ASHKELON, Israel – Thousands of Israeli reservists began moving into the Gaza Strip on Monday, signaling that Israel may be ready to escalate its campaign and enter a new and more punishing phase of its 2-week-old war against Palestinian militants.
The military announced earlier that it had begun sending reserve units into Gaza to assist thousands of ground forces already in the Hamas-ruled territory. The deployment of the soldiers, many in their late twenties and thirties, was the strongest sign so far that Israel was prepared to intensify its war against Hamas.
The army has called up thousands of reserves troops for its Gaza campaign, meant to halt eight years of rocket fire on southern Israel.
“Israel is a small country and (in) all of our battles and all the wars we’ve had in the past reserve soldiers are called up,” Capt. Doron Spilmann, a spokesman for the Israeli military, told Associated Press Television News. “It’s standard that they then begin to work hand in hand along with our permanent standing force in the air, on the ground and at sea.”
Defense officials say about 5,000 reservists entered Gaza and thousands of others have been drafted.
Reservists in Gaza have been taking over areas cleared out by the regular troops, allowing those forces to push forward toward new targets, defense officials said on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified operational strategy.
Israeli President Shimon Peres met with hundreds of reservists at a staging area in southern Israel as they prepared to enter Gaza.
“I don’t think that Israel has ever had an army better trained, organized and sophisticated than you,” he said. “I came in the name of the nation to say to you a deep thank you for your achievements so far and to wish you luck during battle.”
The group he met with were a mixed bunch, some apparently in their early 30s, at least one with a gray ponytail and beard. They were wearing crisp olive battledress, obviously freshly issued, and had M-16 assault rifles slung across their shoulders.
Asked if they knew what they were getting into and the possible price some might have to pay, one soldier one said he lost a good friend in combat during his compulsory military service 18 years ago and named his son after him.
“I know exactly what the price may be. I left three children at home, one a month-old baby girl, and I came here fully motivated to do whatever needs to be done, with full knowledge of the cost,” he said. The reservist was not identified in line with military guidelines.
Reservists interviewed said they were concerned over the rate of Palestinian civilian casualties. About half of the roughly 910 Palestinians killed since Israel launched its offensive on Dec. 27 are thought to be civilians.
A soldier who identified himself only as being from the town of Sderot, the militants’ favorite target, said the Gazans were his neighbors.
“We’ve been living with them for a long time and in my opinion 80 percent of the residents there don’t want these things,” he said. “The problem is the 20 percent in Hamas who control them.”