Relief group SmartAid providing thousands of tents to Gazans, says it’s the only Israeli NGO operating in the Strip

'Yes we are Israeli and yes we are helping our [own] people and yes we are helping our [people whom many Israelis perceive as our enemies]... That is what Jews do. There is never a simple answer or solution,' group's founding director Shachar Zahavi tells eJP

The Israeli humanitarian tech aid nonprofit SmartAid has provided thousands of tents to civilians in Gaza in partnership with an American relief group since January, which its founder revealed exclusively to eJewishPhilanthropy.

“We have helped build three refugee camps; it is thousands of tents,” Shachar Zahavi, founding director of SmartAid, told eJP. “We have experience in war-torn areas for decades — this is a whole different ball game.”

Working with partners whose logistics infrastructures are spread across the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Jordan, SmartAid has purchased tents through Egypt and brought them to the crossing on the Egyptian border, where the IDF has inspected, vetted and approved every shipment. The tents have then been delivered to their partners on the ground for distribution to civilians, Zahavi said. He refrained from identifying his partners in order to protect them and the civilians receiving the aid from Hamas retribution.

Since the IDF’s accidental killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers earlier this month, Zahavi said he felt it necessary to come out openly about the work SmartAid has been doing to let the world know that Israelis and Jews are also involved in helping with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“We have been doing this quietly for months,” he said. “I want [people critical of Israel] to know that we are an international humanitarian aid organization, and yes we are Israeli and yes we are helping our [own] people and yes we are helping [people whom many Israelis perceive as our enemies]. This is exactly what Israel did when civil war broke out in Syria and the (injured) civilians came to Israel’s borders. That is what Jews do. There is never a simple answer or solution.”

Zahavi said he believes that his organization is the only Israeli nonprofit currently operating in Gaza. eJP could not immediately verify the claim.

The strike on the World Central Kitchen staff has also prompted a number of Jewish groups to step up their humanitarian efforts on behalf of Gazans, notably the New Israel Fund, which recently launched a Passover-themed fundraising campaign to combat food insecurity in Gaza.

He said the organization is constantly reevaluating how it conducts its work in Gaza to assure the aid does not get into the hands of Hamas, and has coordinated its aid delivery with the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which provided them with the names of trusted American charities with whom to cooperate.

“We make sure we do not get involved in anything that might by mistake get into Hamas’ hands.  We spoke to the IDF. We did all due diligence to make sure that we are looking at what the types of needs there are, and if Hamas might take it away from civilians,” Zahavi said. “There is always an internal debate about what we can do to add another percentage of certainty that [our aid] reaches civilians, specifically kids.”

Trucks carrying tents for Palestinians in Gaza from the Israeli relief group SmartAid.
Trucks carrying tents for Palestinians in Gaza from the Israeli relief group SmartAid.

The efforts are being funded by a donation of an initial $200,000 from donors from abroad specifically for this project, he said. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the donors asked to remain anonymous.

Since the strike, Zahavi said that SmartAid has also been in discussions with its partners about the growing food needs in Gaza, if it can help with distribution, with partners in the US in the waiting with “hundreds of tons” of food prepared to be shipped to SmartAID for distribution if given the approval.

Zahavi said that the decision to operate in Gaza came about over a series of conversations between SmartAid, longtime colleagues from international aid groups and different SmartAid Jewish and non-Jewish donors about whether to consider helping Gaza children.

“Some of our donors discussed with us that we are also a humanitarian charity and we have helped all over the world, and that we need to consider this,” said Zahavi. “It is something that is obvious but because it is in our country and because it is our people it is a lot harder to digest. It took a while but eventually we (came to the conclusion) that we are an aid organization and we are helping around the world in 40 countries. This is another conflict which hit straight in our backyard and so what are we going to do about it?”

Zahavi acknowledged the moral complexity of an Israeli organization — one that has helped the Israeli victims of the Oct. 7 attacks and the war — providing aid to Palestinians in Gaza. 

“As Jews, we totally demand the release of the hostages, totally demand that Hamas be held fully accountable for what it did. I had close friends who were massacred on Oct. 7 and I know people who are still [captive] in Gaza. I am not doing this lightly,” he said. “But there is also the Jewish side of us, the Holocaust side of us, the humane side of us. How are we going to live with everything going on [in Gaza]?” he said. 

“Everyone is saying we are against Hamas, not against children, but for me saying it wasn’t enough. I felt we had to do something, I know there are a lot of groups and individuals around the world in the Jewish community who are against this and I totally understand,” he said, noting that SmartAid also continues to provide aid to survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks, evacuated Israeli communities and Israeli farmers along the Gaza border.

Forklifts unloading tents for Palestinians in Gaza from the Israeli relief group SmartAid.
Forklifts unloading tents for Palestinians in Gaza from the Israeli relief group SmartAid.

Coming from a family with very few members who survived the Holocaust, Zahavi said he takes his humanitarian aid work seriously, combining the need to do what is right with the desire to show the world that as an Israeli he actually does what Israel says.

“I am doing what people are saying,” said Zahavi. “If you just Google (you can find) thousands of articles about the Israeli government saying they are supporting aid for civilians, but are against Hamas. We are taking the words and making it into action.”