Across 75 years, Israel has built itself around a military so formidable in battle that the country qualifies as a warrior state. But for the 2,000 years before that, the story of the Jews was one of perseverance through persecution, flight, and the kind of intimate, house-to-house slaughter Israelis awoke to on the morning of Oct. 7. What Hamas recorded on smart phones and uploaded to social media was a 21st century pogrom. The massacre of more than 1,400 people renewed and validated the dread that resides in every Jewish Israeli as a kind of inheritance—the embedded collective memory of trauma that has kept a society’s sense of confidence eggshell-thin even behind the most powerful fighting force in the Middle East.
What that military is directing onto the Gaza Strip—6,000 bombs in the first six days—had by Oct. 17 killed more than 3,000 people. For Palestinians, the Israel-Hamas War is likely the worst trauma since the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” as they refer to the 1948 victory of the Jewish army that, in establishing a Jewish homeland, exiled more than 700,000 Arabs who claimed the same land. Their descendants’ defiant presence in blockaded Gaza (where 2.2 million people are ruled by Hamas), and on the West Bank (where 3 million chafe under Israeli military occupation), has posed a persistent challenge not only for Israel’s security, but also for the moral code cultivated during the millennia that Jews had not a state, but a tradition. Revenge hangs in the air over Gaza along with cordite. And just as no Gentile can apprehend the horror of the Oct. 7 sabbath, nothing can communicate the experience of bombardment.
Imagine enduring both. The roughly 200 hostages Hamas carried away at gunpoint were awakened at dawn by the terror of a missile onslaught and faced the darkness of Gaza beneath the thunder of Israeli munitions. They form a kind of human bridge between two realms. “I can only hope that she is being held in Gaza,” says the son of 74-year-old Vivian Silver, a peace activist missing from her kibbutz. “What a terrible hope that is.”
With power cut off by Israel, accounts of the profound suffering in Gaza are largely being told from a distance. And in a conflict that has always been about competing narratives, Hamas ensured that attention would be on the hostages and their loved ones. The families speak wrenchingly about what they know and the torment of what they don’t. Searching for hope, they find themselves at the mercy both of terrorists and of the intelligence apparatus of an Israeli government that failed them on Oct. 7, then ignored them in the chaotic days that followed.
But they have their fellow citizens. After the worst loss of Jewish lives since the Holocaust, it was Israelis—the legions rising to donate blood, to prepare food, to report for duty—who confirmed why their nation exists.
—By Karl Vick
Saray Cohen, 56, HaBonim, Israel
Cohen’s sister, Judith Raanan, 59, and niece, Natalie Raanan, 17, were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Both live in Evanston, Ill.
They arrived in Israel on Sept. 2 for family occasions—my mom’s 85th birthday. They wanted to stay here with us for the Jewish holidays. Judith is an artist; she paints. Natalie just graduated from high school and she decided to take a gap year until she figures out what she wants to do. She was debating between studying beauty care or interior design. She has a passion for animals, especially dogs. Her dog Panda had just died, and she told us that when she comes back to the States she wants to get a new French bulldog. She was thinking maybe to go study something that has to do with beauty care. She’s a very precious girl, a pretty girl. I cannot even begin to think what she’s going through.
Saturday morning, we woke up to a devastating war. There were 150 terrorists in the kibbutz. I was in touch with [Natalie and Judith] through WhatsApp messages, because everybody there was told not to speak over the phone, or just whisper. The last message was at 12:18. Natalie wrote that they’re hearing shots, and they’re in the security room. And they’re OK and they love us. That was the last signal of life we had from them. They stopped answering me.
At first we thought, you know, maybe they had no battery left. Maybe they could rest a little bit, although it doesn’t make sense to rest when they’re shooting at you. But about two hours later, we started feeling something was wrong. There was no army there yet. We asked security people from the kibbutz to go check on them, but they couldn’t, because there were terrorists everywhere, people murdered and injured. They couldn’t get to their apartment.
IDF forces found my mom at 10:30 at night. My mom refused to be evacuated until she knew what was happening with them. We told the IDF that they are American citizens; we thought maybe that would help. When they got to the apartment, the doors were thrown out and the windows were broken, and they were nowhere to be found. The clothes were all over the floor. Their mobiles and their laptop and their passports were taken. And they were taken. At that moment, we knew.
Each night I sleep only four hours. What goes on in my mind is that they’re going through terrible things, especially Natalie. When I go to bed, about 2 a.m., I feel like I do not deserve to be in bed, because she’s probably been raped somewhere. We are working with American authorities, with Israeli authorities, trying to get a sign of life—a signal.
