The Israeli army said yesterday that it plans to open overseas recruiting stations, an announcement bound to encourage predictions of an all-out war with the Palestinians.
Ten months into the Palestinian uprising against Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an army spokeswoman said yesterday that the military planned to open recruitment offices for army reservists in nine cities. They include London and other European cities, New York and Los Angeles - home to more than 100,000 expatriate Israelis - and Bombay and Bangkok.
"It is for Israeli reservists around the world, but it is very very specialized, for emergencies only," the spokeswoman said. "Even if there is a war in Israel, they won't be mobilized on the first or second day - only if there is a long war."
Israeli military intelligence and top commanders have been playing down the likelihood of an all-out war. Despite such precautions, the announcement is bound to fuel prophesies of a fullscale war against Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
In recent days, Israeli and foreign media have printed several versions of alleged battle plans - ranging from an all-out assault against the Palestinians by 30,000 Israeli soldiers to a more modest campaign aimed at retaking select portions of Palestinian-ruled land. "They are talking about the next war as if it is a product that is just about to hit the shelves," an editorial in the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper said this week. The newspaper, the largest circulation Hebrew daily, broke the story of the overseas recruitment campaign on its website yesterday.
"The advertising campaign has already passed its peak and the lethal product will be on the market in no time."
The atmosphere of gloom deepened yesterday following a roadside shooting attack by extremist Jewish settlers that killed three Palestinians - including a three-month-old baby - from the same family.
Yesterday, the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, condemned the attack, and promised: "Israel will apprehend those who perpetrated the abominable murder." Israel has a citizen's army, with compulsory military service for men and women - except for the most ultra-orthodox Jews - and the army is a rite of passage into adulthood for Israeli youth. Distinguished service in an elite unit is a ticket into politics, and the best jobs in the private sector.
After a period of mandatory service, Israelis are also liable for reserve duty, and the military has an estimated 425,000 reservists. In ordinary times, men, who are conscripted for an initial three years, are called for reserve duty of a few weeks every year until the age of 45 for combat units, and older for administrative duties.
Before the intifada, however, it was rare for men to be called up beyond the age of 40. For Israelis, army service is the essence of national identity: a Jew defending a homeland surrounded by hostile neighbors. In earlier wars against its Arab enemies, Israelis living abroad routinely volunteered to return home for fight.
It was practically unheard of to refuse the army until 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, setting off a war that Israelis consider their equivalent of Vietnam.
However, the 10-month uprising has worn away at some of the fabric of this citizen's army. Since last October, 15 soldiers have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, including 10 reservists, according to Yesh Gvul. The group, which represents conscientious objectors, says its knows of at least 200 reservists who have refused to go to the occupied territories, but estimates the true number of resisters could be 10 times as high.
"I am not surprised at the announcement because everyone knows we are going to war with the Palestinians," said Ishai Menuchin, a reserve army major and the spokesman for Yesh Gvul.
"It is a way to bring more soldiers, and it is a way to show to the Jewish community all over the world that we are in danger and they have to support us. But I don't think too many soldiers will come from abroad because it is not a war for survival."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001