Micha Shtiebel, an IDF reservist of the Alexandroni Brigade, sorts through his army duffle bag containing equipment that he’s either bought himself or received from donors at his house in central Israel, May 26, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Yakov Binyamin)
Micha Shtiebel, an IDF reservist of the Alexandroni Brigade, sorts through his army duffle bag containing equipment that he’s either bought himself or received from donors at his house in central Israel, May 26, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Yakov Binyamin)

Israeli battlefield commanders explain why they are breaking IDF rules to solicit donated gear

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(JTA) — Micha Shtiebel wasn’t expecting to be called back to duty so soon. Nor did he expect the army to deploy his brigade — normally stationed along the border with Lebanon — to Gaza, where they would experience a type of dense urban combat they weren’t used to. But in late May, the time had come to relieve another brigade fighting in Gaza and the army had reportedly neglected to line up a replacement.

That blunder meant that Shtiebel’s Alexandroni Brigade, made up of thousands of reserve troops, didn’t have the months it normally gets to prepare for a new assignment. It had days.

“It’s insane that eight months in, we are going to Gaza with no time to train or get the right gear, all literally done at the last minute because the army forgot to pick a replacement team,” Shteibel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

As he scrambled to obtain gear, he knew better than to expect much help from the army’s supply chain, because he had tried in the past and came up empty. Plus, an order came down instructing Shtiebel and other officers charged with logistics to gather equipment for the new mission without depleting existing stockpiles, in a nod to the looming conflict on Israel’s northern border.

So Shteibel turned to the people who had proven nimble and helpful at providing for the 450 soldiers in his battalion since war broke out on Oct. 7: an informal network of civilian volunteers purchasing equipment with donations from Jews in the Diaspora.

It’s against military orders for individual soldiers to accept donations or even to talk to donors, largely to preserve equity in the military, but Shteibel, and virtually every other officer in his position, engages in fundraising regularly.

Many of his soldiers were stuck with standard-issue army helmets, some from as early as the 1970s, which are not only horribly uncomfortable but possibly unsafe. Combat helmets, especially when they have taken a beating, can offer less ballistic protection over time. The volunteers quickly provided Shtiebel with 150 new tactical helmets, which cost $400 each.

Then, he asked the volunteers for drones.

Israeli infantry units didn’t typically use drones before the current war, but as civilian volunteers began providing them, ordinary soldiers found that the ability to survey the battlefield from the sky or search the inside of homes that might be booby-trapped with explosives could save their lives. Soldiers have come to regard these small drones, which are readily available in American electronics stores, as nearly as essential as helmets.

The volunteers agreed to lend seven donated drones to the unit but they were delivered to the brigade’s deputy commander, someone a few rungs up the chain from Shtiebel. The commander has so far refused to distribute the drones, offering no explanation, according to Shtiebel. “He gave us the rigamarole,” Shtiebel said.

Neither the military nor Israel’s Ministry of Defense responded to requests for comment for this story.

Whatever the commander’s intentions, by holding up drones, he is contributing to the ambiguity and confusion surrounding the issue of donated equipment in the Israeli army. Since the war began, the army has claimed that soldiers are not lacking any essential gear even as civilians have delivered individual units an estimated billion dollars or more in helmets and drones as well as clothing, night vision goggles, body armor, rifle scopes, and other items.

For many American Jews, donating to grassroots military equipment drives became a concrete and personal way to show support for Israeli soldiers after Oct. 7. On social media, requests for donations have become ubiquitous, and some of those efforts, such as Boots for Israel, have become symbols of American Jewish solidarity with Israel as it fights on multiple fronts.

But the military’s official denial of shortages is false, according to Shteibel as well as a dozen other battlefield commanders and logistics officers of combat units, some of whom are currently deployed, who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on condition of anonymity.

One senior commander, speaking while on active duty in Gaza, described how essential donations have been.

“The army claims nothing is missing,” he said. “But look at me, from head to toe, I am covered in donated gear: helmets, protective eyewear, body armor, the scope on my rifle, and even the fatigues I am wearing. Everything except for the weapon.”

While the military has gradually managed to bolster its stockpiles and distribute gear to certain combat forces, many units, especially those made up of reserve soldiers, are still soliciting help in direct violation of army orders, according to interviews.

“Don’t get me wrong, even if they leave me with nothing but a sword, I’ll go on fighting,” said one senior commander, expressing a common reticence to publicly acknowledge the military’s shortcomings. But all of the officers said they felt compelled to speak to the press in violation of military rules either because they hoped to bring public attention to the problem or because they hoped to reach prospective donors who may not realize that demand for gear remains high.

One commander said he had just gotten off the phone with a donor in Miami to ask them to pay for a drone.

“It’s sad that this is what we are facing. It doesn’t make sense we have to buy the gear ourselves or fundraise for it,” he said. “But I do so because there’s no saying just how many lives these drones have saved. I have soldiers in my unit who got hit and without their donated ceramic body armor would have been dead.”

Daniel Polisar, the American-raised founder of Shalem College in Jerusalem, has three sons serving in the Israeli military. First, he helped equip them. Then, he realized how widespread the problem was and assembled a team of volunteers. They have raised $15 million, which they have spent on gear for tens of thousands of soldiers, Polisar said.

He said most Israelis don’t accept claims by the IDF that there are no shortages.

“These claims are as credible to them as hearing a meteorologist declare emphatically that it’s sunny and dry in the town where they live at the very moment they’re standing outside in the midst of a downpour,” Polisar said.

He added, however, that the claims are not without impact. They undermine the military’s credibility and make it impossible for the army to enact changes. The claims also make his job much more challenging.

