Soldiers enjoying their free sandwiches.

‘Operation Doron’ serves up love on a plate

Soldiers enjoying their free sandwiches.

Soldiers enjoying their free sandwiches.

Facebook can bring down governments. It can be a place of highly uncivil debate. But it can also catalyze a war-weary public to support its soldiers in extraordinary ways.

In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Doron Elbaz put out a call on the social-media site to help feed hungry soldiers massing on the border with Gaza. Volunteers came down to Elbaz’s farm, a few hundred meters outside Moshav Maslul, to prepare meals in a pita. Ten jeeps traveled back and forth to deliver the food for the eight days of the operation.

So when Operation Protective Edge began this year, Elbaz took to Facebook again. The result overwhelmed him.

Those 10 jeeps from 2012 seem positively quaint today. Elbaz and his team of 250 volunteers are now preparing an astounding 35,000 meals a day. On any given day, 50,000 people associated with the war effort – including soldiers, police and medics – visit his makeshift camp for meals, toiletries or new underwear and socks. Volunteers offer massages, haircuts and shaves. And everything is free.

It all started with lemonade. Elbaz grows lemons, so it was natural that when the operation started and he saw soldiers once again passing by his farm, his children would suggest setting up a roadside lemonade stand. “It was really all because of my kids,” Elbaz tells ISRAEL21c.

But once Elbaz posted to Facebook about his stand, people began asking, “Where can we drop off some donations?” Before he knew it, the 2014 version of “Operation Doron,” as Israel TV dubbed his previous efforts, turned into a major gathering point.

Elbaz’s ice-cream corner.

Elbaz’s ice-cream corner.

“It’s become a full city,” Elbaz says, complete with food tents, an ice-cream corner and even a synagogue. Of the 35,000 meals prepared daily, 20,000 go to soldiers in the field and the remaining 15,000 are served on site. The meals consist of meat in pita bread with a few vegetables. “We don’t even do hummus or tehina,” Elbaz says. “Nothing wet.”

Elbaz doesn’t get near the front – his farm is a good 15 kilometers away. The army sends its trucks to him. He developed a system for sealing the sandwiches in a bag to keep out the dust. They can be sent in bulk but easily separated when they get to their hungry recipients.

Elbaz estimates his small business is costing some NIS 500,000 ($145,000) a day, but no money changes hands. The meat is donated (a meat processor in Haifa has provided more than NIS 1 million worth of meat alone, Elbaz says); the vegetables are local and the army kicks in the pita.

What would the soldiers do without Elbaz? It’s not like the army isn’t feeding them, but they appreciate fresh food when faced with yet another box of battle rations.

While Elbaz’s operation doesn’t have official rabbinic supervision, a rabbi from Moshav Maslul comes twice a day to make sure everything is kosher.

Elbaz, 43, moved to his farm two years ago after leaving Beersheva with his wife and children. The move was the result of ongoing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that has made it hard for him to work in construction as he had before.

In 2002, Elbaz was on reserve duty when he was called to the West Bank settlement of Karmei Tsur. Terrorists had infiltrated, as the IDF soldiers protecting the settlement hadn’t completed their basic training yet. Two Israelis – a man and his pregnant wife – were murdered before Elbaz and his unit arrived, killing one and wounding the second terrorist. In the jeep next to him, Elbaz’s friend First Sgt. Major Shalom Mordechai was killed as well.

Elbaz was injured during the attack, both physically and emotionally. “It’s a trauma that you take with you all your life,” he says. But he has done his best to turn tragedy into something positive. “You know, you can sink into depression, or you can take the energy that comes from this and do lovely things.”

Elbaz has two sons and three daughters ranging in age from 17 years to 18 months. He has also “adopted” two Givati infantry soldiers who were fighting in Gaza.

With a ceasefire now in place, what’s next for “Operation Doron?” Elbaz points out that the troops haven’t gone home. He and his barbeque team “will be here until the last soldier comes through.”

Still, Elbaz is looking forward to the day when he’ll be “out of business.” Not that it was a business in any formal sense of the term.

“Citizens of this beautiful country don’t work by the book,” he says. “We work with our hearts. It’s possible to do everything for free, as long as you have love.”

Signs at the Ben-Gurion Airport point visitors to a bomb shelter. Photo by Tzahi Ben Ami/FLASH90.

Tourists come despite the war

Signs at the Ben-Gurion Airport point visitors to a bomb shelter. Photo by Tzahi Ben Ami/FLASH90.

