(photo credit: AP)
As Operation Cast Lead draws to an apparent close, hundreds of Israelis, including those from rocket-battered communities in the Gaza periphery, are mobilizing to help suffering civilians on the opposite side of the border.
What started on Thursday as the private initiative of two young women - Lee Ziv, an activist in peace organizations, and Hadas Balas, a student at Sderot's Sapir Academic College - has mushroomed into a countrywide drive to help the civilians of Gaza.
"There is no connection to politics," said Ziv. "We don't represent a side, we just see an immediate need for blankets for people who have nothing to cover them at night and milk for infants who have nothing to eat."
Since a short radio interview on Sunday morning, Ziv said her phone had been ringing off the hook. "Within two minutes of the interview, I had 40 voice messages. The response has been overwhelming. Schools have called asking how they can help. A father called who had three sons serving in the IDF in Gaza. A woman called who had a mortar fall on her house."
Four drop-off points have been established around the country, in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, just kilometers from the Gaza border.
The Kfar Aza drop-off point is run by kibbutz resident Eyal Mazliah, director of the Hillel Jewish campus organization at nearby Sapir College.
The college's Hillel had "spent the past month gathering equipment for bomb shelters and running activities for children on our side of the border," Mazliah said. "When [Ziv and Balas] approached us for help, we already had many blankets and coats collected."
On Friday, mortars landed inside Mazliah's small kibbutz. What did it feel like to help the population on the other side of the border?
"Look, even when your windows shake at night from the rocket attacks, you can see across the border that Gaza is dark for a month," he explains. "You feel the humanitarian situation. Most people here say Hamas brought this upon them, but we're still talking about children who we will have to live with in the future. The people who are closest to this should do the most. It's a basic humanitarian act."
Hillel volunteers "have been moving from bomb shelter to bomb shelter almost 24 hours a day for the past month," Mazliah said. "Now, with the limitations forced upon us, we have the privilege of helping civilians who are hostages of Hamas on the other side."
The organizers are careful to keep the initiative apolitical, refusing to divulge the names of groups that are helping to collect supplies. But they add that they are coordinating with official channels.
"The only way to get this stuff into Gaza is through the UN and the IDF, and of course they are part of this," said Ziv.
Not all contributions are accepted, she added. "We have a detailed list from UNRWA, and we're following that. They need baby food, nonperishable food, blankets. Please don't send us toys or clothes. There's simply no room in the trucks."