'They have no electricity or gas, they have no safety net'

Praying for peace, optimistic Israeli activists deliver Ramadan food aid to West Bank

Volunteers with organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights brave the ire of fellow Jews as they reach out to help Palestinians in need amid the ongoing war in Gaza

A member of the Jahalin tribe receives food aid from Israeli activists in early 2024, in the Judean Desert. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)
A member of the Jahalin tribe receives food aid from Israeli activists in early 2024, in the Judean Desert. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank — Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Peace is possible” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, Gary Kamen drove over two hours from the Galilee to Jerusalem last week to pick up aid boxes that he delivered to needy Bedouin families in the West Bank hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar for Ramadan.

“It is very special for me to help with anything that might bring about cooperation and peace, which I do believe the majority of both populations easily buy into,” said the 60-year-old tour guide at the drop-off point near the village entrance.

“Now that the war has started, I’ve increased my amount of volunteer work bringing Jews and Arabs together because I have more time,” he said, noting that almost all of his bookings were canceled after the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict broke out on October 7 with the terror group’s shock assault on southern Israel.

Gary is one of dozens of Israelis volunteering to pack and deliver boxes of food after a partnership of 16 Israeli human rights organizations and activists launched a “Food Aid for Ramadan” campaign. Ramadan began on March 12 this year and ends on April 9.

While several dozen Israeli left-wing activists attempted but failed to deliver aid to Gaza last week, a small group of Israelis has successfully transported aid to Palestinian farmers living in rural areas of the West Bank since the start of the war. Their efforts are now growing in scale, as months of unemployment, a freeze in the Palestinian Authority’s funds, and a rising number of attacks by Jewish settlers in the West Bank have led to worsening living conditions.

“We are getting reports of very deep food insecurity in the towns in Area B and C in the West Bank that we are working in,” said Anton Goodman, a staff member for Rabbis for Human Rights, referring to the 82 percent of the West Bank that is under partial or full Israeli control. “People don’t have electricity or gas and are missing plenty of meals during the day — there’s just no safety net for a lot of these people.”

Since October, Goodman has helped Rabbis for Human Rights deliver approximately 50 tons of food to 2,000 Palestinian families, while the new Ramadan partnership aims to provide 15 tons to 750 families this month. Each box weighs about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and contains a week’s worth of dry goods such as flour, pasta and cooking oil in addition to dates and halva to break the Ramadan fast with sweets. Some boxes are marked as containing feminine hygiene products as well as diapers and baby formula for mothers.

Gary Kamen, left, and Anton Goodman, second from left, deliver boxes of food aid to Umm al-Kheir, also known as Masafer Yata, in late February 2024. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

“We think that helping Israelis is no less important, of course, but we see ourselves as connected to more marginalized communities that we knew no one else would be there for,” said Jerusalem-based activist Noa Dagoni, who has led volunteer efforts to pack and deliver aid boxes since the war’s first days.

Aiding, but not abetting

Thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a surprise onslaught on southern Israel on October 7 and brutally murdered some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and abducted 253 more to the Gaza Strip, leading Israel to launch a military operation aimed at freeing the hostages and ousting Hamas from power in the Strip.

After an October attempt to gather food at a Jerusalem community center was scrapped — “some angry residents discovered that we were collecting donations for Arabs and not soldiers or residents of Gaza-adjacent communities” — the YMCA of Jerusalem offered a large storage room for collecting and packing aid, said Dagoni. On Thursday and Friday, teams of 30 volunteers worked in an assembly line within the YMCA’s storage area to fill the boxes, in addition to about 20 volunteers on each of those days at Tel Aviv’s “Culture of Solidarity.”

At the Jerusalem YMCA, Israeli activists prepare food aid for hungry Palestinian people in the West Bank, March 14, 2024. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

Questions over Israel’s humanitarian responsibility to Palestinians have divided Israelis for months, who fear that aid will end up in the wrong hands and will prolong Hamas’s fighting capabilities.

In addition, media reports that a vast majority of Palestinians supported the October 7 massacre have fueled Israelis’ anger toward the “other side.” A February poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 68% of Jewish respondents oppose the transfer of humanitarian aid to Gaza — even if Hamas and the UNRWA aid organization are not partners in the delivery — while 85% of Arab Israeli respondents support such aid.

Boxes are piled high at the Jerusalem YMCA as aid is prepared for hungry Palestinian people in the West Bank, March 14, 2024. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

“I’m uncomfortable talking about what I do… I will tell people that I do volunteer work and for certain people, I will bring up what kind of volunteer work I’m doing,” said Kamen of neighbors in his 150-home community of Shorashim, which he describes as full of “typical centrist Israelis.”

“I don’t know if anybody in my community would look at me and say it’s disloyal,” he said, but he anticipated that a common reaction would be, “You’re wasting your time, there’s no way that those people will ever accept us.”

During his dozens of deliveries, Goodman told The Times of Israel, he has been stopped a few times by Israeli soldiers while crossing West Bank checkpoints loaded to the brim with white boxes.

“There was a commander who was super aggressive and angry when he realized what we were doing and he said, ‘You’re supporting Hamas,’” he said.

Food aid is delivered to villagers at Umm al-Kheir, also known as Masafer Yata, in late February 2024. (Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

After a few minutes of tearing open the boxes, Goodman said, “Another reserve soldier came and said, ‘Rabbis for Human Rights? You guys are cool,’” and allowed him to proceed without further delay.

Jihad is out of work

Tayeb Musa of the Ca’abne Bedouin tribe was one of about a dozen men receiving the boxes in Khan al-Ahmar, a small community of 15 families that lies off a dirt road between the Jewish communities of Ma’ale Adumim and Mizpe Yeriho within spitting distance of Route 1. For years, the community’s primitive tin-roof houses have been considered illegal structures and have been under threat of demolition.

“These are nice Israelis that stand with us and support us against the settlers. If it were not Ramadan we would have tea together in our homes,” Musa said, greeting the small contingent of volunteers.

During the holy month of Ramadan, devout Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and then break their fast with an festive iftar meal.

“There has been no work since the start of the war. I used to work in tourism. He worked at a printing shop until the owners fired him,” he said, pointing to a nearby man named Jihad.

A Rabbis for Human Rights delivery to the south Jordan Valley. (Courtesy)

Musa explained how the aid boxes have become a lifeline for the community, which does not receive government assistance.

“The Palestinian Authority are thieves. In my life, I can’t remember any time that they helped us. The Israeli army invades our house at night and points a gun in our faces — does that help me? According to international law, Israel is obligated to help us, but do they respect international law?” he said at the delivery point, reiterating accusations against Israel heard over six days in February at the International Court of Justice.

Musa has a simple prayer for Ramadan. “I wish that things return to how they were before the war,” he said.

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