[size=6]Israel's teenage recruits[/size]
By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online
Shai Ben Shalom has just turned 18. Like millions of his peers around the world, the teenager from Netanya is mapping out his future.
But while other young men his age prepare to make the transition from high school to university, Shai's plans are on hold, interrupted by a call to arms.
In a country that has been in a state of war since its inception, national service is a grim reality for thousands of Israeli teenagers.
"My parents are very scared because they know I want to go to a combat unit, but I know I've got to do this because if no-one wanted to do it there would be no-one to protect our country," he said.
Preparation for military life begins in school. At the age of 17, every boy and girl is called to the army to talk with soldiers and find out more about what they will face when they are enlisted.
Source of pride
Most new recruits join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) as soon as they finish their high school exams in July, after a short two-week break.
The numbers are in the thousands, but the IDF does not release accurate statistics, because to do so would disclose the number of soldiers on active duty in Israel - something the authorities do not want to do.
Apart from the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, few Israelis are exempt from military service.
To many though, serving in the IDF is a source of national pride and, despite the dangers, most young Israelis want to do their duty.
"I feel like when I graduate from the army it will be like being an equal between equals," said 18-year-old Yaniv Reginiano. "That's what it means to be an Israeli citizen, to serve in the army.
"Right now I'm trying to be a good student and I want to be a good soldier and do the best I can," he said.
Equality of the sexes
Men serve in the army for three years, women for one year and nine months.
While largely prohibited from actual combat, women still form an integral part of the IDF, particularly in specialist roles.
Seventeen-year-old Hadar Falach already knows what she wants to do when she is called up.
"I plan on going into the intelligence unit that knows if terrorists are going to bomb the cities," she said.
"I think it's going to be fun but very dangerous. If you miss one piece of information you can miss a whole life."
With the Palestinian intifada (uprising) still raging, Hadar has no illusions about what it means to be at war.
Her brother, Baruch, is a 27-year-old reservist who was drafted to serve in Ramallah after Israel launched its latest offensive on the West Bank.
"It is very frightening, but we have to do this," said Hadar.
Shai - no stranger to the scars of war - agrees.
"My father was blinded in the  Yom Kippur War - I know how scary it is.
"I don't want to be wounded or killed, but on the other hand I know we have no other option but to protect our country and, if the price is to be killed, so we have to pay the price," he said.
But do Israeli teenagers think national service means they are missing out on normal life?
"For us, this is normal life," said 17-year-old Lior Haimovitch.
"When you choose to live in Israel you have to accept it, it comes with the job.
"This country has fought from the day it was established, we grew up with it, I have no other reality," he said.
As for the future, while young Israelis hope for peace, they know it will not happen soon.
"When we were small children our parents told us, 'when you grow up there will be no army and you will have to bear no weapons'," said Lior, "but it's a dream."