Israeli soldiers find they must rely on private donations for essential equipment
Barely 24 hours after the Hamas attack on Israel, Etai Iam Rimer threw himself into volunteering.
He had spent the day of the attack at home in Kfar Truman, southeast of Tel Aviv, glued to the news on TV and social media, scared and stunned, as stories of massacred civilians and videos of kidnappings slowly emerged.
When he woke up the next morning, he knew: "I don't want to do another day like that." He wanted to do something useful.
At first, that meant a spontaneous drive south with friends, to the hardest hit areas in Israel. They took pizza to soldiers and delivered food to people who were still afraid to leave their homes. Within days it had grown into a huge volunteer aid effort — now at 4,000 members, Rimer said — and a WhatsApp group where people displaced or otherwise affected by the war could ask for things they needed and be matched with donors.
Very quickly, Rimer noticed something unusual. Many of the requests were from family members of soldiers, requesting basic gear or supplies.
"Everything you can imagine," he said, "from vests to knee protectors to helmets to flashlights to underwear." And Rimer said these were huge requests: hundreds of items for entire units.
Israel has called up hundreds of thousands of reserve troops, in preparation for a ground invasion of Gaza. Those soldiers will be headed into dangerous, urban combat, and high casualties are expected of Israeli soldiers, Hamas militants and Gazan civilians.
Across the country, a huge volunteer effort has sprung up to supply troops with protective gear that some say the government is failing to provide.
"There is zero organization. That's how I feel as a citizen," Rimer said. "We are doing everything we can, but the government is just not."
The Israeli government is attuned to the criticism
Rimer's group is just one of many that has worked to get donated supplies to soldiers, from both inside and outside Israel. On Tuesday at Boston Logan International Airport, volunteers approached passengers lined up to check into an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. They had giant boxes and duffel bags filled with donations for troops and were sending them with volunteers as checked luggage.
This image, of a grassroots effort plugging holes in the military supply chain, is not the one Israel wants to project. Its military is a source of national pride, and service is mandatory for most citizens. And the government is attuned to the public cry for supplies.
After Israeli media started reporting on the issue, the Ministry of Defense put out a statement saying tens of thousands of items were on their way. Helmets, bulletproof vests, knee protectors and more. It's also been releasing photos of supplies arriving from abroad.
In a statement to NPR, the Israel Defense Forces highlighted a round-the-clock hotline set up for military personnel to report equipment deficiencies or shortages and emphasized that it is providing "full logistical support for both mandatory and reserve soldiers, including medical gear, personal essentials, and combat supplies, all tailored to meet operational demands within the IDF."
Some Israelis feel "everything" collapsed
Many Israelis are skeptical of the military's reassurances. The Hamas massacre shattered many Israelis' belief that the government could keep them safe, and now they're asking if the government is falling short in this area, too.
"Unfortunately this war has shown us that not only we had problems in the intelligence part of the army, but a lot of the backstage collapsed as well," said Michal Geva. "Unfortunately, I would say everything."
Geva runs a venture fund when she's not helping with the war effort. Now she's part of a volunteer corps of thousands of people at the Expo Tel Aviv International Convention Center, which has become a hub for a huge range of volunteer projects in response to the war.
Their efforts go well beyond supplying soldiers, and include everything from mental health counseling to missing persons investigations. Geva's organization is focused on rescues. Members of her team drove to towns in southern Israel and rescued people who'd been hiding in safe rooms — some of them for nearly 24 hours.
She said that normally civil organizations get "in between the cracks of what the government infrastructure can provide," but in this case they've essentially taken on government functions. "We're like their extended arm instead of it being vice versa."
This volunteer operation grew out of the mass protest movement that had been demonstrating every week for 10 months against Israel's far-right religious government and its efforts to weaken the judiciary. But now it includes people of every political leaning.
Maya Armon, a filmmaker and MBA student who created a donation hub at the Expo, remains a fierce critic of the government. She has friends in the army and has heard the requests from soldiers for everything from underwear to tactical gear.
"It is embarrassing!" she said. In her view, the work that volunteers are doing at the Expo should be the government's responsibility.
But she also said the effort had built a sense of unity.
"It feels like it's different now that everyone collaborates with each other," she said. "And it's amazing. I just wish that it will remain afterwards."
Volunteering as a way to process trauma
For Terry Newman, a press liaison for the volunteer effort at the Expo, the operation is a source of great pride. In a cavernous parking garage thrumming with activity, he points out piles of clothes, boxes of toys and puzzles, and lines of car seats donated for displaced families. "You should also know that people are donating cars," he said.
He sees the work at the Expo as a sign that the country is coming together in this crisis and channeling its pain into something useful.
"When you're under the kind of post-traumatic stress that people are going through — having seen the massacre that happened in people's houses with their children — they want to be busy. They want to be doing things," Newman says.
For Shir Shalom, who came to the Expo to volunteer with her husband and son, the question of whether the government should be handling this relief work was beside the point. Israelis are used to recovery, she said. "This really is the nature of this country. This is us."
Inside the Gaza Strip, civilians are also anticipating a possible ground invasion, but are cut off from nearly all outside aid. As of Saturday, days of diplomatic pressure from President Biden and the United Nations only managed to secure access for 20 trucks worth of supplies — for a population of 2.2 million. And they are running out of basics like food, water and medicine — let alone protective gear.
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