Yesterday, I went to speak with additional families that were rescued from the kibbutz. And we found out from an eyewitness that Judith and Natalie were taken from their apartment to another family’s apartment, and they brought in another family, two parents and two daughters, and another family with young children. And they took Natalie and Judith and gathered them all together in the kitchen of that apartment. The mother I spoke to, Hamas murdered her 18-year old daughter. The daughter was dead in the next room when Judith and Natalie were taken in.
Hamas took the two husbands and Judith and Natalie handcuffed into a car, they were alive and uninjured according to the eyewitness. We know that they can be found alive. We know from an eyewitness that Hamas took them uninjured. This is why we have hope. We know that they left there on their feet, unharmed, from that apartment. But since then, we know nothing. And this is why time is crucial.
—As told to Charlotte Alter
Jonathan Polin, 53, Jerusalem
Polin’s son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, was injured and abducted at the Nova music festival in southern Israel
My wife and I both grew up in Chicago. We then were living for professional reasons in Northern California, where Hersh was born. We moved when he was four to Richmond, Va. And when he was seven, the family moved to Israel, in July 2008.
Friday night, Hersh was home with us in Jerusalem. We went to synagogue for the Shabbat and the Jewish holiday that was coinciding with Shabbat. Afterwards, we went to a friend’s house for dinner with two other families. And at 11 p.m., he came and said goodbye to us. He had a backpack on and he was going to meet up with his friend, Aner Shapira. We didn’t know where they were going. We just figured they were going camping somewhere.
Saturday morning, I got up and left at 7:30 to go to the synagogue. I was hearing booms and figured there was something going on, but didn’t know what. When I got to the synagogue we continued to hear booms. Those of us who were in the synagogue that morning went several times in and out of the bomb shelter.
I got home at about 9:30. My wife immediately showed me that she had turned on her phone, which she doesn’t normally use on Shabbat, because it’s prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath, and showed me that we had received two back-to-back text messages from Hersh at 8:11 a.m. The first message said: “I love you.” The second message said: “I’m sorry.”
We knew he was in some sort of distress, but we didn’t even know where he was. My daughter got online and saw that there was a big music festival in the south. My wife reached out to Hersh and Aner’s third very close friend, and that third friend confirmed that they’d gone to the festival.
From about 1 p.m. Saturday until now, we’ve had an ongoing mini-situation room set up in my apartment with seven, eight, 10, 12 people. We had two different friends each go to a different hospital in the south to see if they could find our son. They went through unidentified bodies and did not see him.
At some time–I think it was Sunday morning–a picture started to circulate online that was from an outdoor bomb shelter. They’re not uncommon in the south of Israel. Our son was in the picture, as was Aner. Through social media, we started to search for other families of people who were in the shelter and to try to piece together a story. What we have subsequently pieced together, based on conversations with the three witnesses who were in the shelter with him, is the following.
Sometime around 7:30 Saturday morning, those in the bomb shelter came under heavy gunfire. Grenades were being tossed into the shelter. Hersh’s friend Aner, who was by the entrance of the bomb shelter, is responsible for the lives of anybody who’s still alive—he was picking up grenades and tossing them back out and taking control of the situation. But it was total chaos. At least 11 grenades were thrown into the shelter. Aner picked up eight grenades and threw them back out. Three exploded inside.
People were being critically wounded by the gunfire and grenades. And what we next know from witnesses is that at roughly 9 a.m., gunmen came into the shelter calmly, not shooting, and they said anybody who can get on their feet and walk out walk out of here, walk out. And our son was one of some small number of people to walk out, around five or six people.
The witnesses who have shared this information with us have confirmed for us that our son’s left arm had been severed from the elbow down. He’s a lefty. And he was bleeding. But he’s a trained medic so he had fashioned for himself a tourniquet of sorts on his arm. I don’t know how he did it–somehow using one of his shirts.
Witnesses say that he was taken onto a pickup truck under gunpoint and the truck drove off. That’s the last time anybody that we can identify saw him. The Israeli police last identified a ping to his telephone at 12:45pm on Saturday on the Gaza border. From that time, we don’t know where he is. We don’t know what condition he’s in. We don’t know if the truck pulled away and threw him on the side of the road and shot him. We don’t know if he was taken into Gaza. We have no idea.
