Politicians Called Them ‘Traitors.’ Now They’re Manning Israel’s Home Front.

Photo for The Washington Post by Baz Ratner
Members of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a group of Israeli reservists and veterans opposed to the policies of Israel’s far-right government, gather at a meeting point in Beit Kama in southern Israel on Oct. 13, 2023.

BEIT KAMA, Israel – It was just last month when Eran Navon, a former Israeli combat soldier, was arrested at an anti-government demonstration near his home outside of Tel Aviv.

He was one of millions of Israelis – including active and former reservists – who spent the year protesting the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli politicians denounced protesters like Navon, calling them “anarchists” and “traitors.” But now, 53-year-old Navon and other veterans who have been critical of the government are mobilizing to assist Israel’s war effort in Gaza. They’ve put politics aside and are helping in the mass evacuation of Israeli civilians from communities near the Gaza perimeter, as Israel steps up a military campaign that has displaced nearly a million people and killed more than 2,200, according to Palestinian health officials.

“We’re not coming for political reasons,” said Sefi Ariely, a former seaman in the Israeli navy who has been leading civilian evacuations from the southern city of Sderot, about 8 miles from Gaza.

Both Ariely and Navon are members of the sprawling Brothers and Sisters in Arms protest group, an association of active reservists and military veterans who came together to oppose the policies of Netanyahu’s government – and who are now among the leaders of the grass-roots mobilization networks at the front.

“We come because we’ve developed an infrastructure,” Ariely said from the group’s makeshift headquarters in Beit Kama, a sleepy kibbutz in the Negev desert. “And we have teams that are simply ready to work.”

Indeed, Navon said he jumped into gear immediately on the morning of Oct. 7, when Hamas militants based in Gaza began a large-scale incursion into southern Israel, first attacking military bases and then gunning down civilians at a music festival and in their homes in local farming communities.

The brutal assault killed at least 1,300 people, taking the country’s government and military by surprise. Much of Israel’s military resources had been directed to the occupied West Bank, where the right-wing government sought to root out Palestinian militants and protect the Israeli settlements that dot the land Palestinians envision as part of a future state.

The Israel Defense Forces began to mobilize troops on Oct. 7 – but without trains or buses available to transfer them to the south. So Navon and his fellow volunteers with Brothers and Sisters in Arms tapped into their networks to organize cars and drive soldiers from across the country down to their bases.

Thousands more Brothers in Arms members connected with each other as the horrors unfolded, using WhatsApp messaging groups they created to coordinate action during the protests.

The army then gave the ex-reservists the green light to expand their efforts and enter active military zones to rescue civilians along the border. They set off for southern Israel en masse and set up a makeshift command post in Beit Kama, roughly 15 miles east of Gaza.

“We are the kind of people who do things,” said Navon, who has carried out hundreds of evacuations since Oct. 8.

In Beit Kama, teams of psychologists and enormous trays of home-cooked food await the evacuated families, many of whom hid in their homes as Hamas gunmen rampaged outside, killing neighbors and their own loved ones.

On shaded patches of grass, Israeli commanders briefed the evacuation teams, reminding them of the risks as rockets fly into Israel from Gaza and militants continue to try to infiltrate the border. If volunteers are caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, they should do their best to stay out of the way, the commanders said.

“Your mission is not to bring back corpses of terrorists,” one commander, Avner, said as he instructed three separate teams before they set out on their respective missions.

Ariely said that the volunteers also encounter hostile Israeli residents, some of whom have hurled verbal abuse at the ex-reservists as militants continued to sneak into communities and rocket fire from Gaza intensified.

In Sderot, where Hamas militants overran local security forces and laid siege to the police station, some residents have expressed their gratitude for the rescue workers. But others have shouted: “This is all because of you!” Ariely said.

Sderot is a traditional stronghold for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, and Ariely’s volunteers have tried to explain that they are there as Israelis, not as leftist protesters, he said.

Many of the volunteers believe that Netanyahu’s coalition ignored the mounting threats coming from the Gaza Strip.

“The decisions they made were insane and we’ve seen the tragedy that they have led to,” said Navon.

“But those politicians are irrelevant to us now,” he said. “We who are physically out in the field . . . are already building a new future for our country.”

Eldad Miller helped evacuate civilians from Sderot over the past week – and said that the trauma Israelis suffered means that many residents are still struggling to communicate with their rescuers.

Miller said that on Tuesday, he drove members of a Sderot family who had been hiding in the dark, the windows covered with blankets, for days, as Hamas militants banged at their door. The teenage son rotated shifts with his father, standing at the front door with a kitchen knife. When Miller picked the family up, they were silent, he said.

“There’s no more trust left,” Miller said, adding that he thought the government’s poor response was as much a result of internal division as it was severe intelligence failures.

“After this is over, there will be investigations into the people who called us ‘traitors.’ That’s not interesting for us,” he said. “What we know, now, is that our country needs us.”