Signs at the Ben-Gurion Airport point visitors to a bomb shelter. Photo by Tzahi Ben Ami/FLASH90.

“If anything, the war only strengthened my resolve to be here,” Annika Hernroth-Rothstein told ISRAEL21c at a holiday rental near the beach in Tel Aviv.

Hernroth-Rothstein, a political consultant and columnist from Sweden, was not deterred by the rockets over Tel Aviv in early July, when she brought her two young sons to Israel for a week-long trip.

To be sure, the steep dip in tourism to Israel that began with the July 8 outbreak of Operation Protective Edge has members of the industry worried. The Tourism Ministry noted a 13 percent decrease in tourist entries through Ben-Gurion International Airport for the period of July 1-22. An inter-ministerial committee has been set up to meet the financial challenge and compensate businesses hurt by the tourism slump, which is expected to last until the end of December, according to Shmuel Marom, head of the Incoming Tour Operators Association.

Nevertheless, not everyone is staying away. “At first it was frightening to hear the sirens and have to get my kids to the nearby shelter, without freaking them out in the process,” Rothstein said. “But then we got used to it. It was a unifying experience meeting Israelis in the shelter.”

Furthermore, she added, “With the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment as high as it is in Sweden, Israel is actually relaxing for me. And my boys suddenly felt safe in a funny way.”

As soon as she and her children returned to Sweden, Hernroth-Rothstein made plans to come back by herself later that month. Packed and ready to embark, she found herself among the travelers whose flights got cancelled as a result of a two-day ban by many international airlines imposed after a Hamas rocket landed near Ben-Gurion Airport. Rather than forfeiting her trip, however, Hernroth-Rothstein found an alternate route involving train treks and long waits at airports.

“Honey, I’m hooooome,” she quipped on Facebook upon her arrival – mere hours before a Red Alert sent her into the closest bomb shelter.

Visiting the South

Nor did the war put a dent in the travel plans of New Yorker Vivian Lazar.

“If I cancelled a trip because of the terrorist attacks of Hamas, I’d be giving them the victory they desire,” she told ISRAEL21c.

Lazar is the director of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, founded by her husband, conductor Matthew Lazar, as part of his Zamir Choral Foundation, which promotes Jewish identity and unity through music.

Lazar typically visits Israel several times a year, mostly for the purpose of establishing and coordinating Israeli branches of the international choir. Her fourth trip in 2014, slated for this month, is to include a wedding, getting together with friends and relatives and taking in some sun along the Mediterranean.

Israelis and tourists enjoy the beaches of Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014, as the country entered its 19th day of Operation Protective Edge. Photo by Zoe Vayer/FLASH90.

Israelis and tourists enjoy the beaches of Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014, as the country entered its 19th day of Operation Protective Edge. Photo by Zoe Vayer/FLASH90.

But now Lazar wants to include a visit to the South, “to see firsthand how people are managing to live with daily rocket attacks. My husband and I don’t live in Israel and are keenly aware that our children are not on the frontlines. The least we can do during difficult times is to walk the streets and show our support for our homeland.”

Helen Pearson Freedman, an activist on behalf of Israel from Arizona, was slated to volunteer on an IDF base next March but immediately made plane and hotel reservations for this summer as a statement of solidarity.

Ironically, she recounted, “On the eve of my trip, I was at a branch of Bank of America, and suddenly a siren started blaring. We all had to run out of the building, not knowing whether there was a bomb scare or something else. The point is that bad things can happen anywhere. And Israel, at least, is bravely fighting terrorists.”

Standing with Israel

Jewish activists are not the only ones braving the bombs to come to Israel right now.

Business travelers and VIPs – despite cancelled public concerts – continue to fly into Israel, with Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg one case in point.

Engage: Israel (a program connected with Ebenezer, an international Christian organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel) brought 73 Christian tourists from 18 countries for a two-week trip to the Holy Land in mid-July.

According to group leader Tom Brooker, who hails from the UK, only three people cancelled their participation due to the war.

“It’s easy to say you stand with Israel when everything is fine,” Brooker told ISRAEL21c. “But when it counts most is when Israel is in distress.”

Furthermore, said Brooker, “It is never as bad here as it is portrayed in the foreign media.”

Indeed, not once during the tour of the country did the group experience a Red Alert or siren. Though prepared for this to happen, they never ended up in a shelter or safe room. If they had, said Brooker, it would not have mattered.

