At a convention centre in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, hundreds of volunteers spend their days staring at photos and videos, some of them horrific, trying to match the faces they see with the names of those still missing after the recent Hamas invasion.
It’s a civil society project, intended to supplement official efforts. It sprang from the same movement that for the previous nine months had taken to the streets every Saturday to protest the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But when the leaders of that protest movement awoke on the morning of Oct. 7 to the news that Hamas was on a murderous rampage in the towns and kibbutzim of southern Israel, they made two decisions: the first was that, after 39 straight weekends of massive protests, there would be no demonstration that evening.
The second decision was that they would take the energy, and the connections, of the protest movement, and redirect all of it to helping the victims of the unfolding tragedy.
“I put the politics aside. We want to help the families, we want to help the south,” said Karin Nahone, a 50-year-old professor of information technology and one of the leaders of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations. “The whole protest movement is totally focused right now on making sure that Israel has resilience, that Israel is able to overcome the disaster. It’s a lot of work.”
Within 24 hours of the attack, they had some 2,000 volunteers – so many that Israeli police asked them to work in shifts to minimize the number of people gathering in one location while Hamas is regularly firing rockets at Tel Aviv, as it did again on Sunday.
Several rooms at Expo Tel Aviv, a facility that once hosted the Eurovision song contest, buzz with people scouring the Internet, sharing clues with each other as they try to match the faces they see in videos posted by survivors of the attack – as well as propaganda that Hamas has since posted online – with the pictures sent to them by families desperate for information about their missing loved ones. The convention centre’s parking lot has been converted into a donations hub, where the volunteers assemble and ship boxes of clothing, food and other necessities to those evacuated from the battered communities in Israel’s south.
“When a startup starts with three or four people in a garage, if it is upscaled to 500 persons, normally that happens in like, seven years, five years. And it’s also very difficult to do it and to maintain it. This was done in five days. It’s unbelievable,” said Amit Farbman, a documentary movie director who on Sunday was volunteering at Expo Tel Aviv.
Many of those helping the search, including Prof. Nahon, have backgrounds in Israel’s world-leading high-tech sector. All of them decided it was time to put the grinding fight over Mr. Netanyahu’s overhaul of the country’s judicial system – which gives the government the ability to appoint judges and limits the ability of courts to rule on legislation passed by the Knesset, Israel’s legislature – aside until the war Hamas started is over.
“Well, we can fight to the end in order to establish our political views. But when it comes to it, we all unite, and we’re all here and we all care about this country,” said Miki Roitman, a 47-year-old women’s rights lobbyist who said she spent the morning of Oct. 7 in a bomb shelter before she began messaging with others in the protest movement about how they could help the country’s response.
“Unfortunately, our government is not really functioning. We say that we’re a people who lead the country rather than a country that has been led by government. We’re the ones that lead this country.”
While the Expo Tel Aviv effort is independent of the government, it shares what it learns about the missing with the Israeli police and military, who in turn inform the families.
Four days after the invasion, the volunteers realized they would need to set up a separate desk for foreigners and dual nationals caught up in the attack. The Israeli military says at least 126 people are being held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Volunteers at the expo centre say more than 1,200 people are still considered missing, meaning the number of hostages – and the number of people known to have been killed in Israel, which is already over 1,400, according to the Israeli government – will almost certainly continue to grow.
Vivian Silver, a 74-year-old grandmother and peace activist with roots in Winnipeg who was at her home in Kibbutz Be’eri when it was attacked by Hamas gunmen, is still on the list of the missing. Ariella Giniger, a friend of Ms. Silver’s, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that there was still no trace of Ms. Silver. The only clue to her whereabouts is that her mobile phone has been located in Gaza, Ms. Giniger said.
Ms. Giniger added that she had shared all she could with the centre, but had not yet heard back. Volunteers would not discuss individual cases, but confirmed they were still looking for traces of more than one Canadian citizen. At least three Canadians are still believed to be missing.
“We have software that can do a face recognition. When we have the face recognition, we send it to another desk. They have the films that come out of Gaza, from the kidnappers, and we try to verify the identity 100 per cent,” said Shahar Ben-Meir, a 64-year-old lawyer who has put his practice on pause to help find missing foreigners. “We work on a list of names, but behind every name is a person.”
As the lists of those dead and taken hostage continue to grow, so will the political pressure on Mr. Netanyahu, whose government is viewed by many Israelis as having been too focused on its domestic agenda, instead of the threat posed by Hamas.
While the large-scale demonstrations by the political opposition have been called off, the families of the missing and dead are emerging as a new and angry political force. Every day, a small crowd of victims’ relatives and friends hold a vigil outside the headquarters of the Israeli military in Tel Aviv – but the real target of their ire is Mr. Netanyahu, who is widely known in Israel by the nickname Bibi.
“If Bibi wants to be remembered as someone that wasn’t doing the worst harm to his country, he should make sure that all kids and women and elderly come back home. There’s nothing he can do before that,” said Ilanit Erez, a 52-year-old protester who said she took to the streets to represent her friend’s niece, three-year-old Avigail Idan, whom Hamas fighters kidnapped and took to Gaza from the kibbutz of Kfar Aza after her parents were killed.
“Her nickname is Gaily, She’s there by herself,” Mr. Erez said of Avigail.
Prof. Nahon said the wider protest movement against Mr. Netanyahu is on pause only while Israel is at war.
“We will have time to interrogate what was going on, and a lot of questions that need to be asked. Where was the government? Why nobody reacted fast enough? Where was the intelligence? Where was the policy? The decision-makers will have to answer a lot of questions,” she said, shortly before another air raid siren screamed over Tel Aviv.
“But first of all, we have more than 1,000 people missing. We have to focus on that.”