Israelis arrive at a weapons distribution point for people allowed to carry arms, at the Ayyelet HaShahar Kibbutz, in northern Israel, near the Lebanese border on October 12, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

YESODOT, Israel: On the road outside the military base, hundreds of cars were pulled onto the shoulders for a half-mile in either direction: Kias, Toyotas, pickups and bakery vans.

It was a pop-up parking lot for war, a place for military reservists to park, hurry into the base as civilians and leave as soldiers. No one knows when they will be back for their personal cars - or their civilian lives.

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Twenty miles east, at Jerusalem’s popular Malha Mall, the parking lot is all but empty. Almost every shop is closed, here and across the country.

Those who would normally work and shop are pouring into the ranks. Others are making their own preparations for a conflict that promises to be long-lasting and hard-hitting.

As the world awaits Israel’s next response to the Hamas surprise attack, Israel is transforming into a country at war.

People working in offices and fields just five days ago are back in uniform, some 360,000 of them so far, in one of the largest mobilizations in the country’s history. Schools are closed. Local governments are straining to provide services as their workforces dwindle.

‘We’re working under fire now’

The country’s largest port, with more than 8 per cent of its staff departed for the army, is calling in retirees to keep the cargo moving.

“We’re working under fire now, but we have no choice,” said Shaul Schneider, executive chairman of Ashdod Port, where crane operators 200 feet above the ground have to hope for the best when Hamas rockets scream overhead, sometimes 10 times a day. “Unfortunately, Israel has experience in such situations.”

Much of the country is eerily still. Streets normally jammed with honking traffic are quiet. Jaffa Street, a popular shopping strip in Jerusalem, was a ghost town Wednesday night, lined with flashing police cars. Construction sites are silent, and the Palestinian labourers who normally work at them have been prohibited from crossing over from the West Bank since Saturday.

Much of the shopping there is families scrambling to stock up on essentials. Israel’s military Home Front Command instructed citizens on Monday to equip their bomb shelters and basements with three days of supplies. Apartment buildings instructed residents to remove bikes and personal items from saferooms and stock them with emergency provisions.

Limited sales of basics

As shelves emptied, Shufersal, Israel’s largest supermarket chain, limited sales of basics: two packs of water; two cartons of eggs; two loaves of bread; three containers of milk.

“People are hysterical,” said Michael Rabani, 40, owner of two Jerusalem grocery shops. “Companies are not able to provide supplies.”

Rabani rented a truck Sunday to fetch his own order of 800 cases of soft drinks, cereal and other goods. The supply chain’s normal labour force has either gone into the military or gone into hiding.

“Their Jewish workers have been called up to reserves or are afraid to come out,” he said. “The Arab workers are afraid to come out.”

For Palestinians living in Israel, staying out of site is a basic preparation for war. All have memories of the fighting between Arabs and Jews inside Israel and say they can feel the fury being directed at Hamas.

Hazem, a cabdriver in Jerusalem who gave only his first name to protect his identity, has mostly stayed inside since he had his children brought home early from school Saturday. On a cabbies’ WhatsApp group, he read of a taxi driver being beaten by Jewish settlers outside the city. When he does go out, he is stopped by soldiers.

“This is the situation,” he said. “I am a little afraid.”

For tens of thousands of Israelis heading into the service, the switch from civilian life happened almost instantly.

It was only hours after the Hamas attacks on Saturday when Barak Zachri got the first WhatsApp message from his old combat intelligence unit. By the end of the day, dozens of members had agreed to sign up together.

“I haven’t been in for seven years,” said Zachri, 28. “I hope I’m fit. I do go to the gym.”

On Wednesday morning, he was among those gathered on the curb outside Julis military base near Ashkelon, some in old fatigues, some in shorts and T-shirts. Another car pulled up every few minutes, setting off another set of tight hugs from parents and partners, many of them in tears. Just 12 miles away, air force planes were bombing the Gaza enclave, home to 2 million people and likely the target of an imminent ground war.

Ofek Iyzem, 22, was a university student last week. Daniel Blum, 30, was a counselor for troubled teens. Ron Dahan worked for a tech company and was on holiday in Vietnam when he got the call.

“It’s a big change, but for us very natural,” Dahan said. “When you live in Israel, you always know that you’ll be back in the army.”

Food drives

As he and the unit filed onto a bus, one man shouted “Showtime!” Another said, “I hope they have enough gear.”

Reports have circulated all week that the military is struggling to equip the huge numbers of reservists reporting for duty. Army officials say their supplies are keeping up, but civilians have organised equipment and food drives across the country.

Amy Kolinsky-Dover, 51, was surprised at how quickly her social media request for donations turned into a major campaign. Her Jerusalem living room is packed with canned goods, shampoo, toothbrushes, tampons and towels, along with dozens of volunteers to pack them.

“We need a switchboard, so many people are calling,” Kolinsky-Dover, the mother of two soldiers, said after fielding another cash donation offer. The Venmo account she just set up has already received more than $8,000.

Numerous restaurants have shifted to cooking for troops and for civilians displaced by the fighting. Brothers, a top Tel Aviv eatery, has been sending 20,000 meals to the south.

The owners, who usually serve a non-kosher clientele, arranged to reconfigure part of the operation to meet rabbinical standards so the food would make it to the front, where military protocol requires a kosher certificate, according to the economic newspaper Globes.

In was a transition they said they were happy to make.

“One of the reasons we’re in our current situation is because Israeli society is not connected,” co-owner Yotam Doktor said. “If we don’t come to our senses and join forces, the situation will become even worse.”