Home inSight Volunteering in Israel: A Report

Volunteering in Israel: A Report

Jewish Policy Center

Editor's Note: Robert Parker is an attorney in Washington, DC, and a valued member of the JPC. He followed his instincts in the wake of October 7 and Israel’s subsequent defense. A civilian volunteer, he is recounting his experience for those of us at home. We will follow up as Bob has time to write. In the meantime, he asks that, if you are looking to make a meaningful contribution that will go directly to helping save lives in Israel, please consider giving to Hatzolah Air Israel, https://hatzolair.org/donate and mark your contribution for “Project Eli/Israel.”

Many of you have asked for updates on my trip to Israel. Here they are.

I flew to Israel Thursday [November 2] on El Al through Boston. The plane was packed, mostly with Israelis. Lots of families with small kids. On my preflight security interview, the guy asked me why I was going to Israel. When I said I was working with Hatzolah he said, “Wow, nice!” Made the whole trip worthwhile.

I landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel about noon Friday and Eli, who is part of the Hatzolah Air Israel Rescue Teams, picked me up. He has a Mitsubishi Outback that was already packed with medical gear we had pre-purchased, including cartons of Teeetac evacuation nets and basic uniform gear. We headed south to Beersheva and then worked west. We stopped at a rest area and Eli suggested that I change my clothes. He said he knew we would be okay when I stripped down in the parking lot.

Israel is more like it was when I was there in ‘76 than more recently. There are security roadblocks into and out of every town. There are soldiers with machine guns everywhere — not necessarily on duty, just going from one place to another. High level of alert.

Eli pointed out sights and sounds I would have missed, like the buzzing of Israeli UAVs overhead. He also pointed out the large number of vultures circling over the fields, which is unusual. No one knows whether there are human remains there. The ultra-Orthodox organization ZAKA provides the manpower that seeks out and collects human remains and prepares them for burial. And the country is grateful.

Eli told me that earlier in the week the roads were loaded with cars that had been shot up on October 7. The cars have been removed but the shoulders are still full of broken window glass in an almost unbroken steam. You can tell how far Hamas penetrated the country by looking for the glass on the roads.

Eli was a combat medic in the IDF and is now a medic with Hatzolah Air and Magen David Adom, and still has connections in that field. We stopped at a number of Army outposts in the south and gave the medics the evac kits. After we made a couple of drops, we received phone calls from other units in the area who need them. We made four or so more stops, including in Ashdod near the base of Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals.

Everywhere we stopped people were stopping to drop off food for the soldiers. Some of this was done by mothers and girlfriends, but a lot was clearly random. Except at Shayetet 13, almost everyone we spoke with was under 25.

The towns near Gaza were quiet. We learned that at one point there had been a siren in a town near where we were, but we didn’t hear it. While we were on the phone talking with a medic about a “drop” we heard booms in the background, but it was outgoing artillery.

Eli dropped me off at a friend’s house in Jerusalem. It was Shabbat, so quiet, but we found a place to eat. Then to bed.This morning Eli called to say that word was getting out that we are the supply people to talk to. We still have some stuff in the car, and we will make some deliveries tonight. Tomorrow will go to our supplier and refill the car and make more deliveries.

From the second email…

Sunday: I’m switching to email because it’s easier and nothing I’m writing is not known to the whole world anyway.

Yesterday (Shabbat) was quiet for me, but not for Eli. He got several calls asking for evac kits, and two people home on 24-hour leave stopped by his house to ask for some. One of these was Dr. Amos, an anesthesiologist (born in Boston) who was called up to work with a commando unit near the Lebanon border.

We needed more kits, so Eli got in touch with the supplier. They then had to get in touch with the guy who runs the warehouse and get him to open it.  Eli and the two guys agreed that they (the two guys) would go to the warehouse, and then drive up from Ashdod (where the warehouse is) to Tel Aviv and we would meet them there Saturday evening.

Eli picked me up. I had asked him to bring me a sandwich because I couldn’t get food on Shabbat; he brought two huge trays of food and a Challah.

Off to Tel Aviv. We arrived around 9 pm. The streets were pretty quiet, which I understand is very unusual for a Saturday night.

Another note: Every billboard and sign, and I mean every, is about the war. Photos of the hostages or the number 241 (the number of hostages seized). The signs on the highway that usually tell you to slow down have Israeli flags. Many signs and billboards have the motto “Byachad l’natzech,” meaning “Together we will win.” Eli told me that a few weeks ago they all said, “Bye, bye Bibi,” or words to that effect.

