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Urban Israelis are flocking to the Gaza border to tend farms left suddenly without workers

TEL AVIV (JTA) — By now, the dramatic rescue of Amir Tibon’s family from Kibbutz Nahal Oz by his 62-year old father, retired IDF General Noam Tibon, has become one of the most widely shared stories of Oct. 7. 

Lesser known but also heroic is the tale of another of Tibon’s family members, Dudik Laniyado, who put on his army uniform and sped into the line of fire to tend to the cows that were abandoned that day.

Laniyado, who is Noam Tibon’s brother-in-law, is a dairy farmer at Kibbutz Kalya near the Dead Sea. Amid the news of the massacre, he heard from Tibon’s rescue mission that the cows of Nahal Oz and other farms near the Gaza border were at risk.

“Dairy cows can live without being milked for one or two days,” said Laniyado, but then they begin to dry out, a process that cannot be reversed. Going longer without being milked can cause injury and death.

When he arrived at the closed military area on Oct. 9, he found that Hamas terrorists had destroyed the milking area and the equipment used to feed the cows. Under fire from nearby gun battles, he opened all the gates on the farm and let the baby calves out of their cages, letting them move around for the first time in days and eat food that he gathered from a local agricultural center.

“We got to a place that is a war zone,” he said. “There is enormous destruction to all the farms near the border area.”

Laniyado was an early arrival to what has become a new passion for Israelis, one they say is nearly as vital to southern Israel’s future as the country’s war on Hamas in Gaza: tending the farms, animals and fields that have been left fallow by the massive disruption of Oct. 7 and its aftermath.

האיש הזה הוא גיבור. דודיק לניאדו. נשוי לדודה שלי, יעל תיבון. דודיק הוא רפתן וגר בקיבוץ קלי”ה בים המלח. הוא שמע שהפרות בעוטף נשארו בלי מי שיאכיל אותן. עלה על מדים ונסע להאכיל את הפרות בנחל עוז ומקומות נוספים. הציל אותן ואת העתיד של הקיבוצים. מעשה אדיר של אומץ, חסד ואהבה תחת אש.

— Amir Tibon (@amirtibon) October 9, 2023

Thousands of Israelis have signed up to work the fields and pens, joining regional Whatsapp groups that place local farmers and volunteers where they are most needed. Slots fill within minutes as volunteers trek from their urban homes to pick crops whose regular workers are dead, departed or unable to enter the country. 

Popup farmers markets in city centers are packed with customers seeking to spend their money to help growers whose work they know has been upended. Help is even coming from overseas: Birthright Israel has even called upon its 850,000 alumni around the world to fly to Israel for volunteer opportunities that include picking fruit and vegetables. 

Like the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have joined the military reserves, the volunteers are stepping in for a depleted workforce — and hoping that the region has a future after the guns stop blazing.

“What happened on [Oct. 7] was a kind of local Holocaust. Its effect could be a holocaust on the economy here,” said Dudi Alon, who is the deputy head of the Gaza border’s Eshkol Regional Council. He is among the few farmers and security staff remaining at his home of Moshav Yated, just east of the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Gaza.

“There are people who think we are all soldiers now and anyone who comes to help here is like a fighter,” he added. “On the other hand, there are those who think it is a moral problem if you risk the lives of volunteers and farmers to work fields under fire.”

Israeli volunteers hold mangoes during the harvest at a farm in Moshav Sde Nitzan, in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip, Oct. 25, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Surveying his region, Alon believes Hamas aimed to destroy southern Israel’s agriculture along with its population. Gaza-area farms, he said, produce 70% of Israel’s tomatoes and 30% of its potatoes in addition to other vegetables and dairy products, and rely on a legion of foreign workers. 

Before Oct. 7, he said, the Eshkol Regional Council had 4,000 workers from Thailand who were experienced at farm work. Dozens of Thai workers were murdered on Oct. 7, and dozens more are hostages in Gaza. Most of the rest flew home to their country, leaving fewer than 1,000 now, a loss Alon calls “a death knell to agriculture here.” (Guest workers from Gaza also contributed to the workforce.) Farms’ planting cycles can last up to eight months, making it harder for them to restart production if they’ve been abandoned. 

“Hamas intentionally kidnapped and murdered foreign workers in order to frighten the foreign workers to ruin the economy here and they succeeded,” said Alon. “Many incredible volunteers are coming to help and support us, [but] at the end of the day there is work that is physically difficult and requires special skills that cannot rely on volunteers.” 

Many of the area’s residents have been evacuated by the government to safer regions of the country, but a few have remained. Evie Atiya, who lives in Moshav Pri Gan and is still there, recounted that “10 terrorists entered on bikes and started to shoot at houses” on Oct. 7, killing four residents and trapping the entire village in their shelters for 48 hours before they were evacuated by the army. 

