newsIsrael at War

Nonprofits working hard to bring IDF reservists back from abroad

“Every person we put on a flight back to Israel is a great achievement," Consul General of Israel in Dubai Liron Zaslansky said.

Israeli reserve soldiers train on urban warfare near Kibbutz Merom Golan in the northern Golan Heights ahead of a probable ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.
Israeli reserve soldiers train on urban warfare near Kibbutz Merom Golan in the northern Golan Heights ahead of a probable ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

As the number of Israelis killed in Hamas’s massacres surpasses 1,300, the Israel Defense Forces has mobilized 360,000 reservists to join the fight. Soldiers and emergency responders worldwide trying to make their way back home face the challenge of most foreign airlines suspending flights to Israel.

Israeli carriers El Al, Israir and Arkia have added flights to accommodate the influx of reservists converging on the country.

JNS spoke with Consul General of Israel in Dubai Liron Zaslansky, who, together with the New York-based nonprofit organization La’Aretz, is making it her mission to bring them back.

“Our initiative supported by the Jewish communities in the United States, the United Kingdom and most evidently the United Arab Emirates is meant to get all Israeli nationals serving in the security forces, providing medical services, or really any service that Israel needs right now back into the country as soon as possible,” she said.

General Consul of Israel in Dubai Liron Zaslansky. Credit Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Zaslansky said that, as the Defense Ministry orchestrates the deployment of a “comprehensive and large-scale logistical assistance system,” including heavy weaponry and around 1,200 vehicles for combat units, she is receiving calls from soldiers stuck overseas non-stop.

Data gathered from the Google Trends website shows a persistent increase in searches including keywords such as “flight to Israel” since the Hamas onslaught began on Oct. 7.

“Every person we put on a flight back to Israel is a great achievement which we are proud of and which fills us with strength and satisfaction. We are doing everything we can to make sure Israelis in emergency services and the IDF come back on time to help,” the consul general said.

As for the reaction to the war in the United Arab Emirates, together with Bahrain the first country in the Gulf to normalize relations with Israel, Zaslansky cited a Reuters report in which the UAE Foreign Ministry said it was “appalled” by reports of Israeli civilians being taken hostages. It said Hamas’s terrorist acts breached international humanitarian law, stressing that civilians must never be targeted in a conflict.

“They see the kind of threat that we are dealing with: This is not Israel against Hamas, this is Israel against Iran and against terrorism. We are not waging war on Palestinians, it’s a war on terrorism and against a deadly, brutal, barbaric terrorist organization with no moral bounds,” Zaslansky said.

Actress Swell Ariel Or speaks about the Israel Reserve Fund, Oct. 11, 2023. Zoom screenshot by Amelie Botbol.

The Israel Reserve Fund

Several American and Israeli nonprofits have joined the effort to help IDF soldiers return to Israel.

One of them, the Israel Reserve Fund, collects donations to buy plane tickets for soldiers experiencing difficulties. It was born from the collective effort of many Israeli activists, including Swell Ariel Or, the lead actress of the Netflix television show “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.”

Like many Israelis abroad, Or, who served in the IDF Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200 and only recently moved to Los Angeles, had to deal with the guilt and anxiety of being away from friends and family.

“I felt helpless. I started googling big organizations and realized that because of how overwhelming the situation is, no one had yet started to raise money for soldiers’ flights. I wanted to give the reservists the feeling that someone has their back.”

Or and her team expect to help at least 250 reservists get back home and are receiving requests from many more. They are using social media to raise money from all over the world.

“Mentally, it’s very hard. I communicate with all those soldiers that I really want to help, but at the same time, we are sending them to the front lines. They are so sweet and beautiful. I see their pictures and their names. We guarantee that if the war ends tomorrow, everyone will get their money back and our amazing soldiers can continue traveling and living their lives.”

Or told JNS that her organization is targeting smaller donations via crowdfunding, as major philanthropists are focusing on larger organizations such as Friends of the IDF, the Jewish Federations and StandWithUs.

“Every dollar counts. Philanthropists already donated a lot to big organizations. I am counting on you. Please donate to bring our soldiers back. I know small donations from every single one of you can get us a long way.”

Yoni Benzacar, 24, who moved to Israel a year ago from Los Angeles, is in charge of logistics for the Israel Reserve Fund.

He told JNS that at first, soldiers were reluctant to believe that such an initiative existed. Benzacar uses a secure channel to communicate with expat soldiers; operations have been going smoothly.

“They reach out to us. We then confirm that they got in touch with their commander or some senior official in the army. They send us basic information such as the price of their flight ticket, their contact details and their emergency contact.

“It started with combat units but we are now supporting soldiers from intelligence units and logistics as well. We’ve registered soldiers from countries including Thailand, South America, Australia, India, the UAE, America and Canada.”

Benzacar told JNS that his team is currently deciding on the best way to distribute incoming funds to those who await them, and that he is now being approached to raise money for additional purposes such as the purchase of vests, flashlights and consumable goods for soldiers.

Flagship carrier El Al will operate during the Sabbath to repatriate Israeli military reservists and rescue workers, the airline announced on Thursday.

The airline said the break with its decades-long policy received rabbinic approval in order to save lives.

El Al has not offered Sabbath flights since 1982, when they sparked religious-secular controversy.

The Knesset responded by passing legislation prohibiting El Al, which was state-owned at the time, from operating during the Sabbath.

Reserve soldiers will be able to fly back to Israel on Saturday free of charge on flights leaving from New York and Bangkok.

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