We met our suppliers in the dark parking lot. It felt eerily like a drug drop, except the lot was for the office of the Israeli water company.  Eli pointed out a popping noise in the distance that sounded like a firecracker.  It was Iron Dome shooting down rockets in another part of the city. No sirens in our area.

What was weird was standing in this parking lot over a laptop perched in the trunk of a car talking to Chase Bank to get it to approve the credit card transaction while standing in this lot at midnight with Iron Dome popping in the background. Surreal.

We got into car and drove north to the border.  We met Dr. Amos, who was back with his unit, and gave them evacs. By this time, it was about 1:30 am. As we were talking with Dr. A and a few other guys armed to the teeth, a van drove up and about 10 guys got out and unloaded some sort of shoulder-mounted missile like the ones the US sent to Ukraine. I was shocked at their size and just how deadly they look in person. Pictures just don’t do these weapons justice. I have no idea whether the men had been out on a mission or were just getting to base. It seemed best not to ask.

During our talk with Dr. A and a few other guys, we learned that four people in a unit down south we had visited on Friday and left with evac units had been killed Saturday morning. No word on injured.

Off to another base where one of Eli’s best friends, Shlomo, is stationed. We had arranged to call Shlomo when we arrived so he could get a couple hours’ sleep before we got there.

Driving to this base was the only time, so far, I’ve felt at all scared, but not because anything happened. Just the opposite. Because it was so quiet. Israel behind us was all lit up but the border area ahead of us was pitch dark. There were no roadblocks because there were no people.  We passed several points where MPs were stationed by the side of the road.  Their job was to close the road to civilian traffic if the army moved. They did not look as if this was a low probability proposition. It was just tense the whole way.

We got to the gate of Shlomo’s base where a young guy (19 or 20) was on duty.  We couldn’t get through to Shlomo because the cement walls of the barracks are so thick that he wasn’t getting phone reception. So, we chatted with the guard through the fence and finally, he called someone who woke up Shlomo. We drove onto the base, opened the trunk, and gave Shlomo a dozen or so evac units and the rest of the uniforms.  He’ll give some to his medic and they’ll pass along some to other units. He made us coffee and gave us cake, which is the main part of their diet on base. They’re so remote they don’t have civilians dropping off food and they won’t eat the army stuff if they don’t have to.

Only one other guy was up and around. He was a short, pot-bellied man in his 60s or so, completely gray of head and beard. He’s also a rabbi. He refuses to let them drop his reserve designation. He doesn’t carry a pack or engage in on-foot maneuvers, but he will drive or handle communications in an armored personnel carrier. Oh, by the way, there were a lot of APCs parked right next to the sleeping quarters and all facing the front gate. Which faced the border.

Back in the car and the drive back to Jerusalem.

Eli dropped me off at 6:30 am and to bed. I woke at noon. In an hour or two, Eli will pick me up and we’ll deliver evac units at two bases near Jerusalem and that will be all for today. At that point we’ll have given away almost all the units we bought last night.

For now, I’m off to attack those food trays.

From the third email a few days later…

Just a quick note on some of the things that have struck me the past few days.

During conversations with soldiers and civilians, I would often say, “I hope this ends quickly.”  They all say the same thing – they hope it doesn’t. They all say that they are tired of living under threat from Hamas and Hezbollah, and that they have to do the job now, however long it takes.

One conversation that struck me involved the COVID lockdowns.  The person I was speaking to mentioned that it was different in Israel because they live under threat all the time.  His kids still do remote learning because in his town one of the school buildings doesn’t have bunkers sufficient to withstand the new rockets Hamas and Hezbollah fire at random and have done for years.  So, the kids in the town share the newer building, but that means they can only go into school half the time.

This is not just since October 7, and it is not just in the border areas. This person was from Bet Shemesh, in central Israel about halfway between Jerusalem and Ashdod on the coast.  It has been this way through much of Israel for years.  Maybe it’s just me, but when I thought of the rockets hitting Israel, I thought more in terms of injuries or damage.  I didn’t think as much about how it affected the rhythms of people’s lives and the lifelong impact that would have on generations of Israelis.

Last night Hatzolah Air arranged a barbecue for all of the doctors and medics in a brigade now stationed not far from Tel Aviv.  (The CEO of HA is a physician and has been called up as a medic). There were about 25 people there, so my companion Eli needed help picking up the food. Every place we shopped gave us something for free or at a discount when they heard this was for soldiers. In front of one store there was an old man sitting around, just hanging out. He offered to pick up plastic forks and plates at one store, and pita at another.  He wouldn’t let Eli pay him back, and he told us that the store owners gave most of it for free anyway when they heard what it was for.

More to follow.