As death toll rises, Israelis fuming at government’s failures

Thousands of Israelis have stepped in to assist the victims and boost morale of soldiers bracing for a looming ground war in Gaza

As Israelis continue to count the dead from the mass terror attack carried out by Hamas, and brace for a likely prolonged war in Gaza, the country is fuming over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to prevent the heinous assault — and the government’s delayed and disorganized response in helping the thousands of victims and addressing the families of those still missing.

Even as the government’s failures in the face of the worst attack the Jewish people have experienced since the Holocaust continue to come to light, Israeli citizens have shown incredible resilience. 

Thousands of ordinary people have stepped in to assist where the government has fallen short, providing shelter and essential items – food, clothing and emotional support – to the estimated 50,000 Israelis who have fled from southern border communities and to the soldiers, including 360,000 reservists, as they gear up for what military leaders are warning could be a prolonged war.

On Saturday, one week after Hamas’ attack in which more than 1,300 people were killed and an estimated 160 people were taken hostage in the Gaza Strip, hundreds joined a vigil in Tel Aviv being held by the families of those still missing.

Initiated by Avihai Brodtz, whose wife, Hagar, and three children are being held in the Palestinian enclave, many of those who joined held signs with the names of the missing and others waved Israeli flags or displayed banners saying Netanyahu was responsible for the attack. Some called on him, and other members of the government, to resign.

Facing the music

Throughout the week, Israelis – including those who previously expressed support for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition – voiced anger over the horrific events.

In two hospitals last week, Israeli ministers were chased from the premises, and even on the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14, some of those interviewed shouted angrily about the frivolous time this government spent on passing contentious legislation instead of focusing on existential security threats. Netanyahu reportedly canceled a speech he had planned to deliver to army reservists after he was cursed by angry soldiers at a base he visited.

“We have to admit with honesty, with pain and with a bowed head — we failed,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

During a live television broadcast Saturday night, National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi admitted that Israeli authorities had underestimated Hamas and not taken threats from Gaza seriously enough.

“It was my mistake, of course, and it shows the mistake of all such authorities for many years,” he said, admitting that a few days prior there was intelligence of suspicious Hamas activity but it was not taken seriously enough by the upper levels of the intelligence forces.

And on Sunday night, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich took “responsibility for what happened and responsibility for what will happen.” 

“We have to admit with honesty, with pain and with a bowed head — we failed. The country’s leadership and the security system have failed in maintaining the security of our citizens,” Smotrich said during a press conference. “We didn’t succeed in upholding the most important unspoken agreement between a nation and its citizens. It’s a contract signed in blood, and now, it’s stained with blood.”

It took his ministry nine days to approve emergency funding for those who have been evacuated from the south and bolster financial support for the ministries and governmental organizations that are helping the thousands of victims of the attack. 

A survey published by the Dialog Center on Thursday showed that an overwhelming majority of Israelis — some 86% of respondents, including 79% of coalition supporters — say that Netanyahu and his government are to blame for the attack and the current situation.

The poll also found that a whopping 94% of Israelis believe the government should bear some responsibility for the lack of security preparedness that led to the assault, and that 75% said the government holds most of the responsibility.

Flailing reponse

Beyond the intelligence and assessment failures, there have been widespread reports of the government struggling to respond to the size and scale of the crisis.

On Sunday, Netanyahu finally met with representatives of families whose loved ones are being held hostage in Gaza and he was slow to appoint a coordinator to deal with the crisis. The point person responsible for dealing with kidnapped Israelis quit the position a year ago, and a successor was only appointed after the war broke out.

The army also responded to the civilian hostage situation slowly, opening a central command center to determine how many people had been kidnapped days after the attack. And reports by Israeli media on Sunday noted that Israel has no legal or formal mechanism for dealing with or supporting the hundreds of civilian families now desperate to find their missing relatives. 

Those who have fled from the south, parts of which the Israeli army has now declared a closed military zone, are relying on other citizens for vital equipment and goods that they were forced to leave behind in their destroyed homes and communities.

Thousands of reserve soldiers have reported not having the appropriate military equipment needed as they prepare for combat in Gaza, or possibly on the border with Lebanon as events continue to take place in Israel’s north. Dozens of WhatsApp groups and centers around the country are seeking out the gear that the reservists need and finding ways to deliver it to bases in both the south and north.

“We were seeing pictures and videos of the atrocities and decided to use our expertise with foreign media…to set up a platform for foreign press,” said Arik Agassi, COO of IMPACT-se, who opened a WhatsApp group called Gaza War Resource Group, which quickly garnered more than 800 participants.

Many bodies of the victims of the terror attack have yet to be identified, with the relevant agencies overwhelmed by the sheer number of them and the condition of some of the corpses, mutilated by Hamas terrorists, which makes the identification process more difficult. 

And, with more than 1,000 foreign journalists now in Israel reporting on the war, local public relations professionals, nonprofit organizations and even Israeli journalists stepped in to provide essential information and help in a situation that has overwhelmed the government.

Soon after Saturday’s attack, IMPACT-se, an organization focused on incitement to antisemitism and violence in textbooks in the Middle East, shifted its attention to helping the war effort.

Arik Agassi, the organization’s COO, opened a WhatsApp group called Gaza War Resource Group, which quickly garnered more than 800 participants. The group was meant “to enable families that have either kidnapped loved ones, missing loved ones, people who survived or lost their loved ones to get their stories to the international press through us,” Agassi told Jewish Insider. Since the group’s formation, Agassi has found support from others, including Jerusalem Press Club CEO Talia Dekel and Number 10 Strategies’ Joshua Hantman, in facilitating and streamlining hundreds of inquiries.

