ZAKA volunteers who were dealing with victims of Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel created promotional content while on the job, invented horrific stories, and mishandled bodies as part of a PR campaign, according to a report by the Haaretz daily last week.
Though the Home Front Command has a unit tasked with dealing with victims of terrorism and fallen soldiers, its soldiers told Haaretz that the job was given to ZAKA.
The soldiers were called up immediately but were held back for the first week after the attack. They were put to work from the second week of the war, but were only allowed to clear bodies of slain soldiers on bases that were targeted by Hamas.
The unit’s soldiers, as well as volunteers from other organizations, accused ZAKA volunteers of spreading stories of horrors that didn’t happen, releasing sensitive and graphic photos to shock people into donating, and being unprofessional in a bid for screen time.
Testimonies from people who worked alongside ZAKA claimed that the organization’s volunteers were careless while bagging bodies, collecting some dismembered body pieces while leaving the rest behind. This led to soldiers arriving at locations with ZAKA stickers indicating that the place had been cleared of bodies but finding more regardless.
A volunteer from a different organization told Haaretz that ZAKA also double-wrapped bodies in its own bags after they had already been placed in IDF or other organizations’ bags, creating a mess at headquarters when bodies were placed in the wrong sections.
ZAKA claimed this was only done when there was something wrong with the first bag, but the IDF told Haaretz it had no problems with the bags it used.
The report also revealed that many ZAKA volunteers who were serving as reservists misidentified themselves with the organization’s vests as part of the PR campaign. One example was Chaim Otmazgin, leader of the ZAKA “special units” who was serving as a reservist in a Home Front search and rescue unit.
Otmazgin was accused by multiple other volunteers of creating promotional content on the job, blocking other organizations’ volunteers from getting to where they were needed, and using his influence with the Home Front to make certain scenes exclusive to ZAKA.
In a statement, ZAKA said that the organization relies on donations to function and took the opportunity to show the public the work it does but that the organization worked in full cooperation with the IDF and other emergency organizations.
It added that no promotional content was made on ZAKA’s behalf in the field but that if it was made aware of specific incidents, it would look into and deal with them.
The IDF told Haaretz in a statement that ZAKA was asked to reinforce and aid the IDF in collecting the bodies due to the complexity of the task and that the army would conduct a detailed investigation into the report and release its findings to the public.
ZAKA’s mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteers are often on the scene of terror attacks and deadly road accidents, collecting body parts and blood for burial according to Jewish law. The group also provides first aid and search and rescue services and has participated in international operations.