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  • Michael Dickson

Showing Solidarity

Tales of a journey to the conflict zone as Israel is at war

Solidarity mission participants with newly-graduating StandWithUs Israeli Fellows. With future leaders of Israel like this, the future is bright.

sol·i·dar·i·ty (n.) the feeling or expression of union in a group formed by a common interest.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of driving visitors from outside Israel around the south of Israel under bombardment. Who, after all, would volunteer to put themselves into the danger zone. And who would be crazy enough to lead them there?

Last week I spent the week doing just that as board members and friends of StandWithUs traveled from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Florida to show solidarity with the people of southern Israel and with Israel’s Defence Forces.

So here are some of the photo highlights of what was an intense, powerful and special time touring the south of Israel:

“Feeding our soldiers – this is our mission” 

Karyn Caplan, of Innovation Africa and a StandWithUs Mission participant, with Israeli soldiers Moshav Maslul.

Our first stop was to help out. Our group visited Moshav Maslul, not far from Israel’s border with Gaza. Farm owner Doron Elbaz and friends have set up what has become a non-stop BBQ and clearing house for goods for IDF soldiers. In 100 degree heat, the least we could do was lend a hand. The founders – working on a volunteer basis – told us that feeding the soldiers had become their ‘mission’. At its peak, they have been serving 50,000 meals to soldiers a day.

Volunteer staff and Mission participants BBQ-ing up a great meal for IDF soldiers.

"Israelis dig tunnels, too..."

Rabbi Benzaquen, Andrew Hoffman and StandWithUs New York Co-Chairman Eric Mandel in an underground bunker.

Aside from the consistent rocket and missile threat from Gaza, the fear among residents, induced by the building of terror tunnels by Hamas in order to kidnap and kill, was palpable. This isn’t a terror tunnel: its just the opposite. This is a bunker, built by an Israeli to fit his family of five so that they have a place to hide underground when they are under rocket fire. There were 2 adult chairs and 3 kids chairs in the bunker.

“We lock our doors now..”

Showing Solidarity with the people of Kibbutz Alumim – a kibbutz in the firing line a short distance from Gaza.

We were able to spend some time with civilians living near the Gaza border who have been under fire. The residents of Kibbutz Alumim, told us about the disruption to their lives, the fear of living with constant bombardment and the comings-and-goings of the Israeli army around the clock who were there to protect them. We met mothers, fathers, grandparents and children and tried to place ourselves in their shoes. One resident stopped by as we toured and shared his story: an 82 year old (picture below) who was born in Nazi Germany and was deliberately malnourished by a Nazi nurse, kept alive by his father using a dropper to drip some food into his mouth. Now a kibbutz member with twenty grandchildren, he copes with Hamas rockets in his stride.

Octogenarian child Holocaust survivor now resident of Kibbutz Alumim, under fire

As we prepare to leave, a lady addresses one of the most worrying threats uncovered during the Protective Edge campaign – the terror tunnels built by Hamas in order to kidnap and kill Israelis. “Make of this what you will”, she says, “before this campaign, we used to go into each others houses and we never locked the door. Now, the first thing I do when I get home is lock the door”.

Hours after we left the Kibbutz, Hamas had broken its eleventh ceasefire; the people of Kibbutz Alumim were back in bomb shelters.

Dr Shmuel Katz, StandWithUs Board Member looks out towards Gaza from Kibbutz Alumim.

Courage, personified

“You’re brave”, I said to one of our Mission participants. “You’re brave for coming”. “Me?”, he replied, “You’re brave for living here!”

An emotional meeting with Rachel Frankel, whose son Naftali was kidnapped and killed by Hamas.

Our organization, like so many others, had campaigned relentlessly for the three kidnapped Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel prior to hearing of their tragic murder. So to have the opportunity to meet with Naftali’s mother, Rachel, was some kind of closure on the terrible episode at the beginning of the summer. Yet there will never truly be closure for the boy’s families and all who grieve them. Despite this, Rachel Frankel was upbeat and dignified, saying that the weeks since the kidnapping, and the outpouring of support she received from so many around the world, had been “glorious and hell; painful and amazing.” She urged the Jewish community to keep hold of the unity that it had found in its concern for the boys.

It was an emotional meeting – we expressed our support, told her of our efforts and of the recent Shloshim event that we had held in Los Angeles. We tried to give her strength, but in reality, it was she who was giving strength to us.