“We were seeing pictures and videos of the atrocities and decided to use our expertise with foreign media…to set up a platform for foreign press,” he said. “The bombardment of requests was pretty shocking to me, in terms of the volume of information, access and facilitation that was needed.”

The group has featured many names, photos and stories of the victims of Hamas’ attacks, as well as footage of the massacre at the Nova festival and the assaults on Gaza border towns.

One of the efforts organized through the group was a press conference last week with four families of U.S. citizens who are missing or known to have been abducted by Hamas. The missing Americans were mentioned in President Joe Biden’s speech later that day, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with them and others when he visited Israel. Biden later spoke to the families by phone for 90 minutes.

In addition, Tal Heinrich, a New York-based journalist for TBN – All Israel News and for Channel 14 in Israel, began serving informally as Netanyahu’s international press spokesperson. The position has remained vacant since the prime minister’s return to office and until she stepped in, no one was authorized to brief the foreign media on record. Heinrich has still not been formally appointed.

Israel’s Public Diplomacy Ministry, which has a budget of $3.5 million and is tasked with keeping Israelis and the world informed on events in the country, was largely silent in the days following the terror attack. Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel-Atbaryan, who has given few interviews to either the Israeli press or the international press, resigned from the post on Thursday after facing criticism over her lack of action.

Another crucial position that has remained empty for the past six months is that of consul-general in New York, home to the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel. Usually a political appointee, the previous consul-general, Asaf Zamir, resigned in March and his deputy, Yisrael Nitzan, a professional diplomat, left his post last month.Netanyahu has also not appointed a new ambassador to France, a key diplomatic posting, since the departure of former Amb. Yael German, who resigned the posting earlier this year.

A nation rallies

In terms of support for the victims, the thousands of Israelis who have lost their homes or experienced the murderous attack, government action has been thin, but ordinary Israelis have filled in, opening up their homes and their hearts with a kindness reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A day after the attack, Zmira and Eitan Maoz and their four sons escaped from the Gaza border town of Sderot, aided by the military since one of their sons had been called to reserve duty. The couple and their three other sons headed north to Netanya where someone — they don’t know who — put them up in a hotel for the night. The next day, they moved into one of 10 apartments in a brand-new building in north Tel Aviv that has been loaned to evacuees from the south by the Migurit company.

“We thought we’d come here and be alone, but the neighbors didn’t let us,” said Zmira Moaz, whose family evacuated their home in Sderot. “There’s nothing like it, we are speechless… I told them that they are angels. All of the people of Israel are together. It’s just a shame that it is only in these types of circumstances.”

“We thought it was a joke at first,” Zmira said of the post they saw regarding the apartments; when they arrived, the apartments were empty and within a day Migurit helped to fully furnish them.

Neighbors from their apartment complex and surrounding ones also helped them.. “We were in shock — we didn’t think we would have all these conditions,” Zmira said.

Throughout the week, she said, “good people,” stopped by with supplies of food, clothes, bed linen, toys and snacks for the children. Zmira, who quickly became the point person for families, said they received so many things that she had to start turning goods away.

“We thought we’d come here and be alone, but the neighbors didn’t let us,” she continued. “There’s nothing like it, we are speechless… I told them that they are angels. All of the people of Israel are together. It’s just a shame that it is only in these types of circumstances.”

Many residents of Sderot, however, have remained there with no official order or assistance enabling them to leave. On Sunday, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi announced that the state would fund, through the coming week, accommodation for residents of his city.

In addition, private organizations such as Yad Sarah have been helping residents of the south to leave the area. The medical aid nonprofit has repurposed its wheelchair-accessible van unit and recruited volunteer drivers to facilitate the effort. 

As of Friday, the drivers had delivered $600,000 in medicine, free of charge to individuals in the south, along with other critical supplies such as ventilators, oxygen generators, diapers and breast pumps. Volunteers have evacuated almost 100 residents to safer areas. And, as of Sunday, they had delivered emergency aid to 23,000 wounded individuals. 

“There is no one like these people and volunteers who are willing to put down everything and risk their own lives to go help people in the south,” Yaron Aviv, national coordinator of volunteer drivers at Yad Sarah, said in a statement. “Every life they save is a world in and of itself. I’ve been at Yad Sarah for 30 years, and I am blown away by our volunteers’ selfless contributions in this crisis at the same time as my — and all of our — souls are crushed,” he said.

Military assistance

Those now stationed along the front as Israel gears up for a likely ground invasion of Gaza also attest to the kindness and support from ordinary people. In all parts of the country, volunteers have offered their knowledge, expertise and opened their wallets to help the victims and the soldiers — so much so that jokes have even started about the soldiers being too full of food and snacks that they cannot go into battle.

In Tel Aviv, American-Israeli sisters Aliya Fastman and Shaendel Davis said they have transformed their culinary workshop business into a meal service to feed soldiers and other populations in need of home-cooked meals.

They told JI that they are now partnering with local restaurant chains that are supplying them with ingredients and ready-made goods.

As of Saturday, the sisters said they had created a network of 600 volunteers, raised over $40,000 in donations for their activities, and delivered 2,400 hot meals to displaced persons from the south, bereaved families and shivas, soldiers, and a school for low-income families, many who’ve lost their jobs.

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