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Food, toys and therapy: Tel Aviv residents help survivors of Hamas attack

Tel Aviv, Israel — City streets that just a week ago were lively are now eerily quiet. Though some residents have started venturing out, many are fearful of leaving their homes since Hamas’s surprise attack last Saturday.

Yet amid that tension, Israel’s largest city has become a sanctuary for citizens and foreign workers who have fled the country’s south, which was the target of Hamas fighters.

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Many of the city’s nearly 500,000 residents are now joining volunteer efforts to support survivors of Saturday’s attack and people mostly who have come from areas close to the Gaza Strip with donations of food, clothing and other services.

These initiatives are picking up steam even as Israel prepares for a land assault on the Gaza Strip, after bombing the blockaded coastal territory with 6,000 missiles in six days.

At least 1,300 people in Israel were killed in the October 7 attacks, while Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 1,799 Palestinians. At least 46 Palestinians have been killed in the Occupied West Bank.

Before October 7, Tel Aviv was a city bitterly divided over a range of domestic political and social issues. For now, that’s the past. Residents are uniting to care for one another.

A hotel turned volunteer hub

On the Tel Aviv beachfront, people arrive in cars to drop off donations at the luxury Herods hotel for those who have sought refuge in the city. Many are now being housed at the hotel.

Yael, a psychologist who works for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and only wanted to give her first name, sat on Wednesday in the hotel basement outside a ballroom repurposed as a play area for children.

She had been assigned to help people affected by Saturday’s traumatic events, including those who survived attacks by Hamas on a music festival and kibbutzes (communal settlements in Hebrew).

“A lot of the people [seeking refuge in the hotel] feel like they were the ones who were rescued and blame themselves,” said Yael, referring to the survivor’s guilt she has observed among many.

Yael has also been shaken by the events. “I know it’s different but it feels like a Holocaust,” she said. “We don’t feel safe in our own country because something like this has never happened … people lost their faith in the army and the country.”

The downtown hotel, with its lobby facing the sea, has become a “central hub for people to donate services” from “psychiatry sessions to haircuts”, said hotel staff member Dean Sacks, 30, who was wearing the establishment’s white slacks and blue shirt uniform.

He estimated that “between 50-100 volunteers” donating various services are working around the building and that there are “more [social workers] than I have been able to count.”

Inside several conference rooms and the ballroom are hundreds of sandwiches, snacks, children’s games, clothes and other resources donated to the families, many of whom left their homes in a panicked rush without packing their belongings.

Around lunchtime on Wednesday, the hotel lobby was busy with many parents and young children walking in and out towards an area for donated food set up outside the hotel entrance with several Tel Aviv restaurants providing free meals.

“It’s been so moving that it is literally heartbreaking to see how much the people of Tel Aviv care,” said Sacks.

Much to the delight of the children, Israeli television personalities, musicians and professional footballers have been amongst the visitors coming to bring cheer to the hotel play area.

Outside on the public beach, an incoming rocket siren, which sounds a few times a day, was followed by a beachside announcement warning people to seek shelter. While some heeded the warning, an informal football game between some displaced children continued.

One mother watching over her young children playing remarked that it was better to let them continue to play to take their minds off the trauma of abruptly leaving their home in Ashkelon, a coastal city just north of Gaza.

“All of these people don’t know if their homes will be there when they get back,” Dean said of the new guests. “These are the lucky ones.”

‘We just want to help’

Just a few kilometres down the road from the hotel in the trendy neighbourhood of Florentin, 41-year-old Thai restaurant owner Tippy Kongkaew, who has lived in Israel for five years, has been organising to support Thai workers affected by Saturday’s violence.

Twenty-one Thai nationals are feared dead while 14 are believed to have been taken captive by Hamas.

Tippy was opening her restaurant for the day. Her busy eatery has stayed open unlike others in the neighbourhood and has also been turned into a drop-off point for donated goods such as clothing, toiletries and knapsacks.

“We just want to help in our individual simplest way,” said Tippy, whose restaurant is also providing some free meals to displaced Thai workers staying down the road.

“Yesterday we sent a lot of goods to Kfar Yehoshua and today we are trying to collect more to send to Kadima,” she adds, referring to two small communities located north of Tel Aviv housing Thai nationals.

“There is a huge open warehouse full of mats on the floor,” said Zoe Biehl, a 30-year-old Israeli volunteer driving supplies to the communities and part of a WhatsApp group helping Thai workers around the country.

Outside the restaurant, 37-year-old Uoy, who only wanted to give his first name, was sitting on a bench. Uoy, who is Thai, was an agricultural worker in Be’eri, a small kibbutz where the bodies of more than 100 people were found.

“I heard gunfire on Saturday morning,” recounted Uoy in Thai, speaking via a translator and gesturing with his hands, “and saw a battle going on … in our camp [where he slept] none were wounded but in other camps in Be’eri there were [fatalities].”

For now, Uoy said he just wants to return home to Thailand. Maybe, after the war, “[I] will come back,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera

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