a balding man in a suit stands stoically
Volunteer groups are asking Economy Minister Nir Barkat for help in easing a bureaucratic obstacle to donations of equipment for Israeli soldiers. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

New regulations hinder donations of gear to Israeli soldiers, charities say

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(JTA) — Dozens of Israeli and American nonprofits are protesting new government regulations that, they say, have forced them to halt the flow of donated equipment for Israeli soldiers. 

In response, a government official has vowed to address the problem.

The new policy at issue is meant to cut red tape at Israeli ports. But the nonprofits said that the regulations make the importing process more complicated for charitable goods, effectively leaving them with no way to get their supplies to soldiers in Israel.

“This policy change creates insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles for volunteer organizations like ours,” Adi Vaxman, head of Operation Israel, a New Jersey-based charity that has provided millions of dollars worth of gear to Israeli soldiers since Oct. 7, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Under the new system, Israel’s Economy Ministry allows registered commercial importers to bypass testing, inspections and permitting on thousands of products that are categorized as low risk, as long as they attest that the products meet Israeli standards. The ministry estimates that processing fees and delays increased the cost of imported goods by as much as 9%. 

Economy Minister Nir Barkat hailed the reforms as a victory for consumers.

“From now on, no shipping container will be delayed at the port and merchandise will reach shelves directly without unnecessary bureaucracy — and without the cost increases that are passed on to consumers,” he said in a press release.

The problem, the nonprofits say, is that charities aren’t set up to register as commercial importers and so cannot benefit from the streamlined process; they don’t have the funding or expertise to do so. They say that under the old system, charities were exempt from bureaucratic obstacles that allowed them to get through customs quickly. In addition, a separate tax provision that also benefited the charities has similarly lapsed in recent months. 

Vaxman and her team were alarmed and perplexed by the change. 

“At a time when Israel faces unprecedented threats, especially on the northern border, it’s inconceivable that we’re being asked to navigate complex import procedures designed for commercial entities, potentially delaying or preventing the delivery of life-saving equipment to those who need it most,” she said. 

The crisis brought on by new import reforms is emblematic of perhaps the biggest hurdle volunteers working to secure military supplies have faced: interference from the Israeli government, which has claimed that no equipment shortages exist despite widespread evidence that gear is lacking.

Now the donor pipeline that has worked to close those gaps  — which, military officers told JTA, is critical to their troops’ safety in the field — may be blocked. On Sunday, Vaxman delivered a letter signed by 26 volunteer groups to Barkat to ask for his help. 

“We request your urgent attention to this matter, especially in light of the escalation in the north,” the letter said. “Volunteering and dedication by thousands of people around the world who are dedicated to Israel’s security deserves support and encouragement, not additional bureaucratic burdens.”

The letter said the old system included “an exemption on donations, which allowed us to respond quickly to evolving needs on the ground.”

The ministry has yet to formally respond to the letter, and a spokesperson likewise did not provide a clear answer regarding the implications of the new regulations. 

But Vaxman shared a screenshot of WhatsApp messages from the ministry’s director general, Amnon Merhav, promising to resolve the issue.

“We recognize the issue caused by reforms and are working to change it,” he wrote. “Right now, we will extend the current provision regarding donations so that there won’t be any problem.”

Since war broke out between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 7, the Israeli military has faced shortages of critical gear, including protective and medical gear, as well as combat tools like rifle scopes and small drones. 

From the very first few weeks of the war, leaders from the Israeli military and Defense Ministry have repeatedly and falsely claimed that no shortages exist. But the military’s official supply chain has failed battlefield commanders and logistics officers often enough that they have resorted to purchasing equipment themselves or soliciting donations from civilians in flagrant violation of military rules

Volunteers and Israeli military officers have built up the logistical infrastructure necessary to field requests, fundraise from donors abroad, purchase gear and ship it to Israel. They have delivered as much as $1 billion worth of equipment, even though volunteers say many prospective donors have been hesitant to offer help due to the government’s official denials of the problem. 

“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,” Daniel Polisar, who has raised millions to buy equipment, told JTA last month. “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 recent change in Economy Ministry policy isn’t the only regulatory obstacle the donors face. Another consequence of the military’s policy is that combat gear is subject to a value-added tax of 17%, whether it is a soldier purchasing body armor for himself before deploying to Gaza or a charity buying tactical boots for an entire unit. 

For the first few months, the government set up a fund to subsidize the VAT on purchases for soldiers, but that money has run out. Israel’s Finance Ministry still subsidizes donations designated for civilians suffering from the war or aiding security efforts. 

“It’s very frustrating to explain to donors that are taking money out of their pockets to pay for basic equipment like boots, and explain to them that they also have to pay VAT on those boots,” said Michal Wachstock, one of the volunteers behind Boots for Israel, which has distributed more than 50,000 pairs of combat boots since Oct. 7. “At the end of the day, it means that we are able to distribute 17% fewer boots to the soldiers who really need them.”

Asaf Elia-Shalev

JTA correspondent