ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 228

  • Volunteers help to sort and pack donated items at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Volunteers help to sort and pack donated items at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • Sorting children's books and toys donated for families evacuated from the southern and northern borders, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Sorting children's books and toys donated for families evacuated from the southern and northern borders, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • Eritrean asylum seekers help move boxes in a massive underground sorting area at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Eritrean asylum seekers help move boxes in a massive underground sorting area at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • Volunteers at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Volunteers at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Inside story

In stunning response, 15,000 volunteers fill leadership vacuum to help victims of Hamas

Movements set up to oppose government’s judicial overhaul bid metamorphose overnight to coordinate unprecedented civilian rescue and relief effort

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Slideshow photos: Sue Surkes / Times of Israel

During the harrowing days since over 2,500 Hamas terrorists poured into Israel to slaughter 1,400 people, injure thousands, commit barbaric acts of atrocity against people of all ages and kidnap more than 200 to Gaza, civil society has quickly mobilized to an almost overwhelming degree.

Around 15,000 Israelis have answered the clarion call of movements that metamorphosed overnight from activists against the government’s divisive judicial reform proposals to coordinators of a massive infrastructure to rescue and support fellow citizens in distress.

That infrastructure, based at the Expo Tel Aviv International Convention Center since the day after the massacres, subsequently evacuated 3,000 citizens from the Gaza border communities, 200 of them under fire.

As of Thursday morning, when this reporter visited the convention center, it had distributed nearly two-thirds of 12,526 items of civilian equipment donated, found accommodation for nearly 8,000 displaced families, distributed 120,000 food portions and 200 packs of medical supplies, transported 8,000 civilians and soldiers, provided more than 1,000 activities for evacuated children, and sent out 150 sets of shiva (seven-day mourning period) equipment — gazebos, plastic tables and chairs, fans, water heaters and refreshments. It had even rescued 120 pets.

For months, anti-overhaul organizations such as Brothers in Arms (made up of military reserve soldiers), Building an Alternative (a women’s group founded by Moran Zer Katzenstein), and the tech worker, student and lawyer protest groups, were castigated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ministers and much of the right-wing as leftist traitors who wanted to bring Israeli democracy and the country down.

But as the government scrambled to react to the Hamas invasion that it and Israel’s security establishment had failed to foresee, these groups were able to utilize their nationwide networks and organizational skills to step into the breach.

Moran Zer Katzenstein, founder of the women’s group Building an Alternative, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

At the massive situation hub in Tel Aviv, volunteers organize everything from medical supplies, psychological support, and clothing and equipment for evacuees from the Gaza border area — many of whom left just with the clothes on their backs — to a system that unites families with their pets.

“From 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 7, we began to get lots of messages from places like Kfar Aza,” explained anti-judicial reform activist Tamir Reicher. More than 70 kibbutz members were murdered by the terrorists that day, including many children and babies, with testimony that some of them were beheaded.

Initially working from their homes, a group of friends quickly established a situation room at Kama Junction in southern Israel, which is still operating, and by 11 a.m. they were dispatching volunteers, not all of them armed, to rescue people under terrorist siege.

Volunteers fill an open-plan area at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Military precision

The Civilian Operations Center at Expo Tel Aviv, which began operating the next day, is run with military precision.

At an entrance table is a row of QR codes people can use to register to volunteer, access the hub’s website, or donate money.

At a massive underground parking lot, hundreds of volunteers were unloading donated equipment, unpacking and sorting it, and repacking it into boxes for transport all over the land.

Volunteers help to sort and pack donated items at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In the clothing area, there were different sections for men, women, children and babies. In the women’s section, for example, signs stuck to the floor were aligned with boxes for “long skirts and tights for religious women,” or “women’s pajamas,” or scarves, hats, socks, or bras. There were separate lines of cartons for different sizes of women’s pants.

Sorting children’s books and toys donated for families evacuated from the southern and northern borders, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There were piles and piles of toys, children’s books and baby equipment, and separate lines for toiletries, deodorants and toothpaste, for baby food, diapers of different sizes and more.

Volunteers help to sort and pack donated items at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Identifying the missing and the abducted

One of the most remarkable first steps taken by the Civilian Operations Hub was to create a space where some 2,000 volunteers from the high-tech sector could use their skills to identify missing and kidnapped Israelis, now known to number more than 200.

