It's like a kibbutz, only we're helping Israel to survive

An English travel writer turned volunteer soldier, Andrew Sanger joins people from across the globe serving the army as it confronts Palestinian militants

I thought Israel must be about to collapse. Commuters scared to go to work, parents afraid to send their kids to school, no one venturing out for fear of being blasted to mincemeat by a lunatic. Now I'm here, I see that – although there is worry, there is hardship – the will to live and overcome is immense.

I thought Israel must be about to collapse. Commuters scared to go to work, parents afraid to send their kids to school, no one venturing out for fear of being blasted to mincemeat by a lunatic. Now I'm here, I see that – although there is worry, there is hardship – the will to live and overcome is immense.

Even so, since Jews everywhere want Israel to survive, there seems no reason why the burden of defending it should fall only on Israelis.

Inside this army base are flaky-dry eucalyptus trees, dusty wasteland, ugly pre-fabs. It's 7.30am, the sky is a dazzling, delicious blue, the temperature already climbing through the high 70s.

The soldiers, laughing and joking, are girls and boys aged around 18. Almost every school-leaver in Israel goes straight into the army. "Squaddies" they are not. These look like university students. Except that nearly everyone has an automatic weapon slung on their shoulders. Uniforms are worn in a free-and-easy way. Girls, apparently exempt from the regulation boots, prefer sandals. Most seem to be talking on their mobiles.

On my uniform, a blue shoulder stripe shows I am a mitnadev – a volunteer, one of 50 placed here by Sar-el, the army's volunteer programme. Our group encompasses an astonishing diversity of views, motives and personal histories. Two thirds are American. Others come from South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, and two from the UK. Many are company directors, lawyers, doctors with thriving practices. Ages range from 18 to 78.

Almost all are Jewish, a few religious. Three are Christians concerned for Israel's future, while for two other non-Jews, working with the IDF (Israeli army) is something like the kibbutz experience of an earlier generation.

With three volunteers and a soldier, I am sent to pack, seal and load cases of medicines. It's the worst work I have done in years, and I love it. I ask my madricha (group leader) if packing boxes is really helping the IDF that much. "Of course," she says. "You're saving lives."

Our base, it turns out, is devoted solely to medical supplies, replenishing backpacks for medics, and preparing emergency kits in case of war. But isn't the country already at war, with the Palestinian Authority? No, I am told by a senior reservist (in normal life a pharmacist) who comes to check our work. He agrees the Palestinian Authority exists solely to destroy Israel and has no plans to establish a separate state. But war, he says, is when foreign armies attack. "Since 1973 [the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria invaded], we have been constantly prepared for another invasion."

We work from 8am to 4pm each day. Volunteers have their own basic living quarters, with male and female dorms, TV room and outdoor recreation area. At mealtimes, we go to the main dining hall. There is no sign of hierarchy. Officers, soldiers and volunteers eat the same food, at the same tables.

I work with Jackie, 28, from London; Henrik, 35, a doctor from Norway; and Lucas, 22-year-old non-Jew from Arizona. Muscles rippling, wearing wraparound shades, Lucas drawls: "Israel believes in freedom and democracy, is part of the Western alliance, and is in the front line against forces that want to destroy all of us." Then, as Henrik puts it: "I couldn't stand it any more, sitting at home listening to the news. I need Israel to exist for my family's safety."

But Jackie, in real life a manager in an investment bank, says: "All your friends – including Jews – think you're some kind of right-wing fanatic if they find out you are going to help the Israeli army."

This is true. Jackie, Henrik and I – to Lucas's horror – agree that we are all on the left, yet support Ariel Sharon. Our soldier, 18-year-old Miri, listens in quietly. She says her parents are both refugees, her mother from Yemen, father from Libya. She is training to teach soldiers about Israel's history, culture and ethics.

Teaching ethics to soldiers? Miri pulls out a fold-up leaflet, kept with a soldier's ID card. Titled Ruach Tzahal (Spirit of the IDF), it is indeed about ethics, under such headings as "The Life of Man", "Honesty", "Respect for Humanity".

At weekends, I catch a public bus to Tel Aviv, where crowds at cafés, on the beach, in the streets, at the market, seem determined to enjoy life. On weekday evenings, talks are laid on at the base. One is given by the distinguished general Aharon Davidi, gaunt 75-year-old founder of Sar-el. He becomes lyrical about army volunteers, saying our work is "a holy task".

I hadn't thought of it quite like that, but it's nice to be appreciated. He adds that Sar-el saves the IDF millions of dollars per year, and every job done by a volunteer would otherwise have to be done by a reservist. Knowing that is reward enough.

Andrew Sanger is a travel writer and author of more than 20 guidebooks, including Fodor's 'Exploring Israel'

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