REIM ARMY CAMP, AP- With shocking speed, the Israeli military has transformed a barren field into a massive base complete with fast food restaurants, mobile phone stores and thousands of soldiers preparing to dismantle 21 Gaza Strip settlements in the largest noncombat operation in the army”s history.
An estimated 55,000 soldiers and police are mobilizing to take part in Israel”s pullout from Gaza and its evacuation of four settlements in the northern West Bank, expected to begin in two weeks. The government says it expects the majority of the 8,500 Gaza settlers to leave before the deadline, but is preparing to confront the holdouts.
The camp is a small city with thousands of soldiers living in hundreds of tents set up in the middle. Workers continued building more structures for thousands of more soldiers expected to arrive here in the coming days.
The population is a mix of troops from all security services, border police, infantry soldiers, civilian police and air force troops. It has also turned the military hierarchy on its head, with pilots — the heroes of the Israeli military — finding themselves under the command of rear echelon troops, who are usually referred to snidely as "jobniks."
Many soldiers spend the excruciatingly hot summer afternoons sitting in the shade of their tents stripped to their T-shirts playing backgammon, listening to music, eating junk food and joking around. At night, they play guitars and sing.
"The whole gang is here," Pvt. Natalie Podovani, 19, said.
The troops are given catered meals, similar to airplane food, and three cans of soda a day, a rare army treat that appears to be part of an effort to keep their spirits high ahead of the difficult task that awaits them. They can supplement their meals with fast food from the newly constructed Burger Ranch and Dominoes Pizza.
The camp also has an ATM, a synagogue, a soccer field and a massive medical clinic that includes a mobile dental clinic. An Israeli cellular phone company has set up shop.
The troops also participate in training exercises to prepare for the withdrawal.
At the Julis army base to the north, two female soldiers, playing settlers, chained themselves to a fence Monday as another group of soldiers linked arms in a circle and sat on the ground chanting "Soldier, police, disobey orders." Police descended on them and carried them off by their arms and legs as some of the fake protesters screamed "police state."
Cranes lifted a white shipping container and a yellow cage filled with police onto a roof where a group of soldier-settlers took refuge.
At Reim, some soldiers said they were nervous and conflicted about the upcoming pullout.
"In reality, when it happens, there will be children crying, mothers that don”t want to leave and they will hit us," said Pvt. Tami Perchuk, a 20-year-old teacher in the army who was reassigned to the pullout.
Perchuk, who immigrated to Israel from Argentina in 2002, said that while she agreed with the pullout, she empathized with the settlers” pain. "I am afraid that if someone cries, I will cry with them," she said.