In a country where military service is mandatory (three years for men and two for women) groups of young Israeli teenagers are increasingly joining advance-training programs to prepare – physically and mentally – for duty.
“In Israel, once you join the army, you become a grown-up,” says Oded Balilty, an Associated Press photographer based in Tel Aviv. “One day, you’re a teenager, the next you’re a soldier with a gun. And so, some of them want to prepare themselves and feel more comfortable with the idea of being a soldier.”
For Israelis, conflict has become a fact of life — Israeli reservists can be called into active duty during times of crisis. “Yet, most kids will often only hear about it in the news; they don’t really live it,” says Balilty. “Of course, during wartime, they go down to shelters if necessary, but they mostly hear about it from their parents and friends around the dining table. Teenagers care about different stuff. They care about dating girls; they care about parties; they care about their iPhones and their iPads.”
For most of them, war only becomes a reality when they start their military service, and end up on the front lines.
Balilty spent six days following 400 students taking part in military combat fitness-training programs organized by Excellent Training, an independent company founded by Nir Cohen, a former Israeli paratrooper. Students meet three times a week, over a year, and are put through grueling exercises designed to strengthen them ahead of their military service. “For example, those who train to join the Navy are sent in the water when it’s cold weather,” says Balilty. “They go in and out, and at the same time the instructors are asking them questions about the history of Israel to see if they’re focused and if they are mentally stable. It’s very intense. [The instructors] want to simulate the tension and stress that soldiers are under in the military.”
The students also learn how to assemble an AK-47 assault rifle, and how to react in an urban, house-to-house fighting situation.
Excellent Training is just one of the many companies, founded by former members of the Israeli military, that have been offering these training programs in the last decade. “There are many others in each large city [in Israel],” says Balilty, who has followed several of these groups in recent months.
In the end, says Balilty, “these teenagers are definitely more ready than most of the teenagers that go straight into the army. I’ve seen 16 and 17-year-old kids that were really mature. Other kids tend to be more scared about joining the army. They can break mentally. So I think this [sort of training] is really helping them.”
Oded Balilty is an Associated Press photographer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.