest son, with the crowd in the cemetery overflowing into a field.

"My son, my love, my eyes - this cannot be for nothing," said Benjamin Ben-David. "To me, you are still full of life, loved by everyone."

Like Ben-David, the others killed in Sunday's rocket strike on a border kibbutz commandeered by the military as a staging area had stepped out of their daily lives - temporarily, they thought - to serve at the front. One was a horticulturist. Another taught immigrant youths from Ethiopia. Another worked for a dairy company.

Elite combat units carried out most of the initial ground forays across the border, and no reservists died inside Lebanon until two were killed over the weekend. One of them was a doctor who had been stationed in a safer rear position but appealed to his commander to let him move forward to treat the wounded.

Some Israeli commentators called the reservists' deaths a potential turning point in public sentiment about the battle with Hezbollah.

Sunday's lethal strike was "a huge test for the Israeli consensus on this war," Alex Fishman wrote in the Yediot Aharonot daily. "The 'people's army' is beginning to pay a price."

Hanoch Yerushalmi, a Hebrew University psychologist who has studied reserve service, said reservists act as a bridge between the society as a whole and the standing army.

"So I think in some ways the deaths of reservists affects people differently than those of regular soldiers," he said. "The population in a way feels closer to them, identifies more with them."

At Ben-David's funeral, the crowd joined in a prayer in which the living ask the forgiveness of the dead. Many wiped their eyes as they did so.

Before receiving his call-up notice, Ben-David had contacted his unit commander to volunteer for service, officers said.

"That was very like him," said Koby Nahon, who had known Ben-David since they were teen-agers.

"He thought it was his duty to go, so he went," Nahon said. "But that way of behaving, the kind of person he was, that is exactly what makes it so hard for all of us to accept that he is really gone."

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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