Hospital Under Fire

Mission participants arrive at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center

Dr. Ron Lobel is one of closest-living Israelis to the Gaza Border. He works as Assistant Director of Barzilai Medical Center, which has been on the frontline treating soldiers and civilians, injured by Hamas. Five minutes after we take a photo outside the hospital and are sitting in a presentation from Dr. Lobel, rocket sirens sound. “No need to get up”, he tells us, “this area is protected”. It becomes apparent quickly though, while walking through the hospital, that much of the site is not; the center is renovating in order to allow for more protection.

Barzilai Medical Center’s Dr Ron Lobel took us on a tour of the hospital under fire.

Born into war

The sign below reads: “Neo-natal unit moved to the bomb shelter.”

Sign that the Neo Natal unit has moved to a bomb shelter.

Anyone visiting a neo-natal unit will find their hearts melt at the sight of the tiniest of humans getting assistance in taking their first breaths. Can there be that many units caring for premature babies in a bomb shelter? Indeed, the moment I stepped out of the shelter/unit rockets were fired overhead from terrorists in Gaza. That babies are being born into a war situation is a human tragedy.

StandWithUs Israel Director witnesses premature babies being cared for.. in a bomb shelter.

StandWithUs Senior Executive Gary Ratner, from Los Angeles, holds one of the smaller projectiles that has landed not far from the hospital.

Defending their homes, and dealing with loss

The brave soldiers of the Maglan unit (faces blurred for security reasons).

The brave soldiers of the Maglan unit (faces blurred for security reasons).

Sergeant First Class Matan Gottlieb, 21, from Rishon LeZion; Sergeant First Class Omar Hay, 21, from Savion; and Sergeant First Class Guy Algranati, 20, of Tel Aviv, died after being blown up by a booby-trap in an UNRWA clinic with a terror tunnel they were in the process of destroying.

We were privileged to have the opportunity to meet with their fellow soldiers of the Maglan Commando Unit. We shared in their grief and were able to thank them on behalf of all those they are keeping safe. These bright, young, committed officers, left an indelible impression on all of us.

These young men are working on creating a remembrance pool to memorialize the friends with whom they served. If you would like to donate towards this, please click here to email me and I will make sure you can.

An empty restaurant

An exquisite meal at the Vista restaurant, opposite Ashkelon beach.

Lunch was a deliberate choice – we wanted to show solidarity with a local business, hit hard by the security situation. In a normal situation, it should have been near-impossible to book a table at the Vista restaurant. It is a newly-renovated establishment in an enviably beautiful location: overlooking Ashkelon beach. The food was tasty and well-presented. But the place was nearly empty. On that day, people had been banned from entering the sea as rockets were flying in from neighboring Gaza. We thanked the owner and wished him well. Businesses are suffering and so are people in the rocket zone who are having trouble making ends meet.

“You’re brave”, I said to one of our Mission participants. “You’re brave for coming”. “Me?”, he replied, “You’re brave for living here!”

Keeping us safe in the sky

The eleventh ceasefire was broken by Hamas on the first day of our mission. All the while we were keeping ourselves up to date with where rocket sirens were sounded. It became a tough task; Israel, and particularly the south of Israel, found itself under a more and more relentless rocket barrage from Gaza.

So our participants became all the more grateful for the Israeli-pioneered, American-funded Iron Dome, in the skies keeping us safe. Our group became used to the sound of the rocket interception above and more aware that without it, a huge number of Israeli lives would have been lost this summer.

Visiting some of the soldiers tasked with guarding and maintaining the Iron Dome and bringing them ice cream on a hot day, was the least we could do. Most of all, we just wanted to say thanks.

“You’re brave”, I said to one of our Mission participants. “You’re brave for coming”. “Me?”, he replied, “You’re brave for living here!”

There is a power in standing together and expressing it. This has been a tumultuous summer for Israelis, their nerves on edge from the rocket sirens and their senses attuned to losses suffered by our IDF troops and casualties on the home front. Yet it has been a breathlessly inspiring time too – witnessing courage and acts of kindness that are amazing in their impact and magnitude. We have found a unity that has been channeled in many positive ways. And we have been buoyed by the support of people around the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Our group was able to meet with heavyweight decision-makers, people of influence and thinkers, like Minister Yuval Steinitz, the National Security Council’s Eran Lerman, Prime Ministerial Spokesman Mark Regev and the Times of Israel Editor, David Horovitz among others. They spent time in the South of Israel speaking to IDF officers on the frontline of this conflict. They met the ordinary Israeli civilians in the firing line, spoke, laughed and at times cried with them.

More than this, they committed to tell these Israeli’s stories overseas, to educate around the world, to counter misinformation being promoted about the conflict by anti-Israel groups and to reach out to people and engage them, in turn, with Israel.

And that is the ultimate show of solidarity.

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