Naama Barak
December 24, 2023

When Tehila Afota began coming across the horrific testimonies of victims of the attacks carried out by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7, she felt that something must be done.

“It all began when I started seeing posts on Facebook by people who I know who survived the party, and was exposed to shocking information that did not yet make it to the media,” she tells ISRAEL21c. 

Iron Lions founder Tehila Afota. Photo courtesy of Tehila Afota
Iron Lions founder Tehila Afota. Photo courtesy of Tehila Afota

“I thought to myself that it would be absolutely terrible if it all just got lost on the feed.”

One of her ideas was to build a website that could aid public diplomacy efforts.

“I sent out a message on my work group, and within seconds an amazing number of people got involved. They’ve become the core team of this initiative, and then more and more workers joined. Once the website went online, we were approached by dozens more volunteers.”

The Iron Lions – Testimonials from the War in Israel, Oct 23 is a collection of chilling testimonials from people who witnessed the attacks on communities, army bases and the Supernova music festival in Israel’s Gaza border communities

Viewers can scroll through the testimonials or choose specific ones according to categories such as murder, torture and hostage-taking.

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

“We’ve had so many entries added to the website,” Afota notes. “We’re already displaying dozens of diverse testimonials from the festival, from the communities and from the frontlines, and we also have testimonials that have not gone public yet, which we’re working to make accessible in a more coherent way.”

Diplomacy, documentation

The initiative’s two goals, she explains, are public diplomacy and the preservation and documentation of evidence. As such, the website is accessible and in English.

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

“And there’s also been another interesting development – I was approached by a lawyer who is set to represent families at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and she said that the initiative could also be very useful from a legal perspective,” Afota says. 

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

“As a result, we’ve made adjustments so that the testimonials will be admissible in court. These include adding visual sources, going into further details regarding places and dates, as well as website security aspects, so that we can also aid this legal front.”

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

Afota and her coworkers who launched the website all work at AI21Labs in Tel Aviv, a generative AI startup that makes sophisticated language models for developers. 

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

Just prior to the war, the startup made headlines for raising $155 million at a $1.4 billion valuation, making it part of the generative AI unicorn club.

“Our technology enabled this whole process to be conducted quickly and efficiently,” Afota notes. “Our technology is very strong and developed, and among other things our model knows how to translate.”

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

This feature enabled survivors and witnesses to upload their testimonials in Hebrew. 

“They had just gone through such great trauma, and writing in English was not something that they needed to concern themselves with,” she explains.

“Also, as well as translating and documenting the testimonials, the technology enables you to export them into Stories format, so that they’re easier to share for public diplomacy purposes.”

Overwhelming response

The response to the initiative, Afota says, has been overwhelming.

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

“Three minutes after we launched the site, I received a message that it was already being shared on the WhatsApp group of Kibbutz Be’eri,” she says, referring to one of the massacred communities.

“It reached volumes that we simply didn’t expect, and we’re now also being approached for cooperations of all sorts,” she adds. 

“It really made waves in a way that we didn’t see coming, and this all goes toward helping accomplish our goal – to remember and never forget, and also, please God, to help people receive justice later on.”

Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions
Photo courtesy of The Iron Lions

The team is now evaluating the cooperation requests, including from official government bodies, “in order to make the most effective use of our technology and the many materials that we have accumulated.

“We’re still at war, and people are still dealing with so many things, but I hope that it ends soon, and that people will return home safely, and that we can begin addressing the day after.” 

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