These were not the only troops who held out their hand to get equipment the Israel Defense Forces failed to provide to those it sent to battle: reservists and enlisted men asked for and received from corporations army shoes, towels and even toothbrushes. Some of the things, especially the toiletries, are not usually provided by the army but soldiers can buy them at mobile PXs that didn't show up this time, at least at some units.
The most sought after goods in the early days of the warfare were basic foodstuffs. Military brass, eating every day in the comfy mess halls of the Tel Aviv military headquarters or in the nearby downtown restaurants, forgot their central job was to prepare for war and make sure that in an emergency it would be possible to send the troops into battle. If dozens of corporations hadn't volunteered to provide food to thousands of soldiers, entire battalions of the strongest army in the Middle East would have collapsed long before they faced the real enemy.
Most of the corporations didn't exploit the donations for advertising or public relations, but after all they are commercial entities and businesspeople's basic instinct tells them - if you're going to spend a small fortune, there is no reason not to turn it a little in your favor. And so IDF soldiers and officers found themselves modeling for PR shots pushing consumer goods.
Less grave but no less embarrassing was the failure in civil preparation for the war. No one was surprised by the barrage of Katyusha rockets that fell on Galilee communities. After all, one of the central aims of the counterattack against the terrorists had been to prove that Israel will not be deterred by the threat of rockets on civilians.
But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's henchmen didn't understand the ramifications of the shelling: the deserted towns, the collapse of public services, closed businesses and the difficulties facing those that remained under the rain of rockets. While Olmert and the rest of the cabinet ignored Northerners' distress and sang the praises of the "strong home front," dozens of nonprofit organizations and corporations stepped up to the plate to cover for the failures of the government, sending thousands of tons of foodstuffs, clothing, air conditioners and television sets to those sitting in bomb shelters.
Meanwhile, voluntary organizations set up to evacuate Northerners to hotels and permanent and temporary facilities in central Israel. Billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak - usually busy being questioned about various deals that may or may not involve moneylaundering of varying scope - went one step further and government failures made him into a national hero. Gaydamak understood before anyone else what the results of the war could be. Within days he had identified a location on Nitzanim Beach to set up a huge, well-equipped tent city, for residents of the North.
The tent city employed hundreds of workers, and the cost of maintaining it for the duration of the war is estimated at $15 million. Last Tuesday, the site closed down and the last bus took the final remaining tent dwellers back to the North. Gaydamak, who became much-beloved to many who found shelter in his tent city, did not make do with just hosting the displaced Northerners. He also donated NIS 10 million to ambulance service Magen David Adom and $150,000 to Rabbi Grossman's summer camp for kids.
Even before the war Gaydamak made tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations, taking care that his generosity got the press it deserved. But nothing got the positive buzz the tent city did. If Gaydamak ever does face trial and is convicted of any of the serious crimes of which he is suspected, his judges will have to consider his good deed when sentencing him.
If fund-raising in the past focused on garnering treats for soldiers who completed training exercises, soldiers in this war had to raise donations for lifesaving equipment. For instance, the reservists in one elite unit - discharged from reserve duty a few days ago - report they raised money from various companies to buy equipment necessary for warfare, such as shoes, knee-pads and dust goggles.
The pain and frustration created by the war raised a great deal of criticism about how the war was run. But the criticism didn't only come from civilians, Monday morning strategic experts, who thought the battles could have been run differently; the longer the war went on, the stronger the voices in the field grew, about the poor handling of residents of the North, about sending troops into battle with outdated and non-existent equipment, and without enough food and water.
Private entities waltzed through this open door. As soon as the war broke out, businesses, nonprofits and individuals hastened to provide for both the Northerners and the soldiers, fulfilling needs at least some of which should have been supplied by local government and the IDF.
As hostilities dragged on and the list of donors got longer, it began to appear as if those in need also understood that the address for problem resolution wasn't the state. Local governments asked corporations and private donors for help equipping shelters and sending food packages. Soldiers with 1960s-era equipment preferred appealing directly to corporations for help in buying the right gear.
It is difficult to quantify the scope of the contributions that changed hands in the past month, or those likely to help recovery. They are estimated at hundreds of millions of shekels.
The biggest fund-raiser is the Jewish Agency, which collected $80 million since the beginning of the war, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. The agency's director of financial resource development, Jeff Kaye, said veteran Israeli businessmen who prefer not to be named, donated to the Jewish Agency for the first time.
Kaye recalls, "On the day the two soldiers were kidnapped, local government leaders already approached us. They believed the situation was about to heat up and asked for help in getting children out to central and southern Israel. That day we started checking out with the U.S. activists what could be done."
Kaye tells how the Jewish Agency immediately set up to evacuate tens of thousands of children from the North. "The response from donors was amazing," he says. "We raised millions of dollars in days. It is important to remember that in usual times when we send out our various requests the answer is 'We'll check and get back to you.' This was completely different. Donors said 'You do what needs doing and we'll take care of the funding.' That is a huge vote of confidence."
Jewish Agency CFO Yaron Neudorfer says the organization used the donations to renovate and equip shelters in northern Israel, run summer camps for kids and many other activities designed to help residents. According to him, "It's important the aid went to all Northerners - Jewish, Circasians, Arabs and Bedouin."
Ran Melamed, deputy director of grassroots organization Yedid, offers many examples of organizations that contributed to the benefit of civilians in the North. "We were asked a lot how to help," he says, sharply criticizing the government. "The state didn't handle residents of the North right at all, because it didn't want to. It's very simple. Treasury officials didn't want to do anything. The little they did was late and only after massive pressure."
Melamed adds that in some local governments in the North, anarchy reigned supreme. Hints of donations that went astray began to surface as much as two weeks ago but are getting louder. Melamed has heard the stories. "There are a few jurisdictions where what went on was just plain anarchy. It is not clear how the money was distributed. Equipment that was donated just disappeared. Whether it was food, televisions or shopping vouchers. There are mayors who became sheriffs." Despite the harsh criticism, Melamed says Yedid is now focused on the recovery effort. "And we see the state goof-ups that will happen on this front too."
It appears that other organizations share the sense that the state cannot be relied on to repair the damage. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee announced plans to help the underprivileged in northern communities. The Jewish Agency and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces plan to help businessowners who suffered serious financial damages.
According to Neudorfer, the Jewish Agency just launched a campaign to raise more than $300 million to help northern Israel recuperate from the war. "Our aim is to help businessowners who were seriously harmed by the warfare, students and educational institutions in the North, and rebuild public facilities that were damaged by rocket fire," he says. FIDF plans to send every soldier who was involved in combat on vacation.
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