Volunteer officers race against rumours to bring Israel’s worst war news

By Thomson Reuters Feb 20, 2024 | 12:03 AM

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A stranger in civilian clothing was outside Liron and Rakefet Eldor’s home as they returned from an evening walk in the Israeli port city of Haifa. He asked their surname and when they answered, the couple’s life was capsized.

“He turned around and said, ‘Yes, it’s the Eldors’. Then three guys – and God knows what a difficult duty they have – emerged from the darkness,” Liron recalled in an interview with Army Radio earlier this month.

“And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, let him just be wounded…'”

But the news from the volunteer military notification officers was worse: The Eldors’ 21-year-old conscript son, Adi, had been killed in Gaza fighting earlier that day, bringing them into the swelling ranks of Israeli families bereaved by the country’s most devastating war in five decades.

The armed forces occupy a central place in Israel, where most citizens perform military service, and the war in Gaza triggered one of the largest mobilisations in its history, with some 300,000 reservists called up in a population of 10 million.

The military’s casualty branch informs each family in person, amid pressure to hold prompt burials in keeping with religious tradition. That urgency is compounded by concern that social media-fuelled rumours from the battlefield will reach families before the formal account does.

The task falls to tight-knit and discreet volunteer reservists who must drop everything, don dress uniforms, dash out to assemble in three- or four-person teams and find the family’s address within an hour of being summoned by phone.

“The responsibilities are many, and heavy,” said one notification officer who, like three others who spoke to Reuters, did so on condition of anonymity. “And nowadays they include literally racing against WhatsApp messages.”

The war in Gaza has left deep trauma on both sides. Israelis are mourning the 1,200 killed, according to Israeli tallies, during the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7, along with 134 still held hostage. On their side, Palestinians say almost 30,000 have been killed in the Israeli response.


More than 570 soldiers have been killed and 2,900 soldiers wounded in the more than four months since, a pace that has made the military lean all the more on the volunteers, who are on standby for casualty notifications in their hometowns.

At least one team member is a doctor. Others have included lawyers, social workers, teachers or hairdressers – selected for their emotional fitness for a withering role.

When they walk in the street, with their distinctive blue-yellow lanyards over their uniforms, the volunteers say they are often treated with a mix of reverence and dread.

That raises the risk of them alarming the wrong people, or of the family they are due to notify being tipped off prematurely about their presence. Officers say a touch of subterfuge is required – as with the Eldors, where one of the team posed as a civilian passerby to establish initial contact.

“When you come to a home, you can wear a long raincoat to obscure the uniform,” said one notifier. “What if no one’s there, but a neighbour sees you and tells the family, ‘Hey, there were three IDF officers here looking for you’?”

The volunteers undergo training in which they practise delivering unembellished statements about the death, serious wounding or disappearance of a soldier.

“What is most important is that first-degree family hear the news face-to-face, with utmost calmness and clarity, and never by phone or over the intercom,” said one officer.

They also act out possible responses of next-of-kin. Putting a foot in the door is better than letting it be slammed in the notifiers’ faces, one officer said, citing concern that grief-maddened relatives might hole up inside and harm themselves.

“There was a mother who slapped me. Another called me the Devil, because, in that house, at that moment, I had ruined her life,” recalled a second officer. “But it always ended with hugs. Everyone understands the process, in the end.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Sharon Singleton)