“For 10 days, we were the only contact point for families to find information about their loved ones,” said Chava Rotman of Building an Alternative.

The high-tech unit, headed by internet expert Prof. Karine Nahon, used artificial intelligence to try to identify the missing, with volunteers going through hours of video material, frame by frame, looking for clues, and identifying hundreds of people who were missing or dead so that their families could be updated.

“We did facial recognition, matching social media with visual material from different scenes and used AI to identify clothes. We even identified distinguishing marks like tattoos because some of the bodies had been decapitated,” Rotman said.

Part of a situation room where tech experts looked for kidnapped and missing Israelis, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Courtesy, Brothers in Arms)

“The high-tech people came here and invented new algorithms to find out where the missing people were” and were able to whittle the names of thousands of missing people down to a couple of hundred, she said.

The unit was now handing the job, and the software, over to the state to continue the work.

Also being dismantled as state institutions started to function was a unit that matched evacuees with accommodation. That task is now being undertaken by local authorities.

Military equipment, which was being distributed directly to soldiers who needed it, is now being managed together with the Defense Ministry.

Shifting focus

If the priority was to rescue families from terror in the south, the focus now is on those who have been bereaved and the more than 100,000 Israelis who have been evacuated and displaced. (An IDF spokesman has put that number at half a million.)

A huge open space, with people sitting in groups, or in front of laptops and smartphones, at tables, or in armchairs, had the modern, buzzy vibe of a tech conference.

Running along the center were long tables where people were dealing with requests from the public.

In shifts, volunteers deal with requests from the public (Or is on the left), at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“The first message on the system (from Saturday, October 7), reads, ‘Family trapped in the safe room, terrorists are in the house,'” said a young man called Or.

“Today, the requests are more practical. I’m currently dealing with a woman who was evacuated to a hotel in Tel Aviv and needs psychological help. We have the names of psychologists (willing to volunteer) in a WhatsApp group, which we’ve sent her.”

Elsewhere in the hub, volunteer teams were coordinating incoming equipment, matching that equipment with those needing it, and organizing the logistics to get it out.

Daniel Sweig, who helps to organize transport of civil equipment by bus and truck, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Daniel Sweig, who works for a Tel Aviv startup, popped out from behind a sliding door to explain that almost every truck and bus company had volunteered vehicles to transport civilian equipment around the country and that teams of 18 at any one time were matching transport solutions to needs. (The use of private cars was being coordinated in a different room.)

Volunteers help to sort and pack donated equipment to be sent to evacuees all over the country at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“We might be sending a washing machine to people who have lost their house, or 400 mattresses to a place where evacuees are staying, or 5,000 (donated) portions of food from a restaurant in Tel Aviv,” Sweig explained, adding, “We’re people who haven’t been mobilized [to the army] yet but want to help, rather than sit at home.”

Yariv Wegrzyn, also from Tel Aviv, was one of some 15 people in a room further along where the focus was on fundraising.

Yariv Wegrzyn (right) and Daffy Levy-Weiss at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Wegrzyn, who runs a nonprofit organization that uses marine sports as an educational and therapeutic tool for special needs populations (his “secondary” occupation is raising funds for startup companies), said he came to volunteer after attending two funerals.

“It’s not hierarchical here,” he said, “Lots of people are coming with amazing abilities. People can’t understand how 15,000 volunteers left their homes to manage the country.”

In yet another group, volunteers were sifting through and cataloging social media posts and files that could be distributed to different audiences.

Texas native Deena Sokolov catalogs English-language video clips at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On Thursday, volunteer Deena Sokolov, a Texas native now living in Even Yehuda in central Israel, was spending her 50th birthday organizing materials in English.

Further along was the graphics table, which produces materials such as directional signs, stickers and brochures.

Lawyer Galia Scherf, whose brother Ron co-founded Brothers in Arms (now renamed Brothers and Sisters for Israel), was working with a team that was distributing shiva kits.

“Bereaved people need two things,” she explained. “Equipment for a shiva that can be attended by hundreds of people, and psychological support.”

