Reporter's notebook

On Lebanon’s border, IDF reservists prepare for potential fight against Hezbollah

The teachers, students, and office workers had to quickly leave jobs and families behind on October 7; they say the focus is on the task at hand, not dwelling on that catrastrophe

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ro'i, Josh, and Dror, reservist tankers on the Israel-Lebanon border, October 29, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Ro'i, Josh, and Dror, reservist tankers on the Israel-Lebanon border, October 29, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

ISRAEL’S NORTHERN BORDER — At 6:45 on the morning of October 7, as Hamas terrorists were embarking on their rampage against Israeli communities and military bases, Josh, a 39-year-old father of two, was awakened by a phone call telling him that there were rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip.

Not expecting anything too dramatic, he crawled out of bed in Ortal in the Golan Heights, and headed north, leaving behind his wife and children. He reached Odem, the kibbutz where he serves as general manager, and made sure the community was prepared for any emergencies that could arise.

When Josh (the IDF asked that last names and unit’s location not be used), who also commands a tank company as a reserve captain, arrived back home, he received another call, this one telling him to report to his brigade’s base.

The scale of the catastrophe wasn’t entirely clear yet, and he and the other company commanders didn’t know if their units would be called up. They started discussing missions they might receive until 4:30 p.m., when the brigade was mobilized. Josh’s company began to stream toward the base.

Dror, a 29-year-old 12th-grade teacher in a religious boys’ school, was in Kibbutz Hispin in the Golan Heights with his wife and daughter on October 7 celebrating the Simhat Torah holiday. News of the attack was sparse in the religious community, but he noticed reservists slowly being called up throughout the day.

Dror knew that there were clashes near Gaza, but did not expect to be called up. Once the holiday ended and he read about the massive Hamas onslaught, in which over 1,400 people were massacred, Dror knew the order would come.

Israeli soldiers aboard Merkava tanks near the border with Lebanon in the upper Galilee region of northern Israel on October 24, 2023(Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

He and his wife packed quickly, then headed home.

“There was no question what I was meant to do. It was also clear to my wife,” said Dror. “She packed to go to her parents.”

He was at the base by 1 a.m. on October 8, and joined the three other members of his crew as they prepared their tank.

Screenshot of Hamas body cam footage as terrorists fire on an Israeli vehicle during the terror organization’s October 7 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO. (Screenshot)

The company enjoyed an enlistment rate of 140% that day.

By that Sunday morning, Josh had received his company’s mission and sector. They would be on the border with Lebanon, making sure Hezbollah couldn’t carry out the same type of attack Hamas did the day before.

Like riding a bike

Three weeks later, on October 29, in a muddy field surrounded by the woods and steep hills of the Upper Galilee, Josh’s company milled about among their tanks. A line of armored personnel carriers sat in the front of the makeshift camp. The reservists had set up colorful civilian tents as sleeping quarters.

The company comprises a wide spectrum of Israeli society, though about half are Orthodox Jews. There is an immigrant from the Netherlands, a Chinese-Israeli soldier, and a Druze tanker.

Josh has been focused on the company’s three main tasks since they arrived on the Lebanese border the day after the massacre, he told The Times of Israel.

Josh, a reservist company commander, on the Israel-Lebanon border, October 29, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“The first is to get to know the sector,” he said. “Get to know the communities, get to know the access roads. Decide which platoon goes to which community, decide where each tank’s position is.”

The second task is to drill the company and make sure new reservists are fully incorporated into the unit.

The last, said Josh, is to “get ready for the moment of truth, if we have to cross the border into Lebanon and fight.”

He relies heavily on the talents of the tank commanders. “He is the one who looks the soldier in the eyes and knows what he’s going through.”

“In the end, I rely on the fact that people understand why we’re here and what we’re doing,” said Josh.

Ro’i, a 27-year-old neurobiology graduate student at Hebrew University who commands one of the company’s Merkava 3 tanks, is focused on the three men in the turret with him.

“I have to make sure the crew is ready,” he said. “Mentally too. I talk to them, make sure everyone is in the same mindset. I make sure we’re ready for the missions we expect, and the ones we don’t.”

The soldiers spend much of their days training and brushing up.

“A  lot of years have gone by since the tank was a part of my day-to-day life,” said Dror. “We have to refresh things from exercises we did in recent years. The mind knows they’re not just exercises to get through and then go home, but now every word you hear is important, and every drill has to be the most professional, because we don’t know when it actually will be. We are ready for the mission to be tomorrow morning.”

The more time Israeli forces are allowed to train, he argued, the better it is for them and the worse for Hezbollah.

Smoke rises from inside an Israeli army position which was hit by missiles launched by the Hezbollah terror group, as seen from Tair Harfa village, a Lebanese border village with Israel, south Lebanon, October 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“Another exercise, another drill and things are being done better and better — more automatic and more precise.”