Since midday Saturday, we’ve had a team of supporters here around the clock making calls to hospitals, to authorities, trying to work through U.S. government authorities, trying to get to humanitarian international aid agencies, trying to get to foreign governments that we think might be potentially influential. Right now we have a team working full speed with the number one goal being get Hersh the medical treatments that he needs immediately. Of course we’d prefer that being at home in Israel, but if not, then at least he can get it in Gaza.
And on behalf of all the hostages, we’re working everything we can to get them all brought home. The police have requested samples of Hersh’s DNA so I’ve brought them his toothbrush and his hair from his pillowcase at their request. I’ve also provided his last known dental X-rays. We’re doing everything we can to bring Hersh home.
—As told to Anna Gordon
Keren Schem, 50, Mazor, Israel
Schem’s daughter, Mia, 21, is missing after attending the Nova music festival.
She went to the party Friday night with a friend. I woke up on Saturday morning and I saw what was happening. I called her: the phone was ringing and there was no answer. I called the friend, too, but his phone was off. The only thing I know is that Saturday morning at 7:17, she sent a message to one of the people in the party: “They are shooting us. Please come save us.”
I’m a single mom. I have four children. Mia is the second one. Mia is very, very creative; she’s very, very beautiful. She’s only just started her life. She’s painting, learning how to make tattoos. She is my best friend. She’s like a mother to my youngest girl. Every mom will say this about her child, but Mia was so, so special. She’s all my world. Their father is not part of their lives, and she’s very, very important to us, and she’s just vanished. I have no clue where she is. Mia is a real warrior, and I know that she will never give up and she will fight until the end.
I want to tell Mia that she is the love of my life… I want to tell Mia, if she hears me: I will do everything I can. And if they hear me, our cruel enemy. I’m telling them now: you can come here and you can take me. Bring my daughter home. She is only an innocent child. Take me and bring my daughter home.
—As told to Charlotte Alter
Update: on Oct. 16, Hamas released a video of Mia Schem. In the video, Mia looks directly at the camera and says, “Right now I am in Gaza.” She says that she received medical treatment for an injury to her hand. “They are caring for me and giving me medicines,” she says, before asking to be released. “Everything is okay. I just ask that I am returned home as quickly as possible to my family.”
Roni Roman, 25, Tel Aviv
Roman’s sister, 35-year-old German-Israeli citizen Yarden Roman, was kidnapped from Kibbutz Be’eri
We were all together, all the family, three weeks of travel in South Africa with Yarden and her partner, Alon, and their daughter, Geffen. They were just heading back to Israel for the [Jewish] holiday eve on Friday, and they were staying with Alon’s family in Kibbutz Be’eri. Me and my father, we stayed in South Africa.
She sent pictures of her with Geffen in the shelter, saying that they’re alright, and just waiting for it to end. From South Africa, we did not understand what was going on and how unusual this was. Half an hour had passed, and then one hour, and then two hours, and there was no connection. We were just starting to understand that this is an extremely unusual situation—that there are terrorists that got into Israel, and that they were everywhere.
We decided to go on the road, a 15-hour drive to the airport, to go back to Israel. We hoped that we would have more information and we will hear from her that everything is fine. That didn’t happen.
When we landed, we got a call. The brother of Alon got a call from him from another cell phone saying that he is here with Geffen, healthy. They got to the army and they are okay and they are on their way to us. But he doesn’t know where Yarden is.
[Alon’s brother] told us the story. They were in the shelter when those terrorists came to their house. They took Alon, Yarden, and Geffen to a car that went to the [Israel-Gaza] border. Just before the border, Alon and Yarden decided to jump out of the car to try to escape. Geffen was in Yarden’s arms. She is 3 years old, so she literally held her in her arms. They were all barefoot and wearing pajamas. They started to run, and when the terrorists started to run after them and shoot at them, Yarden passed Geffen to Alon because she knew that he can run faster. Yarden found a place to hide, and Alon also, but it was much further than Yarden was, and that was the point where they were separated. Alon and Geffen were hiding for almost 24 hours. He didn’t know what happened to Yarden. All night, he heard [the terrorists] going around them and looking for them, so he couldn’t reach out.
My oldest brother Gili went back to the fields to look for her because we had hoped that maybe she is still hiding somewhere. Alon also went to the field to look for her. They spent four days searching. We didn’t find her. We’re pretty sure that they took her and that she’s in Gaza, although we don’t know it for sure, because we didn’t get any information about her. Right now, her status is missing.