“As a Christian, I will stand with Israel, no matter what.”

Brig. Gen. Danny Gold felt like Don Quixote.

The maverick thinker behind Iron Dome

Brig. Gen. Danny Gold felt like Don Quixote.

Brig. Gen. Danny Gold felt like Don Quixote.

The Israeli defense establishment thought Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold was absolutely crazy when he broached the idea for the missile-defense system that came to be known as Iron Dome (Kippat Barzel in Hebrew).

Several years later, Iron Dome turned out to be the surprise hero of the 2012 Gaza war. When Operation Protective Edge began in July 2014, it gained superstar status for shooting down a large proportion of the rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli population centers.

ISRAEL21c asked Gold where he got the nerve to persist with the project in the face of strong criticism back in 2005, when he headed R&D at the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“My incentive was saving human lives,” he replies. “I saw what was going on and I said to myself, with all the technology that exists in Israel we must use it to protect human life. We will find a way. It always takes the political and military echelons a long time to think about what they want to do, and in the meantime we started to create a solution.”

Gold had already convened a committee in 2004 to study anti-missile technology options. In August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew its citizens from the Gaza Strip and many experts correctly predicted that, instead of bringing peace, the move would invite further aggression from Gaza against Israeli towns near the border. Gold forged ahead with Iron Dome in blatant disregard of a Defense Ministry directive.

He refused to allow the project to get stuck in the wheels of bureaucracy. “I wasn’t sure I could get the funds to go ahead, and I had a private investor lined up just in case, but I didn’t need him in the end,” says Gold, who won the Israel Defense Prize in 2012 for spearheading the Iron Dome project.

Tilting at windmills

Nevertheless, it took two years to persuade the skeptical powers-that-be to fund the project and assign it to Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Other companies worked on aspects of Iron Dome, including mPrest Systems (software) and Elta Systems (radar).

“We picked the best in the entire country,” Gold told Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) in 2012. “We had 70-year-old missile experts working alongside 25-year-old engineers fresh out of college, working shoulder to shoulder without any hierarchy. It was like running 15 serious start-up companies at the same time, all of which have to work in harmony with one another and be successful in record time.”

He tells ISRAEL21c that because the project had zero margin for error, he and his staff developed a special methodology to manage the diverse team. “Others are now interested in copying this model,” says Gold, who has doctorates in electrical engineering and business management from Tel Aviv University.

His huge risk paid off big time.

“When I started this endeavor, the scientific community was skeptical. When you think about it, it sounds like science fiction, the idea that missiles can intercept other missiles while flying. … But I am happy to say science fiction became a reality,” he was cited as saying by the Humans of Tel Aviv project.

“If you believe in something, find the resilience in you to make it happen — even fight windmills if you have to. Sometimes it’s worth being Don Quixote.”

‘I Love Iron Dome’

Nine Iron Dome batteries are now in place in Israel, with more to come. The system’s radar identifies incoming projectiles and determines which missiles are most likely to hit populated areas or strategic assets. It then fires a Tamir interceptor missile at the chosen target to destroy it. (Iron Dome differs in many ways from the US-built Patriot surface-to-air missile system; it is smaller, less costly per use and tailored to specific circumstances.)

The Iron Dome in action – missiles intercepting other missiles while flying. Photo by Flash90.

The Iron Dome in action – missiles intercepting other missiles while flying. Photo by Flash90.

Israeli business daily Globes estimates that NIS 4.5 billion ($1.3 billion) of Israeli and US funds have been spent on developing, building and utilizing Iron Dome.

Its cost is irrelevant to the millions of Israelis whose lives have been saved by this gutsy experiment. Israel’s gratitude to Iron Dome is manifested in “I Love Iron Dome” apparel, songs and videos.

Here’s a video for children about Iron Dome.

Gold tells ISRAEL21c that he sees the salutary effect of Iron Dome on Israel’s collective spirit.

“People feel that someone or something is protecting them. They gain confidence because they see [Iron Dome] working so nicely. Of course, they still have to go to shelters because it’s not 100 percent effective, but people are feeling safer and feeling proud of this Israeli achievement.”

He points out that since the first Iron Dome battery became operational in 2011, the system has successfully made more than 1,000 intercepts. “This makes me feel very good,” he says.

Today, Gold runs his own international consultancy, Gold R&D Technology and Innovation, and is voluntary head of the Israel National Committee for Commercial/Civilian Cyber R&D. He’s also on the board of Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), a non-profit dedicated to advancing Israel’s brain technology industry for the benefit of patients.

