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On Alert: Student-soldiers in Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel âÄî As Gil Levkovitch stared at a glowing TV screen showing Israeli ground forces moving into the Gaza Strip, he worried that he was going to get the call. At 10 p.m., his phone rang. After a brief conversation, he began to gather his things. At 6 a.m. the next morning, he left his home in Tel Aviv. His studies at Tel Aviv University would be put on hold. He was on his way to fight a war. Levkovitch, a 25-year-old third-year law school student, is just one of an estimated 500 to 600 students from Tel Aviv University who were called into active duty for the Israel Defense Forces to fight Hamas, an Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip. Thousands of reserves like Levkovitch were activated when Israeli ground forces began moving into Gaza on Jan. 3, aiming to stop Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel. After 22 days of conflict, Israel announced a cease-fire Saturday and Hamas followed by agreeing to do the same Sunday, but not before firing about 13 rockets into southern Israel. Israel has said it hopes to finish troop withdrawal by Tuesday. Levkovitch, who spoke from the border of Gaza where his paratroopersâÄô combat unit was temporarily camped last Wednesday, said, âÄúWhen you get called into duty at a time of war, you just drop everything and go.âÄù That doesnâÄôt mean he wasnâÄôt disappointed that his life was interrupted. Levkovitch had just finished a month of training, which is required annually for all reserves, and had started to get caught up on his studies when he got the call. âÄúIt was a real bummer because I totally lost track of studies after a month in training and then they call you again,âÄù he said. But to him, the motivation is still great. After years of watching missiles shot over towns in southern Israel and the terror of kindergarten centers and schools being hit by rockets, Levkovitch feels âÄúit strengthens our motivation to defend our country. We really feel this is our duty, the minimum we can do,âÄù he said.

âÄòRocket safeâÄô

Those being activated arenâÄôt the only ones having their studies interrupted. Students from Israeli universities have had class put on hold because of the conflict. Sergio Arditi is a sound engineering student at Sapir College in Sderot , a city that sits just three kilometers away from Gaza and has had several thousand rockets fired at it from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza since 2001, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Graphic: Karina Holtz, DAILY.

Sapir College canceled its classes early in the conflict. The day before leaving, Arditi heard a womanâÄôs voice come on a loud speaker outside announcing rocket fire. âÄúI was at home and just waited for the boom. It was very loud when the rocket hit,âÄù he said. Orly Fromer, Tel Aviv UniversityâÄôs spokeswoman, said the school was helping Sapir College by lending its facilities for class use. The school resumed classes Jan. 11, partly due to a decrease in rockets launched from Gaza. For now, Arditi is back in Sderot taking classes in âÄúrocket safeâÄù cement rooms. Still, not all classes have resumed because there arenâÄôt enough safe rooms. âÄúSome students are afraid, but they still come to class,âÄù Arditi said. âÄúBut I know people from other classes that donâÄôt want to be anywhere near the fire zone.âÄù Being called into active duty is one of the last worries for Arditi, who fought in the Israeli air force in the second Lebanon war in 2006. âÄúIf they call me, IâÄôll go,âÄù he said.

Casualties of war

The death toll in Gaza has risen to more than 1,200, many of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical authorities. Thirteen Israeli soldiers and three civilians died in the conflict.

A 20-year-old soldier on high alert makes a procedural call to the police at a security fence entrance to the West Bank city of Qalqilya, Israel. The soldier on the phone is a second lieutenant in the Israeli army. Most women are required to serve two years and men serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces.

Levkovitch was aware of the civilian casualties in Gaza, but said his army has tried its best to fight the âÄúterroristsâÄù while keeping civilians safe, which is why he said the army is moving so slow through Gaza. âÄúI am not indifferent, people are people. But we take special effort to keep them safe,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs a very difficult situation.âÄù A Palestinian man, who is the owner of Morocco Restaurant in Old City (Jerusalem), but would not give his name for fear of retribution from his neighbors, had a different view of civilian casualties. He thought the Israeli army was targeting civilians in Gaza. The man, who said he considers the Palestinian Authority and its leading party, the Fatah, to be true representatives of his people, said many Palestinians in his neighborhood think IsraelâÄôs goal is to drive Hamas out of power and reoccupy Gaza, as it has in the past.

War and peace

Despite the support for the war, most Israelis share the sentiment of striving to find peace. Part of it has to do with an underlying idea of a country that is constantly seeking normality in the midst of abnormality, Yossi Shain , a political science professor at Tel Aviv University, said. âÄúPeople are in full alert. ItâÄôs a very difficult time right now,âÄù Shain said. Shain, an expert in Israeli politics, said Israelis live amongst such conflicts and yet are completely satisfied with their lives in Israel. But if asked about the state of Israel, they would tell a whole different story, he said. For many Israelis, the sentiment seems to be that they had no choice but to defend themselves from the rockets fired by Hamas, said Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a senior research fellow at both the International Policy Institute for Counter-terrorism and the Middle East Media Research Institute. Harari, an expert in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who has served many years in IsraelâÄôs intelligence community, said although many prefer a two-state solution and now even some talk of a three-state solution and want peace, Israel is in the middle of a war between different movements of Islam. âÄúThe Middle East is a jungle and if you are weak youâÄôre eaten,âÄù Harari said. âÄúWe cannot afford a single loss because Israel will be over.âÄù But Mohammed Dajani Daoudi , a professor at Al-Quds University, the Arab university in Jerusalem, said the use of violence for either side will not achieve peace or security. âÄúResponding the way Israel has will only feed radicalism,âÄù Dajani Daoudi said. âÄúIt is making people believe that peace is elusive.âÄù Levkovitch said he ultimately hopes there will be peace. âÄúI pray every night for peace in the Middle East, but really it is a no choice war,âÄù he said. âÄúThis is no life for people to live in southern Israel.âÄù On Wednesday evening, his superiors held a concert for the base. The music was blasting loud into the phone until he found a quiet area. âÄúThey wanted to boost our morale, I think we are moving into Gaza tomorrow,âÄù he said. Since then, LevkovitchâÄôs phone was not receiving calls. âÄîVadim Lavrusik is the Editor in Chief of the Daily and was in Israel as part of an educational seminar with five other college editors.

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