Volunteers work flat out at new hostage HQ to bring Israelis back home from Gaza

Teams are working around the clock to collect every possible piece of information

October 26, 2023 12:03

Dudi Zalmanovitsh is one of those Israelis who you’ve never heard of that knows everyone in the country and can reach them in one call — the type who is both a lawyer, entrepreneur and philanthropist and can only hint at what he did back in his army days.

And on the morning of Simchat Torah, October 7, there were two young members of his family at the Nova music festival. Just a few hours earlier they had all been at home at a family meal together. Now Dudi and other relatives were getting panicked calls about being shot at and hiding from gunmen.

As for so many Israelis, that was the first Zalmanovitsh knew of the Hamas attack on Israel. He immediately made a couple of phone calls.

Many Israelis were trying to use various apps to locate the mobile phones of their missing relatives. Zalmanovitsh was doing the same, but directly with the CEOs of the cellphone network providers.

One relative managed to make it alive, with two bullets in her leg, to Ofakim police station, but his wife’s nephew, Omer Shem Tov, a 21-year-old student, was — according to his phone at least —  already inside the Gaza Strip. Later, he was identified in a video of a truck carrying Israeli hostages, some seemingly already dead, by a tattoo on his back.

While the families were gripped with their own personal anxiety and grief, Zalmanovitsh realised this was much bigger than any one family’s tragedy. Even then, on the first day of the war, it was clear to him that there would have to be a framework for the families of hostages in Gaza.

“It was just like when the coronavirus pandemic began and I understood that we couldn’t wait for the government or the IDF to do it. The IDF anyway was much too busy with the fighting. Around 25 people from my close circles were killed that day and I had no doubt the army would be fighting a war. So I started setting it up here” — he waves around at the office floor in Tel Aviv’s Opera Tower where normally one of his companies provides tailored services to Israel’s leading law firms.

Now, the lavish office space, instead of hosting legal teams working on mergers and acquisitions, has been given over to various teams made up of hundreds of volunteers. There are rooms where doctors and psychologists are ready to sit with the distressed families, and others in which media experts help prepare them for interviews in the Israeli and international media. In the larger meeting-rooms there is a procession of foreign diplomats coming in to see the families, who are accompanied by retired Israeli diplomats.

In another more secluded part of the building, there’s a data operation, devoted to trying to collect every possible piece of information: mobile-phone signals, bank account movements (credit cards were stolen and immediately used) and analysing advanced facial-recognition software videos made that day which are still emerging on social media. The team passes on all the information it gathers both to the families and to Israel’s intelligence services.

“In the first days, most of the families had no formal contact with the IDF or the government and our first job was to provide them with an address where they could simply register the name of their missing relative, provide any details they had about the last known place of their whereabouts, and then we could keep them updated with anything we found,” says Zalmanovitsh.

The volunteers were there when many of the families were told, in some cases more than two weeks after the attack, that their loved ones’ bodies had been found and identified. But at least they had certainty. The families of 220 hostages who are verified by the Israeli intelligence services as being held in Gaza, and those of around a hundred still missing (most of them are presumed to be among the dozens of bodies still being identified) still don’t have that.

Many of the families and the volunteers are emphatic in their criticism of the government’s work on behalf of the hostages. But Zalmanovitsh is very careful to avoid any political affiliation or motive for all his efforts on behalf of the families and insists he’s doing all he can to “complement and coordinate” with the government’s efforts.

Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has been appointed as informal go-between between the families and the government, though even that is an acknowledgement that the relationship is a tense one.

The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not appointed a national coordinator for POW and hostage affairs (a role that has existed for many years in Israeli governments) since returning to office at the end of last year, and that the position had remained vacant until the day after the October 7 attack, is a running sore for the families.

As is the fact that the man Netanyahu hurriedly appointed on October 8, former Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, has none of the experience of his predecessors, who were all senior Mossad or Shin Bet operatives, in secret dealings with terror organisations. Indeed, Hirsch was forced to resign from the IDF in 2006 after Hezbollah succeeded in snatching two IDF soliders from a patrol on the Lebanese border which was then under his command.

His main qualification seems to be his political support for the prime minister (though it wasn’t enough to get him the Likud Knesset seat he hoped for in the last election).

But Zalmanovitsh doesn’t want to go into any of the criticism of General Hirsch. “We even served in the same unit [the elite reconnaissance company of the Paratrooper Brigade],” he smiles. “Though Gal was a year under me.”

As it is, not only does he have to work with him, he needs also to coordinate with two ex-generals appointed by the IDF General Staff to handle the hostages situation, in what many have interpreted as yet another sign of the lack of confidence in Netanyahu’s man. And he’s very aware that some of the families are already talking of launching protests against what they see as the government’s mishandling of the hostage issue. If they do, many thousands will join them on the streets.

He’s the kind of person who always exudes cheerfulness and confidence, even with a relative being held in Gaza and all the responsibility he’s taken upon himself on behalf of the other families. But this is the one moment he seems worried. “Look,” he says. “If this becomes all about politics and then about protests, we’ll be diverted from what we are doing. And that’s trying to help release our hostages.”

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October 26, 2023 12:03

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