“It’s like riding a bike,” Dror continued, “first with training wheels, now without them.”

The Iran-backed Hezbollah has fired dozens of anti-tank guided missiles, rockets, and mortar shells at Israeli military positions and towns since the murderous October 7 Hamas onslaught. It also sent gunmen — some affiliated with Palestinian terror groups — to infiltrate northern Israel. Several drones have been intercepted over the north.

The IDF has reported striking dozens of terror cells in southern Lebanon in recent days.

You have tunnel vision, to do what you have to do.

The tit-for-tat attacks have so far remained limited in scope, amid threats from Israel that Lebanon will suffer if Hezbollah steps up its attacks.

As they drill and prepare for the possibility of pushing into Lebanon, the soldiers have not been wallowing in the shock of October 7.

“The moment they called me up, and I know for many others, you enter a mode focused on the mission,” said Josh. “You have tunnel vision, to do what you have to do.”

He has not even looked through lists of those killed in the Hamas attacks: “I am worried that it would influence me.”

People gather and light candles to remember the Israeli victims of the unprecedented Hamas terror onslaught, at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, October 13, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I personally understand the gravity of the current moment, but I choose not to deal with that too much,” Ro’i reflected. “I can think about these things and analyze them at a later stage. In the day-to-day, I am focused more on the preparations for the missions expected of us.”

Josh said the officers in the unit deliberated over how much to encourage discussions of the soldiers’ emotions, fears, and thoughts of home. “For now we’re focused on the mission,” he said, “but if we are here for a long time, we’ll have to know how to do that as well.”

The nature of good

Though the reservists are years older than the soldiers in active service who train every day, they enjoy other advantages.

“The fact is that everyone volunteered to be here, no one was forced to be here,” said Dror. “We are also more mature, we have greater responsibilities. I left a wife and daughter and parents and siblings and students at home, and you understand the scale of the mission more. You understand what you are fighting for here.”

Israeli reserve soldiers seen in the Golan Heights during military training before heading to the Israel-Gaza border, on October 25, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Most of the faculty at his school has been mobilized, said Dror, but he tries to be in touch with his students as much as he can. “The theoretical classes about Zionism and Jewish history have become practical,” he said.

The political fault lines that rocked the country in the nine months before the war didn’t disappear in the unit, the tanker said, but they have been put in context.

“A person who you could have reacted to on Facebook is now sitting next to you in a tank,” Dror explained. “Even if there are debates after this, and I believe there will be, they will be given a sense of proportion, because 400,000 people are together [in uniform]. And there are another 8.5 million citizens around us; they are also very much here.”

“In the end, citizens are here with all sorts of worldviews and political views, and we embrace them and they embrace us,” he continued. “It’s very clear we are one nation, even if the enemy thought he could take advantage of this situation; he didn’t view it correctly at all. It took a moment for us to remember who we are and what we are, but that happened very quickly.”

Protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem against the government’s judicial overhaul on September 11, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

As they defend the towns on Israel’s northern border, the reservists are confident in the justice of their cause.

“We are fighting for our ability to exist, I think that is clear,” said Josh. “This isn’t some Israeli aggressiveness. It’s our right to be here. We are facing enemies who don’t want us here, and are ready to do everything to make sure we are not. We will do everything to make sure that we will continue to be here.”

As some organizations and countries accuse Israel of war crimes in Gaza, the tank officer said it was “absurd that our ethics in war are being used to [try to] reduce our ability to attack.”

“We’ve seen how our enemy behaves, how he treats his own civilians; I don’t think there’s a moral dilemma about the justice of our cause and the importance of our victory,” he said.

Taking the fight to Hamas is part of the Jewish people’s mission to bring more good into the world, Dror argued.

“There are people here who in civilian life are educators, therapists, in tech; everyone is involved in moving the world forward and doing good in the world,” he noted. “And we were called to do good in another way. No one here came to kill and destroy, we are not like that, but right now the good that must appear is what we are doing now.”

We came to do good, and the nature of good is to defeat evil.

“It says in the Torah that we are called to be a blessing to the world,” the educator continued. “Sometimes the blessing is to sit behind a computer, sometimes the blessing is to stand in front of a class and teach, and sometimes the blessing is that the Jewish people signals to the world who is evil, what terror is, what we have to defeat, even if it comes through war.

“We came to do good, and the nature of good is to defeat evil.”

The IDF is well-situated to defeat that evil, Josh insisted.

“From when I was drafted in 2003 till today, I have never seen the IDF this strong, so focused on the mission, so prepared,” he said. “The price is high, but the wake-up call from October 7 fired up our military capabilities, and we have many.

“The enemy has no chance.”

Most Popular
read more: