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ZAKA: Israel’s Very Own ‘White Helmets’

Masquerading as a humanitarian organization, military-linked ZAKA has revealed itself as a propaganda propaganda tool for Israel’s war on Gaza.

Akin to the White Helmets in ‘rebel’-held Syria.

ZAKA, the Israeli volunteer-based religious organization that gained notoriety for its role of collecting bodies after the events of 7 October, is once again under the spotlight. An explosive report by Haaretz last week exposed the group’s “cases of negligence, misinformation, and a fundraising campaign that used the dead as props.”

More notably, the report provided new details suggesting ZAKA might not be a genuine volunteer organization, but rather a front for the Israeli army. It is believed to have played a part in concealing the truth that Israel caused the deaths of potentially hundreds of its own civilians in accordance with the Hannibal Directive.

Exploiting the dead

The 31 January Haaretz report begins by detailing how ZAKA members, who claim to be devoted to preserving the dignity of the dead, used corpses as stage props for videos and calls for fundraising.

One volunteer from another rescue group told the Israeli outlet, “It was just bizarre that there was a corpse right there next to them, and they were sitting around, eating, and smoking,” rather than transferring the body into an ambulance or the refrigerated truck parked across the road.

“They opened a war room for donations there,” said another witness to the event. “Two weeks later, I saw them acting similarly in Be’eri [another 7 October conflict site] as well – sitting and making videos and fundraising calls inside the kibbutz.”

Haaretz reported further that in an effort to gain media exposure, ZAKA representatives “spread accounts of atrocities that never happened, released sensitive and graphic photos, and acted unprofessionally on the ground.”

In a video posted to ZAKA’s social media account, a volunteer tearfully described finding a 30-year-old woman lying face down in a pool of blood.

“We turned her over in order to place her into the bag. She was pregnant,” the volunteer said, stopping to hold his breath. “Her stomach was swollen, and the baby was still attached by the umbilical cord when it was stabbed, and she was shot in the back of the head. I don’t know if she suffered and saw her baby murdered or not.”

However, the newspaper noted that the horrific incident “simply didn’t happen.” It was “one of several stories that have been circulated without any basis.”

Justifying genocide

Fabricated claims spread by ZAKA representatives were then cited by Israeli leaders as justification for their brutal military assault on Gaza, which has killed over 11,000 Palestinian children, many of them burned alive or decapitated by US-supplied bombs.

Even US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared some of ZAKA’s false atrocity stories, citing them as justification for expediting weapons shipments to Israel, even long after the effects of 2,000 lb bombs on children in Gaza became clear.

As The Grayzone detailed in December, Yossi Landau, ZAKA commander for the southern region, fabricated the most salacious and widely promoted stories claiming Hamas had committed unthinkable atrocities on 7 October.

In turn, the publicity these stories generated quickly earned the near–bankrupt organization millions of dollars in donations.

Controversies and corruption

As journalist Brad Pearce has detailed, it is unclear where these donations will go. ZAKA has for years been plagued by accusations of corruption and fraud, while its founder has long been known as a serial child rapist.

In 2019, Israel’s Channel 13 reported that ZAKA was suspected of using shadow organizations to funnel millions of dollars in donations for private use, even as the organization faced bankruptcy.

The organization’s reputation was further damaged in 2021, when another Haaretz investigation revealed that ZAKA’s founder, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, had sexually assaulted women and raped children for decades.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported soon thereafter that residents of Meshi-Zahav’s neighborhood were not surprised to learn about the accusations and that “community leaders even considered castrating him once.”

One man from the neighborhood told the popular Israeli newspaper that the accusations were “the tip of the iceberg,” and labeled Meshi-Zahav “the Haredi Jeffrey Epstein.”

In 2022, another Haaretz investigation found the organization claimed to have over 3,000 volunteers, and received state funding on this basis. In reality, the group had no more than 1,000 volunteers.

Despite this background, Pearce notes that ZAKA enjoyed endorsements from powerful figures in Israel’s political echelon, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and MK Danny Dannon.

The Yellow Vests

On 7 October and after, ZAKA served as a front for the Israeli army to launder false Hamas atrocity propaganda.

The Haaretz investigation revealed that during the first days of the war – when the Israeli narrative concerning the nature of the Hamas operation was crucial to establish – uniformed soldiers from the Israeli army’s Home Front Command made many media appearances.

“But over their uniforms, they wore non-IDF vests on which the name ‘ZAKA’ was emblazoned. Military officers who were informed about this blaring detail could not account for it,” the paper found.

This gave the impression that claims coming from the Israeli army, an obviously biased source of information, were coming from a neutral third-party source.