Shortly after leaving his shelter “terrified,” Ataya learned that the Thai embassy had evacuated more than half of all the farm workers in the area and that only seven of his farm’s 24 workers remained. 

A worker milking cows at a cowshed in the Golan Heights in Israel’s north, Oct. 26, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“Everything has collapsed,” he said. And while the government has long provided financial assistance to the area’s farmers, the perceived insufficient response from the finance and agriculture ministries — matching the long hours residents waited in shelters before the army’s arrival —  is symbolic of many Israelis’ widespread disillusionment with the country’s leadership following Oct. 7. 

“It seems like they weren’t ready for this,” he said, adding that it feels like “they are trying to help but that they are lost.” 

Eitan Aharon, secretary of Moshav Mivtahim in the Eshkol Regional council, recently told the Israeli publication Zman Israel, “I am afraid farmers will commit suicide” before help arrives. 

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his government’s record on financial assistance to impacted communities. At a cabinet meeting, he announced that the government had budgeted nearly $3.4 billion in supplementary funds to help evacuees and local governments in the south and north in November and December. 

“I want to sharpen the point on the financial sum we are going to bring for the benefit of Israel’s citizens,” he said. “We have already spent many billions to help the evacuees, to help the families of the kidnapped and missing, to help the authorities in the north and south, the reservists, businesses. But we are going to bring much more.”

Some government efforts are already being felt: On Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture plans to convert Jerusalem’s Cinema City mall into a market for farmers from the south and north.

Maaya Arfi works at HaShomer HaChadash, an Israeli organization helping connect Israelis to the land through agriculture. It was one of the first groups to raise the alarm about the labor need and continues to organize efforts to assist Israeli farmers. 

A local farmer stands in a field in southern Israel. (Eliyahu Freedman)

“In the next two weeks we can already be at 4,000 volunteers a day,” Arfi said of her organization’s initiative, which matches Israelis with farmers in need via a hotline and phone application. 

While the precise number of volunteers is unknown, a new poll of Israelis by Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found that more than 40% of respondents had volunteered in some form in the third week of the war.

Some volunteers have come from other Israeli farming communities. Sara Goldsmith, a 57-year old tour guide from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, said volunteering to help farmers in the south was keeping her mind off her canceled business.

“October, November and December are peak season for tourism in Israel, and overnight I lost all my groups that I was supposed to be having,” she said. “It’s a very difficult time for all the tour guides across Israel and many are doing what I’m doing: helping out wherever we can. We don’t know when our income is coming in but we have hands and the will to volunteer.” 

On Monday, she traveled with a group of approximately 20 members of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu — ranging in age from 15 to 80 — to help at Kibbutz Saad, which Sde Eliyahu had “adopted” following the outbreak of the war. Saad, which like Sde Eliyahu is a religious kibbutz, was fortunate to have its gate closed on Oct. 7 for Shabbat and was largely spared the worst of Hamas’ attack. It instead endured its own kind of trauma, becoming a makeshift morgue, refuge and clinic for the victims of the massacre, especially those who escaped from the Nova music festival at the nearby community of Re’im.

At the kibbutz, Goldsmith helped pick cucumbers grown for their seeds, rather than for eating. Goldsmith’s children have also enlisted in the war effort: Her daughter is serving in the military reserves and her son flew back from his home overseas to work full-time on a farm on the Gaza border.

“We are in a helpless situation,” she said. “So when you do something you feel a little less helpless.”

Another volunteer named Yael, who declined to share her last name out of privacy concerns, traveled from Tel Aviv to Moshav Yesha near Gaza last Saturday with a few friends and work colleagues from a Tel Aviv hospital to harvest tomatoes, passing military checkpoints and torched cars along the way. Working in the fields, she said, was particularly unnerving where there is “no safety gear and there are no shelters in the farms” to protect them from barrages of Hamas rockets, which largely target the south.

Her fear wasn’t misplaced. During her shift, Yael heard “really big booms quite close” coming from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. And at one point, she recalled, she looked around and “I just suddenly see people on the ground, and stood there frozen waiting for it to end.” 

When her shift ended a few hours later, the farm owner showed her a crater from a rocket launched by Hamas that had just struck another part of the greenhouse, causing damage only to the tomato plants. 

Those dangers have led some people to flee the south. But Atiya says that no matter what happens, he is determined to stay and work the land. 

“Somebody needs to be here and make food from this land and this is what I do. It’s not a choice if I am going back there,” he said. “This is my land, this is my house, everything that I know.”

Laniyado agrees that the government is flailing but said that conversations with the young soldiers in the area left him optimistic. According to some accounts, soldiers have tended greenhouses that were abandoned on Oct. 7.

“I joked with them and talked with them,” Laniyado said. “I believe with complete faith that we will win the war, that we will re-establish the villages, the agriculture will return to what it was and we will learn a lesson and unite around the fact that we are all Jews and that we have no choice. We are dependent on each other.”

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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