ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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'We simply shifted from protest mode to help mode'

In war, Israel protest movement morphs high-tech expertise into relief effort

Mobilizing to help, activists say government is failing to meet citizens’ needs after the October 7 Hamas massacre; once war is over, they say, they’ll resume democracy battle

  • Volunteers take part in a taskforce in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023, to identify missing persons in the aftermath of a surprise attack by Palestinian Hamas terrorists on communities in southern Israel. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
    Volunteers take part in a taskforce in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023, to identify missing persons in the aftermath of a surprise attack by Palestinian Hamas terrorists on communities in southern Israel. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
  • Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
    Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
  • Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
    Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
  • Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
    Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

AFP — Volunteers toiled away at Tel Aviv’s convention center, doing “anything our government fails to,” according an Israeli protest leader who has helped turn his movement into a huge relief operation since last weekend’s Hamas rampage.

Since January, opponents of the hard-right government’s divisive judicial overhaul had been bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets in what became the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history.

Almost immediately after the brutal terror attack on southern Israeli communities, in which 1,300 people were killed, they mobilized to help those affected, providing emergency aid to evacuees, rescuing stranded people and pets, and even helping to locate and identify victims and hostages held captive in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

“Civil society organizations… are supporting anything our government fails to support,” said Ami Dror, 50, a tech CEO who has emerged as a prominent protest leader since the legal reform agenda was unveiled nearly 10 months ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“We simply shifted from protest mode to help mode,” he told AFP at Expo Tel Aviv which was teeming with activity.

“It’s the same thing,” said Dror. “We were warning against this government, which did everything in order not to take care of its citizens. We see it now.”

In one hall, hundreds of volunteers with tech experience were using advanced tools to verify the identities of those believed to have been abducted.

At a parking garage nearby, dozens were sorting through tons of donations of food, clothes and hygiene products, packing boxes that would then be delivered to hospital patients, soldiers, and families that lost their belongings in the onslaught.

Since Saturday, when Palestinian Hamas terrorists launched a multi-pronged assault, at least 1,300 people have been killed in Israel, most of them civilians.

The Hamas massacres after the terrorists infiltrated Israel’s border have led to an all-out war. Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, declaredly aimed to destroy Hamas, have claimed more than 2,000 lives including hundreds of children, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said.

Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Apart from the headquarters in Tel Aviv, activists have set up operations across Israel, which, according to a compilation of figures provided by some of the organizations taking part, involved tens of thousands of volunteers.

In less than a week, donations in money and in kind from Israel and abroad have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

A broken people

Israel has a “strong civil society… that’s why we’ll win,” said blogger Dana Gat, 33, who lives in the north of the country.

When she heard the “horrible news” on Saturday, “I didn’t know what to do, and started sharing images of missing people” on social networks to try and reunite families, she told AFP by telephone.

Since then, Gat said she had received countless requests for assistance and used her social media presence to collect donations and connect volunteers with people in need.

Many requests came from soldiers, but “I’m just a blogger,” she said.

“The government needs to do it, it’s not my job,” she said.

Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

For Yishai Pulvermacher, spokesman for women’s rights group Bonot Alternativa (“Building an Alternative”) which over the past year has been involved in demonstrations against the judicial reforms and now helps to coordinate relief operations, “there has never been anything like this in Israel.”

People organized “at an incredible speed,” relying on existing networks to set up collection and distribution centers across the country, he said.

The group’s founder, 41-year-old Moran Zer Katsenstein, said she can’t trust the government to take care of the “thousands of thousands of people in Israel [who] are broken.”

“There is a complete generation we need to save,” she told AFP.

Not a single demonstration

Karine Nahon, an information scientist at Israel’s Reichman University who has emerged as a protest leader since January, now heads the tech unit that uses data and AI to identify victims and hostages.

“Time is running out,” said Nahon, 50.

But with the protest movement’s infrastructure and Israeli tech expertise, they were able to act swiftly, she told AFP.

Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Kalanit Sharon, 34, said her Pink Front protest group has shifted from “fighting on the streets” to exercising “solidarity.”

“I’m afraid” of the war, Sharon, a Tel Aviv resident, told AFP by telephone. “I hope… we’ll have something left to save, and once we get there, we’ll keep fighting for democracy.”

Activists interviewed by AFP all agreed the Netanyahu government has failed.

“They have blood on their hands,” said Dror of the Brothers in Arms protest group of army reservists. “I truly hope not a single demonstration will be needed.”

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