My sister was working as a physical therapist. She lived in the kibbutz for four years, until this year. She was doing her studying in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem. She is quiet and humble and she has a really good connection to people. She has a lot of empathy and care. This is really the person she is, and this is who she was also for me. My mother had cancer and passed away last year. This year, Yarden was for me really a mother.
Right now, I’m really focusing on her health and that she will be okay over there and that she will be back. I’m not a politician. There is a lot of pressure everywhere. I can understand that the situation is really complex and there is a war right now. And this is making the whole story really complicated because this is not an army against an army. These are innocent people here that need to be saved.
We’re all together with Alon, with Geffen. Everyone here is playing with her and making sure that she’s fine. Right now, she knows that mama is missing. She doesn’t know why, or how, or the details of anything. Obviously, she was there, but she didn’t understand what was going on. I’m sure that she understands that this is a serious issue because she is just acting perfectly and not crying at all, not yelling—just being the best child that she can. This is not usual. This is her understanding what she should do to help her mother. I hope that she will get her back.
—As told to Yasmeen Serhan
Sasha Ariev, 24, Jerusalem
Ariev’s sister, 19-year-old IDF soldier Karina Ariev, was taken hostage from her army base.
She called us in the morning and she said that the base has been raided and attacked. She basically called to tell us goodbye. And so, if she won’t live, she asked us to continue our life. The last message was: “The terrorists, they are here.”
A few hours later, we identified her in a video. This was a video that the terrorists took and then published on their Telegram channels. This is our last confirmation that she is alive. She is alive on the video, but we don’t know what is going on now. We know that they probably took her. She was in their jeep, with other girls. We went to the police to show them the video and to say that we identify my sister so they can do something. The same evening, military officers came to our door and they said to us that my sister Karina is held in the hands of a terror organization. From this moment, we do not know any other information.
We sit, watch TV, and hope for the best. Our family supports us. Many people from our work, from the school that my sister was in, are sending lots of food. They are very warm. We feel that all the Israeli people, you know, they just came together to be one big family and the only thing that people want now is our hostages to be back; our children to be back. We do not care about bombing Gaza, going on the ground operation. The only thing that we want now is that my sister, my parents’ child, comes home.
She’s all I have, you know. I love my parents and all, but she’s the one my heart belongs to. She’s the only one I love in this world, the only one I want to be with me. She always comforts me. Even [though] she’s my little sister, I can always come to her and she will be logical with me and make me come together. She is very lovely. She is very innocent. She is very childish, although she is now a teenager. She likes to decorate her room. She likes stickers and the fluffy dolls of the animals. She loves to paint. She loves cosmetics; she is always doing my make-up. I do not understand anything about it. I remember the day she was born because the gap between us is five years. I was in the hospital and I saw her. All this life, since the moment she was born till now, is just rolling in my head like a film.
—As told to Yasmeen Serhan
Shaked Haran, 34, Be’er Sheva, Israel
Nine members of Haran’s family are missing after the attack at Kibbutz Be-eri.
I wasn’t in the Kibbutz. I was in my home in Be’er Sheva. We woke up from the sirens for the missiles and we ran into the shelter, and we were there for a few hours. At this time my brother in the south of Israel started getting the news of what’s going on and he started trying to communicate with my parents.
At the beginning they answered him. They were locked down in the shelter, eight of them together. It was almost all the family, except my uncle and aunt. They told my brother that they’re keeping safe and they’re following all of the orders and then at around 10:30 in the morning or 11:00 he tried to text them again. And they wrote back that they’re in very big trouble and that they love us. And that was actually the last text we received from them.
From that point on, we tried everything and anything to get in touch and to understand what’s going on. But the reality in the kibbutz was like a horror film. We kept getting messages from people saying that they’re being chased. There’s gunshots everywhere. Houses are being set on fire. But we had no idea where my parents were, or my sister and her young children.
A friend of my father called him more than 100 times and eventually someone answered in Arabic. They said in broken Hebrew, “hostage, hostage, Gaza, Gilad Shalit.” And so at that point, there was some indication that they had been kidnapped. But we still didn’t know at that point if any of the Israeli forces reached their house, because the fighting went on for almost three days in the kibbutz.
