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Israeli reservists lead protest movement

Hilary Krieger Sep 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Strange but true business fact of the day? Until this summer Warren Buffet had never bought a company based overseas. His first choice was kind of an interesting one. Buffet and his holding company Berkshire Hathaway bought a manufacturing plant in Northern Israel. They closed on the deal a week before the war in Lebanon started. Buffet was in Israel today to inspect the damage done to his latest acquisition by Hezbollah rockets. In Jerusalem over the weekend the Israeli government agreed to an investigation of its conduct during the war. It’s also trying to get parliamentary authorization for almost a billion dollars in new defense spending. For the next war. But reservists who were sent to Lebanon this summer say the government wasn’t ready this time.

Hilary Krieger reports.

HILARY KRIEGER: Bob Dylan is Moshe Otmazgin’s favorite singer. The 27-year-old alternative medicine student listens to him a lot in his suburban Tel Aviv apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend. But Otmazgin was willing to leave Bob Dylan, his girlfriend Dana and their cat, Shuka, behind when the Israeli army called up the reserves to fight in Lebanon.

Otmazgin grew up in northern Israel, which Hezbollah pummeled with nearly 4,000 rockets during this summer’s war. His parents still live there.

MOSHE OTMAZGIN: I felt that I need to defend my house.

But his enthusiasm faded when he reported to duty and found the army lacking basic equipment and weapons. After several days of scrounging, his elite paratrooper unit got what they needed. Others weren’t so fortunate, and were sent to fight without things like flak jackets or enough ammunition. Otmazgin’s luck ended when his platoon got to Lebanon. During their week there, they ran out of food and water.

OTMAZGIN: We spread a can of tuna with us for a whole day. One can for two people.

They ended up buying food themselves, relying on donations from private individuals, and even stealing from abandoned Lebanese homes.

OTMAZGIN: How did it get to this situation that we are not getting any food or water? It’s frustrating. What are they doing with the money? Where were they during the preparation for the war?

Reserve soldiers are leading a growing protest movement in the wake of the war, which many Israelis feel was seriously botched and wasted lives. They chiefly blame muddled — even contradictory — orders, plus the lack of a clear military and political strategy. But they also point to missing supplies, poor use of resources and reduced training. A recent demonstration drew over 30,000 people calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down.

Tzvi Marek, a reserve infantry soldier, mans the permanent protest tent set up across from Olmert’s office in Jerusalem.

TZVI MAREK: I only want to see them take charge and say we made mistakes and we are taking all the responsible and we are sorry, and we are going home.

Shai Sappir is also hanging out at the protest tent. He wasn’t called up, but he helped gather food and send it to Israelis holed up in bomb shelters.

SHAI SAPPIR: A lot of rich people sent food, built shelters, give money to food. But it’s not enough. The one who needs to do this is the Israeli government.

Some blame the previous administration for slashing $700 million from the defense budget over the last three years. As a result, some reservists’ training was severely cut, including those in logistics responsible for supplying food and equipment.

The Israeli army admits that some mistakes were made but won’t discuss them with the media since they’re still investigating the complaints. But Imre Tov, the military’s former economic advisor, will. He says the cuts were made to return the budget to its normal level after a big increase in 2003 during the heaviest fighting with the Palestinians. He argues that it was poor planning, rather than economics that led to shortages.

IMRE TOV: We had a discipline problem, and we didn’t have any budgetary problem in my opinion.

Some reservists also shrug off the shortages. Again, Tzvi Marek:

TZVI MAREK: When you are in a war, sometimes you don’t have water. We cried a little bit about it. But we handled it.

Otmazgin hopes that the government will take responsibility for what went wrong. But whatever happens, he says his unit will fight against Hezbollah again if the army calls.

OTMAZGIN: All the people that are very furious and angry about the army, they will come again, for sure. Everyone.

In Israel, I’m Hilary Krieger for Marketplace.

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