For Israel’s reservists, heading home from Gaza doesn’t always mean getting back to real life


TEL AVIV ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — When Jonathan came home after 99 days serving in Israel’s military reserves in and around Gaza and the West Bank, the feeling that stuck with him wasn’t relief or exhaustion. It was anger. 

Transitioning back to civilian life was a challenge, as was keeping his emotions in check. He says he began smashing his furniture to express his emotions — breaking two lamps and a desk in his Tel Aviv apartment.

“At first I was very irritable, I was very angry,” Jonathan, a sergeant major who could not provide his full name, per Israel Defense Forces policy, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as he waited to board a plane to the United States to surprise his aging father, whom he had not seen since before the war.

“I’m very happy for all the rest and recreation and to see my parents and brothers,” he said. “But I feel like I did not finish my job.”

Jonathan is one of at least tens of thousands of Israeli reservists who have been sent home in recent weeks, as Israel has scaled back its presence in Gaza. Exactly how long they’ll stay there is unclear: Negotiations have taken place toward a new hostage release deal that could pause fighting for months, though they have hit obstacles of late. 

At the same time, the IDF has instructed reservists to remain at the ready. Last week, signaling expectations for a long conflict ahead, the Israeli government proposed extending the length of service for all soldiers — both on active duty and in the reserves. 

Under the proposal, army service would extend to three years for all soldiers, up from 32 months for men and two years for women. Reserve duty would be required in most roles until age 45, up from the current 40. And reservists would serve for 45 “operational” days annually, on top of 10 days of training — up significantly from the current requirement of 54 days across three years.

The changes would bring many of the challenges facing reservists now into normal times: disruptions to their family life, absences from study and work, and trauma that they carry home.

“It’s like getting slapped across the face,” said reservist soldier Haim of the proposal, after personally receiving the news that his unit is scheduled to return for 45 more days of combat this year after completing nearly four months around Gaza. “Which employer is going to employ someone who disappears for 55 days each year?”

Following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and the outbreak of the war, 290,000 reservists were activated, including 50,000 volunteers who did not receive a draft order but reported to their bases anyway. The number amounted to 10% of the Israeli workforce. They were sent to Gaza, as well as to the West Bank and Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Now, according to Israel’s Army Radio, all but one reservist brigade of about 2,000 soldiers has been withdrawn from Gaza.

Many reserve units were released in formal ceremonies, with barbecues, free massages and hotel discounts of up to 40% to help ease their transition back to civilian life. Companies trained in the best practices for reintegrating employees. The government has also approved about $2.4 billion in cash assistance for reservists to ease the financial pains associated with their duty.

But not all soldiers have been happy to be released: Some have expressed frustration at being sent home with the war ongoing — and as conflict with Hezbollah continues to escalate on Israel’s northern border. 

“The fact that we were sent home leads to a huge amount of frustration that is very hard to overcome, because we know there’s more work to be done and we know we’re going to go back to do it eventually,” said Ari, who said he helped lead one of the IDF’s elite reconnaissance battalions for three months. (Ari is one of several thousand reservists and other Israelis to sign a petition calling for Israel to annex parts of Gaza and encourage Palestinian emigration.)

The intensity of the fighting in Gaza means that returning home isn’t an easy thing to do.

“It is quite something to come back from such a horrid world and then have to adapt to something that people call normal life,” said Danny Brom, a clinical psychologist who is the founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. “When you are in combat, your whole body and brain is wired differently — there’s research about it — so it’s a really enormous transition.” 

Thousands of reservists have transitioned from battlefield to the classroom, enrolling in universities whose semester started months late because of the war. Drorit Neumann, dean of students at Tel Aviv University, said up to 30% of first-year students in some departments had come from the battlefield. “We do see students struggling,” she said. The school has made available counseling services and additional academic support.

“I know that even though we try really, hard, some are still going to have a very difficult time to readjust into academic studies, because imagine these are combat soldiers exposed to physical situations, not sleeping well or wearing their shoes for four months and living in a tank in a situation of war and a lot of destruction, not seeing their families,” Neumann said. 

