‘I can’t just sit and do nothing’: Israeli society mobilises after Hamas attack

Until last weekend, Ofaimme Farm was a fast-growing food business with eight restaurants across Israel and plans for three more. 

But its normal service has been suspended since October 7, the day of Hamas’ devastating cross-border attack, and the farm-to-table business has been turned into a relief operation.

Employees are now preparing food packages and donations for the army and others in need, while some staff have also volunteered at places suffering from shortages, such as care homes, because of Israel’s accelerating war effort in Gaza, the Palestinian territory where the attackers were based.

“I don’t know when we’re going back to normal,” said Hedai Offaim, its co-owner. “It’s important that the front lines feel the support of the back, and for us to feel like we’re supporting.” 

Offaim is one of millions of Israelis who have pulled together for the war effort since the attack that has rocked the Jewish state, killing more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials. Some have signed up as soldiers or in the emergency services. Others are helping in whatever capacity they can. 

An IDF reservist at kibbutz Kfar Aza where dozens of civilians were killed last weekend © Alexi J Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The deadly attacks exposed what many Israelis believe were grave lapses by their civilian and military leaders. But, united in grief and anger, Jewish Israeli society has been quick to mobilise and organise itself in the days since.

Some 360,000 military reservists — including from the farms that grow the food for Offaim’s restaurants — have been called up to fight in what Israeli officials describe as the largest mobilisation in its conflict-filled history.

Israel has been laying siege to Gaza ever since the attack, pounding the enclave with air strikes and artillery fire in preparation for an expected ground invasion. More than 1mn Palestinians have also been ordered to move from the north to the south of the sealed-off territory. At least 2,329 people, including many children, have been killed in Gaza since the attack, according to Palestinian health officials.

Fighting-age Israelis living or travelling overseas have booked flights back home. Such is the demand that one Bangkok to Tel Aviv flight last week on El Al, the national carrier, allowed overflow passengers to sit on the floors and aisles. 

Israel-Hamas war

At roadsides along the entrance to Israeli military bases, line upon line cars have been parked as reservists show up for duty. Many units have seen more than 100 per cent reporting rates, according to the Israeli military, and have had to turn people away.

Hotels around Israel have also opened their doors to house some of the thousands displaced by the attacks in the south of the country. Some of the evacuees are waiting for any information about their relatives, including the more than 120 Israelis being held captive in Gaza, while others mourn loved ones killed as funerals for them were held this weekend.  

Ariel, 28, and his father were on holiday in Bulgaria on the day of the attack, and immediately made plans to return. His old military branch, the navy, did not call him up despite repeated pleas. So Ariel “pulled strings” to secure a place on an air force base.

“I have friends who were killed and kidnapped in the rave,” he said, referring to the Supernova music festival held near the Gaza border and where an estimated 260 young people were slaughtered. “I can’t just sit and do nothing.” 

Another soldier, Ben, who like other Israeli servicemen declined to give his surname, posted an online video urging people to buy and donate items to troops including blister plasters, black Sellotape — used to bind gear to weapons — and black markers to label the time at which a medical tourniquet is applied. “If you leave them on too long, someone can literally lose a limb,” he said. 

Regular Israelis and civil society groups are, in this way, pulling together in the near absence of governmental support, many claim, and a failure by the state in its duty to protect.

An armed Israeli civilian with a child evacuates his home in Sderot, southern Israel © Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg

More than 1,500 militants breached the security barrier to attack towns and military bases during Hamas’ multipronged dawn attack. It was the deadliest in Israel’s history and widely considered the biggest intelligence failure since Egypt and Syria led a surprise Arab offensive against Israel in 1973.

Now rapid response teams of combat-experienced civilians have been established across the country, including in places once thought safe and secure. In Herzliya Pituach, an affluent beachside community near Tel Aviv, more than two dozen residents have banded together, armed with their own handguns.

“There was a neighbourhood watch before, but no one was involved,” said Dan, 41, one of the volunteers. 

The October 7 attack has not only changed Israeli society, but its politics too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week drafted his one-time rival Benny Gantz, a retired general and leader of a centre-right opposition party, into a new unity government

The vast protest movement against Netanyahu’s far-right coalition and its judicial reforms also immediately suspended its demonstrations. It has instead been turned into a “civilian war room”, co-ordinating the supply of food and toiletries for the troops and housing and aid to civilians in need. 

The blue and white Israeli flag, appropriated for months as an emblem of the protest movement, is now proudly displayed from cars and homes as a sign of wartime unity.

“Everyone knows someone who is lost and won’t return,” the prominent protest leader Shikma Bressler said in a recent video. “And everyone has someone who at this moment is on the battlefield.”

The protest movement banners, so ubiquitous for months, have been replaced with seas of posters with one simple message: “Together we’ll win.”

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