Micha Shtiebel, an IDF reservist of the Alexandroni Brigade, at his home in central Israel, May 26, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Yakov Binyamin)
Micha Shtiebel, an IDF reservist of the Alexandroni Brigade, at his home in central Israel, May 26, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Yakov Binyamin)

“I have faced this question repeatedly, and for the last few weeks it has literally been on a daily basis,” Polisar said. “I am asked by potential donors why they should give to buy gear when IDF spokesmen and high-ranking officers assert that every soldier and every unit have all the gear they need. This is the single biggest obstacle to the fundraising of my team and of other groups active in trying to help supply our soldiers.”

The phenomenon of donations flowing from the Jewish Diaspora to the Israeli military is not new. It has existed since the founding of Israel. But donations are supposed to be routed through a central, dedicated office within the military. Individual soldiers and units are not supposed to fundraise and handle donations themselves.

The military has been aware of an illicit flow of donated equipment at least since 2016 when the State Comptroller’sOffice, Israel’s official watchdog agency, devoted a section of its annual report to the issue. The report noted that IDF regulations prohibiting soldiers from being in direct contact with donors are regularly ignored. Released two years after Israel’s previous war in Gaza, the report says the problem was particularly acute during that conflict.

The report also explains why the military should not allow the donations. Morale can suffer if some units have more or better equipment than others. There can be unfair pressure on the families of soldiers to donate. The situation “may harm the reputation of the IDF, making it look like a military that does not enforce the orders it gives soldiers and that cannot provide for the basic needs of its soldiers,” according to the report.

A senior commander said in an interview that those concerns were well founded — but not only a matter of perception. “I don’t want to make the army look bad because it hurts us and serves the enemy, but that’s really how things look,” he said.

The report also noted concerns about the quality and safety of equipment donated outside of formal protocols. At the start of the current war, such concerns would have seemed at least somewhat merited. In the flurry of donations in the early days, a lot of equipment that arrived was subpar, unneeded, or even counterfeit, including cases of helmets made of plastic designed to look like the real thing, according to multiple interviews with soldiers and civilian volunteers.

By now, however, many of the civilian volunteers still active have become experts on the needs of soldiers and on sourcing proper military-grade equipment while maintaining close ties with military logistics officers. They have even paid to professionally test donated armor and helmets, according to interviews and ballistics reports from the tests.

The spike in unsanctioned donations should perhaps not come as a surprise to the military, since it had warnings of a lack of preparedness around basic supplies.

Amir Avivi, a retired IDF brigadier general, told JTA he has spent years sounding the alarm about the issue while he was in service as the director of the office of the IDF chief of staff and as the deputy comptroller of the security forces. He remained vocal after his 2017 retirement from service when he founded the Israel Defense And Security Forum, a right-leaning advocacy group focused on military issues.

He said the army doesn’t always spend its money wisely.

“The military doesn’t have an endless budget, and it’s not exciting for the leadership to buy boots and or helmets,” he said.“It’s much more exciting to invest in new technologies like cyber weapons. At the end of the day, however, war is a physical event. In war, everything revolves around the number of troops, the amount of equipment, ammunition and fuel, water, and food. That’s what wins the war. We are seeing the same thing in Ukraine.”

Avivi recalled an argument he had while in service with his superior, the IDF’s then-chief of the staff, Benny Gantz, who in 2013 was forced to make budget cuts and proposed investing in technology to make up for cuts to conventional forces. Gantz went on to become a minister of defense and later joined the three-member war cabinet convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Oct. 7 before ultimately resigning on Sunday.

“I told Gantz that the military is prioritizing all kinds of gadgets and technologies and things that seem sexy, but in the end it undermines preparedness,” Avivi said. “The army has really neglected these things, sometimes to a criminal extent, and that’s why we have had shortages. When you suddenly activate the entire army, you discover the extent of the problem.”

He added, however, that the IDF appears to have started correcting course and has spent many billions on new equipment during the current war. The IDF isn’t announcing exactly what it’s purchasing but Israeli defense spending has doubled since an all-time low before the war.

Several commanders and logistics officers, particularly those in regular army units, as opposed to the reserves, told JTA they are seeing the fruits of the military’s buying sprees, at least for some categories of equipment.

“It was a wild west with all the shortages early on, but I must admit, the situation is much better now,” said one senior commander of a combat unit.

But even the best-supplied units continue to ask for donations, according to several of the commanders.

Soldiers tend to want the best and newest gear they can get. They also turn to the donations network when they need something fast. For the military to process requests for gear can take months. “Through the civilian volunteers, I can get it the next day,” said a logistics officer.

Well-supplied units also rely on donations for gear they have realized they need, but that the military has not yet created a standard for, such as drones with thermal cameras, and solar panels to be able to charge electronics during extended periods in the field.

The gap between what the soldiers say they need and what the military regards as necessary is one of the reasons the military can claim there are no shortages, according to Avivi.

“The IDF may not have issued official standards for the type of stuff soldiers need and want,” he said. “There are things the IDF doesn’t purchase to begin with so it’s not a shortage.”

Technicalities aside, many inside and outside the army see such claims by the military as a form of lying that erodes trust and leads to disillusionment.

Shtiebel said it wasn’t easy for him to reach a point at which he was comfortable speaking out publicly. He agreed to be named in this article because he thought it would be harder for people to dismiss the problems he wanted to call attention to. He has also been thinking about his two young sons.

“What will I do the day they go to the army when I just don’t trust the army?” he said. “At this point, I’ve decided to put myself out there in case it helps turn the tide a little bit.”

Asaf Elia-Shalev

JTA correspondent