Israelis abroad scramble to return to join reserve IDF units, or just to help

‘I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed here,’ says passenger, as expats and vacationers desperately try to board flights to Jewish state, many of which have been canceled

Passengers wait in a line to enter a flight to Israel, at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, October 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Passengers wait in a line to enter a flight to Israel, at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, October 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

At this most harrowing of times, some Israeli citizens living overseas aren’t running from the war at home, but to it. From Athens to New York, they’re rushing to airports and diving into online chat groups for travel help, desperate to make their way to the country after Hamas terrorists infiltrated and committed a brazen massacre of hundreds of civilians.

Some of these Israelis abroad are yearning to serve, whether that means fighting in a military reserve unit or volunteering to shuttle supplies to those in need, even as the war has already claimed at least 1,200 lives in Israel and shows no signs of abating.

On Tuesday, Israel’s military expanded its mobilization of reservists to 360,000, as it ramped up its retaliation for the shock onslaught. Israel has said its forces killed about 1,500 terrorists who infiltrated into its territory and carried out the murder sprees. There have also been some 950 people killed in retaliatory Israeli strikes in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Jerusalem says the strikes are targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out.

Yaakov Swisa, a 42-year-old US-based father of five, said nobody called and asked him to return to Israel to fight, but he feels he has no choice. He served for 15 years, and he said he learned his army roommate was among at least 260 killed at a music festival.

Swisa wants to rejoin his reserve unit, even if that means leaving his family and his construction business job in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been crying for two, three days. Enough. That’s it. I am ready to fight,” he said. “What else would I do… while my friends are being buried in Israel?”

Some of the Israelis living, working or just traveling abroad who were trying to make it back said their reserve units were among those called up. Others said they hadn’t yet been called or couldn’t reach their commanders but expected to be contacted soon.

Soldiers prepare medical kits for distribution to reserve soldiers, October 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In other cases, Israelis who are too young to serve in the military, as well as non-Israelis with close ties to the country, have been trying to travel to assist family members or volunteer.

Adam Jacobs, an 18-year-old community college student in New Jersey, said he was born and raised in the US and for years traveled every summer to visit family in Israel. He said he learned his cousin was among those killed, and he wants to make his way to Israel to take on volunteer work, possibly shuttling supplies.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed here,” Jacobs said. “It’s never been this bad.”

Eric Fingerhut, a former US congressman who now leads The Jewish Federations of North America, said he’s not surprised by how many people want to help.

“As soon as we can possibly enable that, we certainly will,” he said from Tel Aviv, where he’d arrived just before the weekend attacks. “There are many Israeli reservists who are abroad. And so getting them back home to join the fight, you know, has been a priority. And it should be a priority. So people are just scrambling.”

A man distributes sandwiches to passengers who are waiting in a line to board flights to Israel, at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, October 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The war began after Hamas terrorists stormed into Israel Saturday morning during the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, murdering civilians in their homes and at the desert rave and abducting some 150. In response, the Israeli Air Force has been carrying out extensive strikes on terror-linked targets in the Gaza Strip, destroying buildings and sending many Palestinian residents scrambling to find safety in the tiny, sealed-off territory.

Travel has been challenging, with major airlines suspending flights in and out of Israel. The US State Department issued travel advisories for the region. Some reservists in the United States, home to more than 140,000 people born in Israel, were trying to get on charter flights.

Ofer Cohen, a New York businessman, said he learned there were more than 200 reservists traveling through South America on vacation at the time of the attacks. They’ve been called back to base but unable to get there, due to canceled flights. So Cohen is trying to cobble together hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a plane to pick them up, as WhatsApp messages describing their troubles keep rolling in.

“I just saw one after another,” he said, “and I thought about this idea of getting a charter plane and getting them back to Israel.”

In Greece, hundreds of people waited hours to board emergency flights at Athens International Airport, many without a ticket and most traveling from other European destinations after cutting holiday and work trips short. As officers patrolled the area to provide security, volunteers handed travelers apples, bananas and bottled water.

A US demonstrator crossing the street is silhouetted behind a flag of Israel during a rally in support of Israel on October 9, 2023, in Bellevue, Washington. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Nir Ekhouse, a 19-year-old from the area of Nazareth, had been in the Maldives with family. They reached Athens via Istanbul as they tried to make it home. Once in Israel, Ekhouse said, he plans to volunteer for an organization that supports the military.

“This is the first time in the history of Israel that something like that has happened. It’s very shocking,” he said, standing in line with his parents and younger siblings.

Israel Lawrence, 27, was born in Israel and grew up in London, United Kingdom. He said that although he hasn’t been formally called up, he’s making the trip to join his fellow soldiers, many already on the front lines, and help his family members, who are living in terror and chaos.

“I want to be honest with you, I’m scared,” said Lawrence, a trained rifleman who was on his way to Israel via Cyprus. “All the guys I’m with are terrified, but we are trained, and we’ll do the best we can.”

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