Some Israelis abroad try to head home, to join reservists or just to help

Among Israeli citizens living abroad are some who have decided not to run from the war at home but towards it, scrambling to airports and joining online chat groups for help, desperate to make their way to the country after Hamas militants attacked.

From Athens to New York, there are some Israelis wanting to serve, whether that means fighting in a military reserve unit or volunteering to shuttle supplies to those in need, even as the war has already claimed at least 1,800 lives and shows no signs of abating.

On Tuesday, Israel’s military expanded its mobilisation of reservists to 360,000, according to the country’s media, as it ramped up its retaliation for the surprise attacks.

Yaakov Swisa, a 42-year-old father-of-five, said nobody called and asked him to return to Israel to fight, but he felt he had no choice. He served for 15 years, and said he learned his army roommate was among at least 260 killed at a music festival.

A man distributes sandwiches to passengers who are waiting in a queue to board flights to Israel at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece
Passengers waiting in a queue to board flights to Israel at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens were offered food and water (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

“I’ve been crying for two, three days. Enough. That’s it. I am ready to fight,” he said. “What else would I do … while my friends are being buried in Israel?”

Some of the Israelis living, working or just travelling abroad who were trying to make it back said their reserve units were among those called up. Others said they had not yet been called or could not reach their commanders but expected to be asked soon.

In other cases, Israelis who were too young to serve in the military, as well as non-Israelis with close ties to the country, have been trying to travel to assist family members or volunteer.

Adam Jacobs, an 18-year-old community college student in New Jersey, said he was born and raised in the US and had travelled for years every summer to visit family in Israel. He said he learned his cousin was among those killed, and said he wanted to make his way to Israel to take on volunteer work, possibly shuttling supplies.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed here,” Mr Jacobs said. “It’s never been this bad.”

People attend a rally in support of Israel in Rome
People attended a rally in support of Israel in Rome, Italy (Andrew Medichini/AP)

“As soon as we can possibly enable that, we certainly will,” he said from Tel Aviv, where he had arrived just before the weekend attacks.

“There are many Israeli reservists who are abroad. And so getting them back home to join the fight, you know, has been a priority. And it should be a priority. So people are just scrambling.”

The war began after Hamas militants stormed into Israel on Saturday during a major Jewish holiday, killing people and abducting others. In response, Israeli warplanes have hammered the Gaza Strip, destroying buildings and sending Palestinian residents scrambling to find safety in the tiny, sealed-off territory.

Travel has been challenging, with major airlines suspending flights in and out of Israel. The US state department issued travel advisories for the region. Some reservists in the United States, home to more than 140,000 people born in Israel, were trying to get on charter flights.

Ofer Cohen, a New York businessman, said he learned there were more than 200 reservists travelling through South America on holiday at the time of the attacks. They had been called back to base but unable to get there, due to cancelled flights. So Mr Cohen was trying to cobble together hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a plane to pick them up, as WhatsApp messages describing their troubles kept rolling in.

In Greece, hundreds of people waited hours to board emergency flights at Athens International Airport, many without a ticket and most travelling from other European destinations after cutting holiday and work trips short. As officers patrolled the area to provide security, volunteers handed travellers apples, bananas and bottled water.

Supporters of Israel attend a solidarity event in Glencoe, Illinois
Supporters of Israel attended a solidarity event in Illinois in the US (Nam Y Huh/AP)

“This is the first time in the history of Israel that something like that has happened. It’s very shocking,” he said, standing in line with his parents and younger siblings.

Israel Lawrence, 27, was born in Israel and grew up in London. He said that although he had not been formally called up, he was making the trip to join his fellow soldiers, many already on the front lines, and help his family members, who he said were living in terror and chaos.

“I want to be honest with you, I’m scared,” said Mr Lawrence, a trained rifleman who was on his way to Israel via Cyprus.

“All the guys I’m with are terrified, but we are trained, and we’ll do the best we can.”

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