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Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Hamas’ mass terror attack became personal
The lengthy attack, which saw a quarter of the kibbutz members murdered or kidnapped and more than half of the homes burned to the ground, felt both intimate and personal, say survivors
EILAT, Israel – For 12 hours on Oct. 7, as Hamas terrorists rampaged through Kibbutz Nir Oz, Natali Yohanan and her young family cowered in their tiny safe room. As they received heartbreaking text messages from desperate relatives and friends, who were later found murdered and tortured, or not found at all – close to a quarter of the kibbutz’s residents were kidnapped to Gaza – the Yohanans had quite a different, but no less terrifying, experience.
From behind the closed steel door of their shelter, the family listened as Palestinians, seemingly from the nearby villages in Gaza, ransacked their home, stealing valuables – including personal items – but not before preparing a hearty meal in their kitchen and taking a long rest while watching TV in their living room.
“I heard the cheerful voice of a young woman, there were two men with her, and she asked them if they were hungry. Then I heard the fridge opening and closing and she started heating up food that I had cooked,” recalled Yohanan, 37, an English teacher. “We knew she was cooking because we could smell the food.”
According to Yohanan, the group of Palestinians hung around for hours, lounging on the couch, watching her TV – switching Netflix into Arabic – all the while trying to coax the family out of the safe room by switching off its electricity, rapping on the door and banging on the window outside.
“We heard everything,” said Yohanan, whose husband understands Arabic. She described how she also listened as the woman entered her bedroom, rummaged around through her private possessions, and stole her jewelry, make-up, clothes, shoes and even her underwear.
“It was so humiliating to hear her move around in there,” added Yohanan. “It felt very intimate.”
Out of the more than 20 communities brutally attacked on Oct. 7, Kibbutz Nir Oz, which sits less than two miles from the Gaza border in southern Israel, was one of the worst to be hit. With more than 100 of its 427 members either murdered or held hostage in Gaza, the lengthy attack, which saw more than half of the homes burned to the ground, felt both intimate and personal, survivors of the massacre recalled to journalists this week.
Some 160 remaining members of the kibbutz are now staying in the Red Sea Hotel in Eilat, a usually relaxing and luxurious resort that has been turned into a safe refuge as the community tries to recuperate and piece its life back together.
“I know this looks like an innocent hotel lobby, but this is the place where we sit and cry,” Irit Lahav, who has become the kibbutz’s de facto spokesperson, said as she showed journalists around. “In the beginning, they sent us clowns and singers to cheer us up, but it did not work for us. There is too much sadness here.”
Lahav, who was born on the kibbutz, said that nearly everyone “has a relative or close friend who was murdered or kidnapped.”
Founded in 1958, Nir Oz is famous for its Nirlat paint company and also for its perfectly manicured botanical garden, which before Oct. 7 boasted more than 900 varieties of trees, plants, and flowers. A once traditional kibbutz, where children lived together in dormitories, the members – many of whom work in agriculture – continue to eat the bulk of their meals together in the dining room, even as the children now live at home with their parents.
Located towards the southern tip of Israel’s border with Gaza, Lahav said that the kibbutz, which is more isolated than others in the area, has no army base nearby and also has two paved roads leading straight up to the border fence, both factors that likely made it an easy and more vulnerable target.
On Oct. 7, after terrorists from Hamas’ elite Nukhba force swiftly disabled Israel’s $1 billion high-tech barrier system, switching off cellular communications stations and surveillance towers, they then blew up or bulldozed parts of the fence, allowing thousands of armed terrorists, as well as other Palestinians, to enter freely into Israel.
Eyal Barad, whose home sits close to the kibbutz’s perimeter road, had a webcam installed outside his front door a few months ago to monitor cars that were driving too fast. On the day of the attack, he watched in real-time from inside his safe room as hundreds of terrorists – and Palestinian civilians – flowed into the kibbutz.
Sharing jarring footage with journalists, Barad recounted his pure terror as he watched heavily armed gunmen trying to break through his front door while he worked to calm his young children, including his eldest daughter, who is on the autism spectrum and would not stop screaming.
He watched with surprise as other Palestinians from Gaza, young children, women and elderly men, ransacked the kibbutz, stealing bicycles, scooters, and golf carts, with some loading up their cars with goods taken from people’s homes and the kibbutz’s various industries.
In one image, Barad, 40, pointed out how terrorists dragged one of his neighbors out of her window, placed her on a motorcycle, covered her with a sheet for modesty, and drove off with her in the direction of Gaza. In another, he highlighted a young Palestinian girl in a pink shirt riding gleefully past his home on a stolen kibbutz bike.
“I look at these images and I see millions of people inside my home,” said Barad, adding that the horrifying attack has made him lose his faith “in everyone” – the Israeli government for allowing the attack to happen, the military for taking so long to rescue them and Palestinian civilians, who until two months ago worked inside the kibbutz, alongside the members.
“I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back by the army, by the government and by the Palestinians,” recounted another kibbutz member, 28-year-old Eran Smilansky. As part of Nir Oz’s rapid response security team, Smilansky helped to fight off the terrorists and rescue neighbors from their burning homes.
He faulted the government’s overall approach to Gaza, which he said served to build hatred among Palestinians towards Israel, and the army’s high-tech fence, which ended up being so easily breached.
But for Smilansky, one of the biggest disappointments was with the Palestinians. For the past few years, thousands of Palestinian laborers from Gaza have been allowed to enter Israel for agricultural work in the kibbutzim, with at least 100 workers being placed on Nir Oz. As well as working in the fields and orchards, the laborers also constructed homes and communal buildings.
“We worked with them, we ate with them, we talked to them every day,” recounted Smilansky, speculating that at least some of the workers helped provide Hamas with detailed information about the kibbutz and its members, including those who, like him, were armed.
“It was very clear that the terrorists had a lot of intelligence on the kibbutz,” he said. “They seemed to know exactly where they were going and what they were doing.”
As well as the human toll and the physical destruction to the kibbutz’s infrastructure – its residents are unlikely to be able to return to Nir Oz for at least three years – it is clear that the members feel violated on a personal level too.
Lahav, the spokesperson, who described herself as a long-time peace activist, said the Oct. 7 attack “shattered her illusions.”
Recalling how she was among the Israelis who supported the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, she said she had been sure that when they got their own land, they would “fill it with restaurants and hotels” but “then they started firing missiles and rockets at us.”
Still, Lahav said, “I used to drive Gazans from the Erez Crossing to Tel Aviv for hospital appointments – that’s a two-hour drive each way and I used to think it was just a few extreme people that wanted to hurt us. Now that is all shattered.”
Lahav, who saved herself and her daughter on Oct. 7 by rigging up a vacuum cleaner together with a broom to stop the terrorists from breaking down the safe room, said that her home was ransacked and many items were stolen.
“For some reason, they took all our shoes,” she said, adding, “It felt like a whole Palestinian community came and attacked us. After the terrorists came in, they called everybody to come into our homes… teenagers and women came, looting, killing and hurting us on purpose.”
Lahav said the members of Nir Oz will soon move into recently built apartments in the town of Kiryat Gat and stay there while considering their next move – most likely to be temporary caravans on one of the southern kibbutzim.
She said there was still a strong desire among members to stay together as a community somehow.
“We are like a family,” Lahav continued. “We’ve been through this together, we support each other, but who knows what will happen in the next three years? Would you want to go back to live in a place where the people nearby want to kill you?”