While even Israeli journalists were skeptical of claims by army commanders, including the false storyline that Hamas hung seven dead babies from a clothesline, the equally implausible claims made by Yossi Landau and other allegedly selfless ZAKA volunteers were largely reported uncritically in the US, UK, and Israeli press.

Links with the occupation army

The close relationship between ZAKA and the Israeli army is further illustrated by Haim Outmezgine, who is the head of ZAKA’s “special forces” and also a reservist in the Home Front Command’s rescue unit.

Outmezgine was one of several senior officials who made frequent press appearances wearing the yellow ZAKA vest. But he didn’t only play a media role; Haaretz notes further that according to some sources, “he also played a central role in the association” between ZAKA and the Israeli army.

He was “in command of several sites starting from the evening of the attacks,” including the site of the Nova music festival in Re’im and the settlements (kibbutzim) of Kfar Aza and Be’eri.

Outmezgine’s dual role in the army’s Home Front Command and ZAKA apparently led to the decision to deploy untrained, amateur ZAKA volunteers to collect bodies at these sensitive sites rather than army soldiers already well-trained for this purpose.

The only soldiers the Home Front Command chose to use alongside ZAKA were from the Military Rabbinate’s southern search unit, stationed at the Shura military base.

Several army officers involved in the operation at the Shura base told Haaretz they had “no explanation” for why the additional soldiers were not allowed to assist in the mission.

One officer at Shura said that the inexpert way ZAKA volunteers collected the bodies “made the identification process very difficult.”

A volunteer who worked at Shura said: “There were bags with two skulls, bags with two hands, with no way to know which was whose.”

But why were amateurs from ZAKA deployed to the most sensitive sites with the most bodies on 7 October, rather than highly trained soldiers from the army?

One possibility is corruption. As both a member of ZAKA and the Home Front Command, Haim Outmezgine may have arranged for ZAKA to be deployed to Nova, Be’eri, and Kfar Azza to ensure the organization was at the center of events, and able to gain media attention and millions in donations.

Concealing war crimes

However, another possibility is that higher-level officials in the army, intelligence services, or Netanyahu’s cabinet wanted ZAKA deployed to these sensitive sites to make any investigation into the hundreds of Israeli deaths there as difficult as possible. This was crucial because it was the Israeli army itself that killed large numbers of its own civilians.

To prevent Israelis from being taken captive by Hamas, the Israeli army issued the Hannibal Directive and unleashed overwhelming firepower from Apache attack helicopters, armed Zik drones, and Merkava tanks.

In this way, the army killed Israelis who were barricaded in their own homes with Hamas fighters in Be’eri, Kfar Azza, and elsewhere, and killed many others traveling across the open fields to Gaza in cars, on foot, and even in golf carts and tractors with Hamas fighters.

As a result, many of the corpses found on 7 October were badly burned or dismembered due to heavy weapons unleashed by Israel. Bodies were found crushed under collapsed homes in the kibbutzim and strewn among the fields near the Gaza border.

The Israeli army then passed the blame for all these horrific deaths on to Hamas. Fighters from the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and other resistance factions, certainly killed some Israeli civilians on 7 October. However, Israeli officials falsely claim that Al-Qassam fighters deliberately massacred all 1,200 Israelis – mostly civilians – who died that day, burning many alive while torturing and raping many others.

By failing to properly collect and document the state of the bodies, ZAKA enabled the Israeli army to attribute potentially hundreds of killings of Israelis carried out by the occupation army to Hamas.

Israel’s ‘White Helmets’

The “Yellow Vests” of the ZAKA volunteers are reminiscent of the “White Helmets” worn by members of the so-called Syria Civil Defense, which was established and funded by western intelligence agencies in 2014, at the height of the US-led regime change war on Syria.

As journalist Vanessa Beeley has extensively detailed, western media and intelligence agencies used the alleged rescue organization as ‘primary sources’ in spreading fake stories of Syrian army atrocities, including staging scenarios to blame the army for chemical attacks against civilians.

By doing so, narratives were manipulated and a scene was carefully set to justify western military intervention to topple the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad.

This raises questions of whether ZAKA, like the White Helmets, is a cut-out used by the Israeli army and intelligence services to justify Tel Aviv’s massive military campaign in Gaza that many view as genocide, rather than an authentic volunteer rescue organization.

Such a view is strengthened by the fact that, as Brad Pearce notes, ZAKA’s long-time Chief Operating Officer, Mati Goldstein, says on his LinkedIn profile that he is a 25–year veteran of the Israeli army, a current commander in the reserves, and someone who “took part in many major undercover missions,” meaning he has been a trained spy.

This connection could explain the praise ZAKA receives – despite its past controversies – from top levels of Israel’s military and political class, which positions it strategically in obscuring the truth of the 7 October events

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