Keren, a 42-year old mother of seven children, was one of approximately 19% of IDF reservists who are women, and was among the 3,000 mothers who were called up along with 115,000 fathers. She received a mandatory enlistment order for her reserve unit in the Home Front only two days before her daughter’s bat mitzvah, and at one point both she and her husband were away from home. 

Weeks after returning home, she said she was still fulfilling her role as a military human resources officer informally. “There isn’t a day where I’m not speaking to soldiers, or to different commanders that have questions or things come up,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m drafted or not drafted, when you have responsibility and you’re taking care of people, you’re there.”

The result, she said, is ongoing dissonance in her daily life.

“I can say for myself, the adjustment back to civilian life is not easy … Sitting in coffee shops, doing meetings, sending Excel sheets — those are moments where you understand that there are two parallel realities that are happening at the same time,” Keren said. “There’s the army reality, and there’s the civilian life reality.”

With the next few weeks and months full of uncertainty, the army has instructed reservists to keep their phones on and their bags packed for any emergency developments “to be ready within 12 hours to be back to base,” according to Steve, an infantry reserve soldier who was responsible for protecting Gaza’s humanitarian corridor. 

“When you come back and you know that there’s still people in Gaza, you feel useless in some ways because when you’ve been doing probably the most important thing that you could be doing since the foundation of the State of Israel, and all of a sudden, you’re out of uniform,” he said. “You find yourself kind of just roaming aimlessly, walking to go to the store to buy vegetables, and you feel that you should be somewhere else and everything [is] kind of in slow motion.”

Those feelings are to be expected, according to Brom.

“What was often said is like, you know, you’re free, go and enjoy. And that doesn’t work,” he said. “You’ve seen people die, you might have seen friends die. And during combat, you actually don’t feel, you don’t think, you’re on automatic mode. So, then people come out. And they sort of have to understand, why, wait, what is this? Where am I? What is this life about?”

Jonathan, who works as an investor, said he lost 45% of his clientele while on active duty. He said he is torn between trying to rebuild his business and embracing the fact that he is likely to be called back to duty soon.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in a month, so I don’t even know if I should start pursuing some form of rescue for the business itself,” he said. “But there will always be a time to make money in the future and I’ve been training for years for something like this [war] and I want to be a part of it.”

Yet he said the battlefield had accompanied him home, too. “I was in the shop picking up my motorcycle that was getting fixed and somebody’s exhaust went off and I just shot to the ground, straight to the floor to cover,” he recalled. “I flipped around and everyone in the room was staring at me like I was crazy.” 

Research about soldiers returning from war in other countries has found a host of challenges, from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to higher levels of domestic violence, alcoholism and unemployment.

In Israel, the woes of individual soldiers may be compounded by communal and societal challenges, including a shattered sense of safety and redoubled concerns about the effect of haredi Orthodox exemptions from army service. The government proposal to lengthen army service likewise does not apply to that growing population. 

“You are very aware of how alone you are in carrying this burden,” Haim said of those Israelis who serve, adding that “ideals will only take you that far” for those asked to serve in combat units for increasing amounts of time. He even warned that some reservists may refuse the additional requirements, so long as major segments of Israeli society — haredi Jews and Israeli Arabs — do not serve.

“Will all of the battalion reappear if they’re recalled?” he asked. “I think not — and I think that they’re right not to show up, because [learning] you didn’t serve for gratitude but ingratitude is something that I didn’t expect.”

What happens next is laced with uncertainty, as the shape of the Gaza war is still being defined, planning is underway for a potential next conflict and the region simmers at a level unprecedented during the lifetime of Israel’s current soldiers.

“You’re in it, you understand that this is a break, and that it’s going to be a long war,” Steve said. “You’re just basically on a long, extended furlough until the next time, but in your mind, you’re still there, you’re still in the army. Right now. You’re wearing civilian clothes in the meantime, but you know you haven’t been released, and it’s not even close to being over.”