Thousands of reservists have made their way back and others are still trying as the war escalates.
(Bloomberg) — The flights keep coming — from New York and London, Los Angeles and Paris, Bangkok and Athens.
Even as several global airlines cancel services to Tel Aviv, Israel’s far-flung diaspora of reservist soldiers and volunteers are finding their way back.
More than 10,000 people have already traveled from the US on commercial and charter flights, according to Israel Bachar, the Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest. Many are part of a group of 360,000 reservists called up globally by Israel’s military, while others are volunteers.
Some are already deployed and dying. A 22-year old Israeli-American reservist was killed last week by a missile attack on the Lebanese border, where a separate threat from Iran-backed Hezbollah is escalating. But even as the war intensifies and further divides global opinion, reservists keep arriving.
They’re making their way as Israel has announced the “next phase” of the conflict, likely a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. The nation has vowed to destroy Hamas, which launched the attack this month that killed 1,400 people as it took hundreds hostage. The militant group, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, is designated a terrorist organization by the US, EU and other countries.
In response, Israel has launched steady barrages of air strikes across Gaza, and Hamas’s health officials said on Sunday that more than 4,500 Palestinians have been killed since the start of hostilities, fueling protests across the Mideast, Europe and the US. World leaders are scrambling to contain the conflict by pressing Israel to allow more aid to flow into Gaza, where 2 million people live.
Read more: Israel’s Support For Hostage Talks May Delay Invasion of Gaza
None of this appears to be deterring reservists, despite years of polarized politics under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments. So far, the global response to Israel’s mobilization has exceeded expectations by more than 50%, according to Bachar’s office.
Stas Grinberg is now in the north of Israel but was on a business trip in Miami when he heard Hamas militants had breached into Israel. Five hours later, even before the full, horrific scale of the attack was clear, he briefly went home to Nashville to see his wife and children. Then he flew to Tel Aviv.
Grinberg, 35, who grew up near Haifa, served in the Israel Defense Forces from the ages of 19 to 25. As a reservist he returns to his unit for about 20 days each year. The shock of the Oct. 7 attack made his decision to return home an easy one, he said. He and his wife were honest with their children about what was about to happen — up to a point.
“We told the kids, ‘There is a war, and daddy needs to be there, but he’s going to do the old man stuff,’” Grinberg said by phone from his first destination, a training base near the Gaza Strip. “It’s a limited truth. I’m here to fight the entire battle, in the very front units.”
Grinberg, who flew down with some of his colleagues from Vision & Beyond Capital Investments, was quickly kitted out and sent to help clear Kfar Aza, a village where dozens were killed, before moving north. He’s drawing on previous experience of guarding the Gaza border, in 2013, to prepare.
“I do feel like I have a level of preparation and experience,” he said. But “no one ever thought or practiced scenarios like the one that happened” on Oct. 7. “So I’m giving the right level of caution and humbleness to the fact we are experienced but the enemy is evolving.”
Military service is compulsory for the majority of Israelis when they turn 18. After completing their tours of duty, most IDF personnel remain eligible for call-up to reserve units until the age of 40, or even older in case of national emergency. Those who move abroad are not expected to return for training and reserve duty, though it depends on their unit.
The veterans interviewed by Bloomberg said the brutality of the attacks reignited traumas of the Holocaust, prompting a quick call to action.
Adam, who asked to withhold his surname because of his role as a reservist in an undercover counter-terrorism unit, woke up at home in Madrid on Oct. 7 to a flurry of WhatsApp messages from his old team and a call back to fight. The 23-year-old, who grew up in Paris before joining the IDF and was most recently studying in Spain, had to fly via Istanbul and Athens to Tel Aviv before rejoining his unit more than 30 hours later.
“For me it wasn’t even a question if I’m coming back or not,” he said by phone. His grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz during World War II. “I will stay here until the end.”
New Yorker Shlomo Amsellem wasn’t called back but flew to Tel Aviv on his own to rejoin his original team of paratroopers. They initially told him there wasn’t enough equipment for him. The 26-year-old investment associate, who grew up on Long Island and joined the IDF after college, says he had to convince his old team to let him back in.
“So many other people who weren’t actually even called to serve are volunteering,” he said. “It just makes everything more complicated.”
Other veterans are keen to return but worry about the impact on their family and on their jobs. Jonah Bookman, 39, a New York-based operating partner at investment firm EQT Group, served as a sniper with the IDF for years.
“It’s a little bit difficult to be sitting here in a big fancy office tower,” he said. “You feel helpless. The army put a lot of money and a lot of training into me, and so there’s some feeling of obligation to show up.” Bookman, who grew up in Miami, said he expects to return to Israel within the next year, in a non-military capacity, volunteering in destroyed villages that need rebuilding.
Others have traveled to be close to their families.
Doron Hazan, 30, served in an IDF combat unit nine years ago and now works in New York. His younger cousin was missing from the Supernova rave, where Hamas killed 260 festival-goers. Hazan, an MIT graduate who now works in artificial intelligence, was not called up by his old unit. But with no news of his cousin, he found a seat on a packed El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv so he could be with family.
“The flight was very different. It was different vibes. Usually when you fly El Al you see a lot of Orthodox Jews. The flight this time was mostly young people. Most of them I believe came back to serve,” Hazan said. “The atmosphere was very tense.” Soon after, he learned his cousin had been killed.
Elia, a 26-year-old Paris-born curator now based in London, was visiting Tel Aviv when the attacks took place. He decided to stay instead of returning to London for the Frieze Art Fair.
Elia last served in the IDF around five years ago. Unlike some of the experienced veterans now retraining on Israel’s reinforced frontlines, his military service passed off without incident.
This time, as Israel prepares for an extended war, Elia tries to call his family in France everyday. “I’m not exactly the biggest fighter, but I’m going to do everything that I can.”
–With assistance from Simone Foxman and Irina Anghel.
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