In a recent IBT interview, Gold said that the Iron Dome developers implemented algorithms based on Israeli human brain research.

“How do you approach a complex problem and solve it? We do this in the Israeli Defense Forces every day,” he said. “Many of the people involved in these types of projects, like the Iron Dome for example, then take their skills to industry. What they learned about putting together complex multidisciplinary solutions serves them well in fields such as high-tech and brain-tech.”

Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israel in Pictures,Picture of the Week

Photo of the Week – Wedding under fire

Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Bride Shiran takes cover in a wine cellar with her guests as the Code Red siren is sounded during her wedding in Beer Yakov.

If you’ve got a photograph you’d like to feature on ISRAEL21c please send it in high resolution to Every week we will choose the best one to feature on our pages.

Irena Nosel tending Abdel from Gaza. Photo by Barak Nuna

‘Children are children. They are not our enemies’

Along with the other 210,000 residents of coastal Ashdod, over the past couple of weeks Irena Nosel and her family must scramble for shelter when the wailing siren warns of incoming missiles from Gaza.

Her teenage son is in the army and her five-year-old son is confined to home because of the danger. Yet Nosel hasn’t missed a day of work as head nurse of the pediatric intensive care unit at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

She cares daily for critically ill children from Israel as well as from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority-administered territories, Syria, Africa and other places where the medical system is much less advanced than in Israel.

“Children are children. They are not our enemies,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “It doesn’t matter where they are from. If these children will not come to Wolfson and receive treatment, they will have no chance to live.”

Nosel is also head nurse for the Israeli nonprofit medical organization Save A Child’s Heart, based at Wolfson since its founding nearly 20 years ago. About 40 percent of the patients in her 10-bed unit are admitted through the free cardiology clinic that SACH holds every Tuesday for patients from Gaza and the West Bank.

Remarkably, the flow of sick children has not lessened despite the bombings, due to ongoing behind-the-scenes coordination with healthcare officials in hostile regions.

“We always have Palestinian children in our unit; right now we have three,” she says during a phone interview on Sunday morning. “This Tuesday, 14 children are scheduled to come to the clinic, and some will be hospitalized and stay for surgeries.”

The morning of her conversation with ISRAEL21c, Nosel was feeling less stressed about leaving her young son, Tomer, because Wolfson had just opened an emergency day camp for children of employees. Until then, she had to leave the kindergartner at home with his dad, waiting anxiously for her return, since regular summer activities are canceled in the port city due to constant attacks.

“It’s a difficult situation at home,” she acknowledges. “There are a lot of bombs falling. I never thought to stay home with him and miss work, but honestly it’s not easy for me. We are all here because we believe that we should continue with our mission, saving the children and helping the families.”

No politics in the hospital

Tamar Shapira, spokeswoman for SACH, calls Nosel “the most amazing, dedicated person. She comes every day no matter what, because she does a simple calculation that she knows she’s needed for these children’s survival. The whole team feels that way.”

The pediatric ICU is staffed by 35 nurses in addition to medical students, medical interns and four senior doctors – Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Healthcare professionals from many countries, including recently from China and Tanzania, come for SACH training to take back home. About half the children admitted through SACH for free treatment come from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco.

Shapira says that the personal political leanings of the staff run the full spectrum from right to left, but have no bearing on their work. “They are all here for the patients,” she says.

“There is no politics here,” echoes Nosel. “The nationality of the children is not an issue at all.”

The patient shown here is Talya from Nablus. Photo by Barak Nuna

The patient shown here is Talya from Nablus. Photo by Barak Nuna

She relates that many Palestinian parents feel frightened when they first come to Israel with their sick children. “And then they see how we care for their kids, and they see that there is no tension between the different peoples here.”

When an air-raid siren goes off in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv, the staff members, parents and children are all in the same boat. In the face of the awkward irony that the bombs are coming from Hamas terrorists in Gaza, where some of the patients’ families live, Nosel reports that the stress in the pediatric ICU is kept to a minimum with black humor.

“We prefer to laugh about it,” she says.

After some 20 years on the job, the 42-year-old nurse says she is not burned out even in such trying times. During the 2009 Gaza conflict, she was pregnant with Tomer and didn’t miss a day on the job. Again in 2012, and now less than two years later, she has had to work under fire.

“I’m still excited for my work, and I have not thought about doing something else,” she says. “I like to care for people.”