Family and friends attend the funeral of five members of the Kotz family, Livnat and Aviv, and their three children Rotem, Yonatan and Yiftach, on October 17, 2023. The Kotz family was killed by Hamas terrorists in their home in Kfar Aza, southern Israel, on October 7, 2023. (Flash90)

“Sometimes people are sitting shiva for more than one person,” she went on. “Entire families have been murdered.”

Volunteers call the bereaved, send people to make up minyans where necessary (the ten-man quorum needed for prayers), and connect them with the not-for-profit Bereaved Parents Circle.

Galia Scherf sits with volunteers who are providing equipment and emotional and psychological support to the bereaved, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Outside, Eritrean asylum seekers were serving food for everyone — 300 portions per day — which the community’s women had cooked at home. Each day, around 150 to 170 of these volunteers come from different areas to help; on Thursday, it was the turn of those from Jerusalem.

Eritrean asylum seekers help move boxes in a massive underground sorting area at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Dozens of Eritrean men, dressed in light-blue T-shirts that signified their opposition to the Eritrean regime, helped sort boxes in the underground parking lot.

What people can do

Eyal Naveh, a veteran of Israel’s most prestigious special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, and a senior figure in Brothers in Arms, finished addressing a group of government officials when The Times of Israel asked what people could do to help.

Eyal Naveh, a senior figure in Brothers in Arms, at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Come and volunteer,” he said, “and donate equipment for soldiers — socks, underwear, thermal clothing, hats, tents, field kits for making coffee, donations of dry foods, hygiene products such as deodorant….”

People abroad could send or donate money for equipment.

“And we need a lot of PR. People have to understand that more than 200 people have been abducted — women, children and seniors. In the Quran, it’s forbidden to take such hostages. Talk to members of Congress, people you know, the media — do whatever you can to keep it on the agenda.”

Afterward, a less polarized people?

The hub has turned into something of a VIP hotspot. On Thursday, the high-profile visitors ranged from Opposition Leader Yair Lapid to former prime minister Naftali Bennett and American-Israeli businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arison. Also there was Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog, two of whose family members were murdered at Kfar Aza and four of whom are being held hostage by Hamas (Hebrew link).

Earlier visitors have included German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, a minister in the national emergency government, and former chief of staff and defense minister, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon.

The Civilian Hub’s activities have also led to previously unthinkable dialogue with some of those who staunchly opposed organizations such as Brothers in Arms before the war broke out.

Israel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox journalist, visited the hub and then wrote on X, “Wow! This group of patriots for Israel has established a crazy monster (of an operation) that’s helping the wounded, and soldiers, locating the missing, and helping families from the south. And it’s all completely voluntary. Kudos!”

Also writing on X, right-wing Channel 12 TV political correspondent Amit Segal said he left the hub thinking, “How much strength this nation has, how much courage.”

Yishai Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox journalist for the Haredi news site Kikar Shabbat, who refused for six months to talk to members of Brothers in Arms, interviewed tech entrepreneur and Brothers in Arms co-founder Noam Lanir this week. “If you told me two weeks ago that I’d sit with you for a conversation, I would say, Wake up from the dream, and quickly,” he began.

Last week he visited the situation room at Beit Kama, where he saw Brothers in Arms and Orthodox Israelis working together to get boxes out to those in need. “After nine months of hate, we’ve understood that we are brothers,” he said.

None of the senior figures at the Expo wanted to talk about the government’s failures at this time. The prime minister and most government ministers have stayed well away from the hub.

Gigi Levy-Weiss (left) talks to visitors, including Shari Arison (with handbag) at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Gigi Levy-Weiss, a former Air Force pilot, one of the country’s top tech investors and a senior figure in the High Tech Protest against the overhaul, told The Times of Israel, “We have an incredible people — here you can see the heart of the Israeli spirit. There isn’t a single person we’ve turned to who hasn’t volunteered to help, who hears what we’re doing and who doesn’t ask to be involved. People are opening their hearts, their homes, and their pockets.”

He added: “One of the worst things to happen to the Jewish people, and certainly to Israel, provides an opportunity for a reset. Beyond vanquishing our enemies, and making sure that such a thing can never happen again — and there’s no doubt that we’ll win — I hope we will come out of this as a different people, less polarized, more understanding of our common destiny here.”

“This is the time for whoever wants to be part of a constructive, creative, volunteering, caring, cooperative Israel. I hope that the extremists will be isolated and the rest of us will unite.”

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