Home TRAVEL BLOGS Israelis brace for war and try to put their differences aside

Israelis brace for war and try to put their differences aside

Israelis brace for war and try to put their differences aside



Michal Muszkat-Barkan is a natural leader. The kind of person who can rally the troops and knows exactly how to get help where it’s needed.

A professor at the Hebrew Union College, Muszkat-Barkan had spent the past 10 months organizing protests against the Israeli government’s plans to weaken the country’s judiciary – an issue that split the nation down the middle and caused a seemingly never ending political deadlock.

She was determined to keep going until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drops the plan, which she believes is undemocratic. But her priorities drastically shifted when Hamas militants launched their mass killing spree from the Gaza Strip on Saturday.

She is now working on the cause that has brought the divided nation together: the war effort.

“We feel that our government is not doing its job and we have a lot to say about that, but we won’t say that now,” she said.

Tzvi Shore, right, with a group of American and British teenagers who came to Israel to join the army.

“Now, we are all devoted to create resilience in society and help wherever it is needed,” she told CNN at a Jerusalem performance art school that has been transformed into a volunteer hub.

The horrifying images of suffering inflicted on hundreds of civilians by Hamas have shocked horrified people in Israel and across much of the world.

As of Friday morning at least 1,300 Israelis were killed in the attack by Hamas while more than 1,500 Palestinians have died in retaliatory strikes on Gaza.

As Israel grieves and goes on the offensive, some of the deep, long lasting divisions have been put aside.

Israel formally declared war on Hamas on Sunday and began hammering Gaza with heavy bombardment and air strikes, pounding the militant group but also deepening the ongoing humanitarian crisis for civilians in the densely populated enclave.

As talk of a possible ground invasion intensifies, it is becoming clear that many in Israel are preparing for what could be a long war.

The group Muszkat-Barkan is helping to organize, Jerusalem Emergency Command, is formed of hundreds of volunteers from several civil society organizations, including her protest group, Safeguarding our Shared Home. Some are working to connect evacuees from the attacked communities with families who can house them. Others are organizing car sharing for reservists who need to get to their bases.

One big room is now a makeshift call center receiving requests for help, while the theater has been turned into a donations warehouse.

Muszkat-Barkan said most of the help is going to people who have been impacted by the attacks, their families and to soldiers. Israel has called up 300,000 reservists – one of the largest mobilizations in the country’s history – and many are still lacking equipment they need.

“Soldiers need many things and they get some of it from the army, but they can ask us for other things, like warm clothes, power banks,” she said.

In Ashkelon, an Israeli city that lies just a few kilometers north of Gaza, the war feels much more imminent.

The streets are deserted, shops and restaurants closed. Sirens warning of rocket attacks from Gaza wail through the city multiple times a day, every day, prompting the few people still out and about to run for cover.

Nissan Gampel owns a small grocery store near the city’s normally bustling marina. He told CNN his customers have been buying a lot more cigarettes and alcohol in the past few days. “People smoke more when nervous,” he said.

His shop has run out of bottled water amid a nationwide shortage that was sparked by panic buying after the Israel Home Front Command recommended people should have at least three days of essential supplies ready at home.

Gampel said he is prepared for the possibility of a major escalation in the conflict and ground incursion into Gaza, saying he believed it was necessary in order to defeat Hamas.

On the other side of the city, the Ashkelon Barzilai Medical Center is also ready. The hospital has received a large number of victims from the attacks on Saturday. It has stopped non-emergency treatment and started adopting extra security measures. The maternity department has been moved to a safer location and has asked for donations.

Outside, scores of volunteers were manning tables full of refreshments for the hospital’s staff who have been working round the clock.

Volunteers serve snacks to staff in front of a hospital in Ashkelon, Israel.

Shahar Biton, one of the volunteers, has been there since Saturday, offering snacks and encouragement to doctors, nurses, families of the injured and anyone else who needs it.

“We were sitting at home feeling hopeless and wanted to do something useful. So we came here, and we asked, how can we help. And they have been working 24/7, so we want to make them happy,” said Biton.

She said she was aware she might be in front of the hospital for a long time, if a ground operation is launched. “I don’t know how long it will take,” she said.

Tzvi Shore, a 31-year-old IDF reservist, is also preparing for what could be a long conflict. He said he believed an Israeli incursion into Gaza was inevitable.

“What’s needed is an operation to clean it out and take over the place. Most of us already understood this and now the whole world understands,” he said.

He said that he served at the Gaza border in 2012 and in Gaza during the 2014 incursion which ended in a ceasefire after 2,100 Palestinians and 68 Israelis were killed.

“And after 10 years, we thought, okay, it’s fine, it’s under control, they should deal with their own stuff. I mean, there is always a threat, we get rockets from time to time … but we didn’t know the power they have inside Gaza. It’s clearer to the world and to us how much support they have,” he said.

Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated pieces of land with more than 2 million people crammed into 14 square miles, its borders blockaded for years by Israel and Egypt.

Hamas controls the enclave. The civilian population trapped there, half of whom are children, are routinely caught in the crossfire between the Hamas fighters hiding there and the firepower of the Israel Defense Forces.

Sitting at a cafe in Jerusalem on Thursday, Shore was flanked by a group of American and British teenagers who came to Israel in recent months specifically to join the military. None had any experience with combat, but all said they were determined to fight.

“We can handle whatever comes. We will get out of this and we all know it. Everybody knows it, no doubt about it. We will win but how long will it take? I don’t know,” said Zalman Schultz, a 19-year-old American who came to Israel and was drafted in early September.

But not everyone in Israel believes a ground operation is the only way – and the fact that Hamas has some 150 hostages makes an incursion even more fraught with risk.

On Thursday, pockets of protesters gathered across the country, calling for prisoner exchanges. Standing silently, with signs that said “Make a deal now”, the protesters came mostly from left-wing and anti-occupation organizations.

Abraham Initiatives, an organization that promotes equality among Jews and Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20% of the country’s population, has called for calm “even in the shadow” of the attacks and warned against escalations.

At the Jerusalem Emergency Command, student Neta Simon sat in a rehearsal room that has been converted into an office. She was one of a group of volunteers in charge of coordinating mental health resources and dispatching volunteer psychologists and therapists to communities that need them.

Volunteers (from left) Natalie Parry, Bat Zion Fisch, Neta Simon, Noga Doron and Jaara Bagad are coordinating mental health services at a center in Jerusalem.

Simon said she has been feeling conflicted about Israel’s heavy-handed response aimed at Gaza.

“People are for extreme measures to end this, more than before,” she said. “I feel like everyone has a very black and white kind of vision right now. And I don’t feel like that. For me, it’s very tough,” she said.

Bat Zion Fisch, a therapist and a fellow volunteer, disagreed. She grew up in a right-wing family and said she believed a heavy-handed approach was exactly what was needed. “We are at war. Things need to be black and white now,” she said.

The women spent some time discussing the issue and it became clear they hold different opinions.

Noga Doron, another volunteer, said it was important to her to say she doesn’t want children and families in Gaza to be hurt.

“We want to finish Hamas in Gaza, because it makes everyone miserable. The Palestinian people, the Israeli people, it is pure evil,” she said.

Zion Fisch said it was becoming hard to distinguish who is a civilian in Gaza. “Hamas is everywhere in Gaza,” she said.

Despite the differences, the women have been working tirelessly next to each other for hours – because the occasion calls for it.

“You can disagree on the politics, but the safety of our communities and the safety of our citizens and our soldiers, no one disagrees on that. No one is saying, ‘oh, no, I think rockets are fine’,” Zion Fisch said.


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