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Civilians send basic supplies to Israeli military, raising questions on preparedness

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro in Tel Aviv, Israel, with NPR producer Liz Baker, who just arrived at our hotel yesterday. Hey, Liz.

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Something unusual happened to you when you were getting ready to board your EL AL flight out of Boston. Will you tell us about it?

BAKER: Right. Well, I got in a very long line to check in, and this woman came up and started speaking in Hebrew to everybody in the line. I asked the person behind me what was going on, and she said that they were asking people if they would mind checking a suitcase that was meant for Israeli soldiers. So they had on the side...

SHAPIRO: Israeli soldiers.

BAKER: Yeah. So they had, like, tons of boxes and these huge, huge duffel bags with helmets, with vests, with all these supplies that they were trying to get to Israel. And this was the fastest and best way to do it - was to get random airline passengers to check them.

SHAPIRO: Well, it turns out that since the war began, there has been a huge effort to supply the military with things that many people believe the government should be supplying. And it's become a real controversy here.

ITAYAM REMER: People ask, like, my son is in platoon this, like, the name of the unit. And then they say they are missing 800 da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (ph). Can you send us 500 da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da - like that, OK? These are the numbers. It's not one, two or 10.

SHAPIRO: Itayam Remer (ph) is 35, and he's a trance music producer here in Israel. Friends of his died when Hamas attacked the outdoor music festival. He wanted to do something useful, so he started by volunteering in the South, the area that was hit hardest in the Hamas attacks.

REMER: We just helped any way we can. We bought food for soldiers. We bought food for a woman who was scared to get out of her house.

SHAPIRO: That effort quickly grew into an aid organization that he says now has 4,000 members and a WhatsApp group where people could post what they needed. He was shocked to see requests from soldiers for basic stuff.

REMER: Everything you can imagine from vests to knee protectors to helmets to flashlights to underwear to toilet paper to food to beds to tents.

SHAPIRO: Israel is a country that prides itself on the strength of its military. Serving in the army is mandatory for most Israelis, so this is not the image the country wants to project, especially just before a possible ground invasion of Gaza which could involve urban close combat.

REMER: It's really sad, you know? It's really, really sad for a sister or for a mom to know that her son is - like, is on his way to war and he doesn't have a vest to protect him.

SHAPIRO: After Israeli media started reporting on the problem, 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. They've been releasing photos of supplies arriving from abroad. The Israel Defense Force said in a statement, we continue to work to make sure that every soldier in the frontlines of the war has the equipment he needs. We asked for comment on this story and didn't get a reply by airtime. Many Israelis are skeptical of the reassurances. The Hamas massacre shattered Israelis' belief that the government could keep them safe, and now they're asking if the government is falling short in this area, too.

MICHAL GEVA: Civil organizations, especially volunteers, are getting in between the cracks of what the government infrastructure can provide. Unfortunately, this war have shown us that not only we had problems in the intelligence part of the Army, but a lot of the backstage collapsed as well.

SHAPIRO: Like what?

GEVA: Like everything. Unfortunately, I would say everything.

SHAPIRO: Michal 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 Expo Tel Aviv. Parrots flit around the landscaping in this sort of convention center that's become a hub for a huge range of volunteer projects. This is about much more than supplying the soldiers. It's everything from mental health counseling to missing persons investigations.

GEVA: We have 20 different operations. My specific operation started with rescuing people.

SHAPIRO: Members of her team drove to towns in southern Israel and got people who'd been hiding in safe rooms, some of them for nearly 24 hours. This volunteer organization 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 weakening of the judiciary. But now it includes people of every political leaning. In the Expo's cavernous basement parking garage, all the donations get sorted into boxes. A press liaison named Terry Newman (ph) shows us around.

TERRY NEWMAN: Right. So here you can see mattresses, baby chairs, cots. We've had hundreds of tons of material coming through here.

SHAPIRO: Like, where do these come from, and where are they going?

NEWMAN: So people are donating them, and you should also know people are donating cars. We've got families who have come from the destroyed villages who've got kids, and they need to get around. People who've got spare cars are donating cars.

SHAPIRO: For him, this organization is a source of great pride, a sign that the country is coming together in a crisis and channeling its trauma into something useful. But many of the people here are frustrated that the people had to make this happen themselves, like Maya Armon, a filmmaker and MBA student who created a donation hub at the Expo called Maya's Storage.

MAYA ARMON: I come here at 9, and I leave at 1 - midnight or 1 a.m.

SHAPIRO: Could I take a step back for a minute and just...

ARMON: Sure.

SHAPIRO: ...Ask you a big-picture question?

ARMON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Right now thousands of volunteers...

ARMON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Are doing a wide range of things. Should this be the responsibility of volunteers organizing themselves, or...

ARMON: Definitely not. Sorry for cutting you.

SHAPIRO: Please.

ARMON: No, definitely not. It should be the responsibility of the government.

SHAPIRO: She has friends in the army and has heard the requests of soldiers who lack everything from underwear to tactical gear.

Is that embarrassing?

ARMON: Is that a question even? Of course it is embarrassing. It's - I'm embarrassed by the entire situation. I'm embarrassed by the situation that happened in first place.

SHAPIRO: Many Israelis will tell you that criticizing the government is a favorite national pastime. But like so much that's happened since the October 7 massacre, the scale of this frustration seems different. We got one more answer to the question of how to think about this huge civilian operation as we left the Expo. We ran into a couple leaving a volunteer shift with their son. Shir Shalom (ph) said this scene, this mobilization is an essential part of her country's identity.

SHIR SHALOM: I think that as a nation - also Israeli, also Jewish - because we are so used to terror attacks and we are so used to recovery - so I think that regardless if the government should do it or not, this is really the nature of this country. This is us.

SHAPIRO: Of course, inside the Gaza Strip, civilians are also anticipating a possible ground invasion, and they are running out of basics like food, water and medicine, let alone protective gear.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

That was our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Vincent Acovino
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Connor Donevan