Heroism under fire: The neighbors who saved their town – and another one

Yonatan Werner recounts the battle to stop Hamas terrorists from entering his and a neighboring moshav; a Bedouin man who rescued 30 people escaping the Nova music festival - and more

When Yonatan Werner was awakened at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, he thought it was another day of rocket fire in the Gaza periphery. He didn’t know that it would be the deadliest day in Israel’s history, or that he would be one of its heroes, helping to save his neighbors and residents in the next town over.

Amid the horror of Hamas’ murder and mutilation of scores of Israelis, from babies to the elderly, there have been stories of remarkable heroism.

Werner lives in Shlomit, a tiny, Orthodox agricultural village established in 2011 just south of Gaza by the Egyptian border, and is a member of the village’s council. He also volunteers for its security team, which does patrols and is the first line of defense until the police or army arrive.

Speaking to Jewish Insider while at a shooting range near Israel’s northern border, where he is on reserve duty, Werner recounted that after the heavy rocket fire at 6:30 on Saturday, “we didn’t understand what was happening. It went quiet after 20 minutes, and I left the house to go to the head of the emergency staff, who lived right across from me.”

“When I went out, I smelled gunpowder and heard shooting all around, so I realized this was something bigger, some kind of infiltration,” Werner recounted. “We called the whole security team together.”

Meanwhile, the head of security, Benny Meshulam, heard on his walkie-talkie — to which his counterparts in all the adjacent moshavim are connected — that terrorists had entered the nearby town of Prigan.

“We realized we needed help, and the entire team went there; it’s about five minutes away,” Werner recalled.

The gun-toting security team found Hamas terrorists at the house closest to the village’s gate and were able to fight them off. The seven-member team from Shlomit made up most of the force combating 10 Hamas terrorists.

“For over an hour, we battled the terrorists at the gate [of Prigan], because we knew that if they got in, they would kill everyone,” Werner said.

“We thought the army would come, but time kept passing and they did not arrive. At first, two [of our] people were injured, one moderately and one very badly, and then two more, another one very badly,” Werner said. “After an hour of battle, the terrorists understood they couldn’t pass us, and they ran away.

“By standing strong, we saved Prigan from a terrible massacre. The devastation we saw in Kfar Azza and Beeri — if we didn’t get to Prigan, it would have happened there,” he said.

Werner pointed out that his moshav, Shlomit, is religious, while Prigan is not: “In these moments, we are brothers and we want to save our brothers in trouble; there was no question.”

Two residents of Shlomit — Aviad Cohen and Reuven Sasportas — were killed in the battle with the terrorists, and another neighbor, Uriel Bibi, was murdered by terrorists at an intersection on the drive to help them. A fourth man at another moshav 50 minutes away heard about the battle and drove to save his friends, but was killed at the same intersection as Bibi.

“In Shlomit, we have four widows and 15 orphans, all in one street,” Werner said.

At the same time, there was a birth. A woman in Shlomit went into labor on Saturday morning, was evacuated by helicopter and gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Werner said, calling it “surreal.”

Werner left his wife with Cohen’s widow, and his children at their aunt’s, and went to do his reserve duty. Most of the residents of Shlomit were evacuated to Kfar Etzion, near Jerusalem.

“We are all going back to Shlomit,” he said. “There is no doubt. We will fight until we win. The morale in reserves is strong, as well; we know we will do everything it takes to win.”

“The Jewish people have no other home in the world than Israel,” he added.

One lesser-known story is that of Yussef Alzianda of Rahat, a Bedouin town in the Negev that is often hit by Hamas rockets. 

Alzianda, a van driver, had been hired to bring nine people to the Nova rave, a music festival in an open field in the town of Re’im at which 260 Israelis were killed in a Hamas rampage. He told the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, which tweeted out his story, that “at 6:30 I got a message that there was a rocket siren and I should come quickly to pick up [the passengers].”

“When I arrived, the scene was already hot. There were gunshots overhead and people running away and screaming,” Alzianda said.

He saw an injured woman running towards him screaming for help.

“It was terrible; I never saw anything like it and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone to see it,” he said. “What was most important was to save lives, and I had to use all of my courage. I’m afraid to sleep now, so the images don’t come back to me.”

Alzianda’s van is a 14-seater, but he loaded 30 people in it and drove across fields to the nearest police station in Kibbutz Tze’elim, where the injured were treated. 

“I am a Bedouin, but I am first of all a human being and a citizen of Israel,” Alzianda said. “I would never differentiate between people. We are all human beings.”

Amit Hadar, one of the passengers, wrote on Facebook that “the only reason we got out of there was Yussef, an Arab Bedouin from the south. Even when the terrorists shot at us from every direction, he didn’t drive away and leave us alone. He waited, collected, and rescued everyone he could on the way.”

“The man is larger than life and we will always owe him,” Hadar wrote, and recommended that, in more peaceful times, people hire Alzianda as a driver.

Werner and his neighbors in Shlomit were only some of the volunteer security teams that saved their whole town.

Another is Inbal Liberman, the first woman to lead a security team in the Gaza periphery, who fought off the terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Am, close to northern Gaza.

Liberman, 25, has refused to grant interviews, but other members of the kibbutz spread her story online. 

When the entire kibbutz heard sirens and entered shelters at 6:30 a.m., Liberman heard unusual sounds. There was a power outage because of the rockets, and she instructed her security team not to turn the electricity back on, so that the gate to the kibbutz would remain locked.

Then she gathered the rest of the security team and had them take positions with guns. She and the other 11 members waited. When the terrorists approached, they reportedly killed two and injured one, according to Haaretz, though the numbers were inflated on social media. 

Liberman’s father told Haaretz that he brought her a sandwich in the middle of the battle.

Eventually, IDF soldiers arrived to back up Liberman’s team. Everyone who was in Kibbutz Nir Am that morning survived.

On her own Instagram, she wrote: “I was not a hero and I was not there alone. I am still digesting everything that I am going through, therefore I am not telling the real story, but I promise you will hear from me! There are still so many people in the field fighting for their lives.”

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