We finally received a message that the IDF forces were in their house but they didn’t tell us what they saw or what’s happening. Later on, we received a video of the house, which was completely ruined, burned down. Nothing really was left, but the shelter was empty, and they didn’t find any bodies. And they didn’t see any signs of blood or something like that. At this point, we realized that all of my family—including my three-year-old niece and my eight-year-old nephew—have probably been abducted by Hamas. We had no idea if they’re together or not, or what has been done. The only thing we saw was a video that Hamas released where we recognized my sister’s husband being handcuffed and put into the back of a car. He was alive, so these were the only indications. We knew their cell phone locations were somewhere around the Gaza border. But ever since then, we have no new information and we have no idea if they are alive, if they are together, where the children are, if they are being kept safe.
We know nothing. Honestly we feel like this is another terror attack. First there’s the terror attack itself and then there’s so much that is unknown. We’re eight days into the situation and we have no idea of anything. If you look at the list, you see that so many are elderly people and children and women. My parents and my uncle take medication that is really critical for them. We haven’t received any information, not from the Red Cross and not from other organizations so this is the situation now. I’m 30 weeks pregnant right now. The first few days were unbearable. I was frightened that I was not going to manage to stay healthy. But once we understood that the odds were that they were abducted and they might still be alive, we tried to take all our energy and power because there’s still hope for us. There’s some hope. We’re not naive, we know the situation, but we’re trying to hold on to this hope.
—As told to Anna Gordon
Yoni Asher, 37, Herzliya, Israel
Asher’s wife, Doron, 34, and his daughters Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2, are missing after the attack on Kibbutz Nir-OzCK.
I wasn’t with my wife and my daughters. They were with their grandmother, my wife’s mother, in Kibbutz Nir Oz. In the morning, we spoke on the phone and she told me that they were locked and hiding and they could hear gunshots outside. She said that she heard people inside the house.
We stopped talking so that it wouldn’t endanger her. And unfortunately, this was our last conversation; I haven’t heard from her since. Not too much time later, I saw a video on social media, which unfortunately showed my wife and my two daughters on some kind of vehicle, and it appeared they had been kidnapped by Hamas to be taken to Gaza.
Children and babies are not part of this war. They shouldn’t be part of this war. Since Saturday, I’ve been without all of my family. These are my only daughters, and I just want anyone who can hear me, I’m begging you to do something so that I know that they are alive. They are young children. They need medicine and special food, and caretaking. How is this possible? Every day that passes is a catastrophe. I am terrified over their fate and I don’t know who to turn to anymore. All I can do is talk to anyone who will hear me.
—As told to Anna Gordon
Read more: Misinformation Is Warfare
Ahal Besorai, 60, Philippines
Besorai’s sister, Yonat Or, 50, was at Kibbutz Be’eri with Yonat’s husband, Dror Or, 50, their son Noam, 15, and their daughter Alma, 13.
My dad and my two sisters live on the kibbutz. When all this happened, at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, I called to check what’s going on, and spoke to my dad and youngest sister. But around 9 a.m. we lost communication. I called Yonat, she picked up and said, “I cannot speak, there are terrorists around.” And she hung up the phone. I tried to send messages, and I tried to call, but there was no answer anymore.
They locked themselves in the safety room, and the terrorists burned down the house to force them out. Our working assumption is that they are hostages of Hamas. We don’t have any confirmation, they were seen being pulled out alive. Today we got confirmation from the IDF that Yonat’s phone was traced to Gaza at 11:45 on Saturday morning. We don’t know if they’re wounded. We don’t know if they’re all there.
I fill my mind with hope. I don’t run scenarios. I don’t make myself worry with this and that—it doesn’t help my sister and her family. I try not to do it, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes you go to dark places. Not knowing is probably the worst thing. There’s no sense of finality; as human beings, this is what we crave. There is some sense of relief in completeness, even if it’s bad.
What’s happening in Gaza, I think it’s very sad. Innocent civilians have been implicated and hurt, and it breaks my heart. But Israel does it out of necessity, not out of choice. You need to get rid of this terrorist organization because it’s a threat to our existence. I hope at the end of all this, there will be a rebuilding of Gaza, like after the Second World War. Gaza could be a beautiful city, if the money was spent on building it instead of arming people to attack Israel. At the moment, with all the pain, there is no other option but to get rid of Hamas. And there is a human cost, unfortunately.
—As told to Charlotte Alter
Eyal Nouri, 56, Caesarea, Israel
Nouri’s uncle, Said Moshe, 75, was killed in Nir Oz, and his aunt, Adina Moshe, 72, was kidnapped.
When they heard the sirens for the missile attack, everybody thought it was going to be like any other attack. Since they are only two kilometers from the border, they thought, okay, let’s go to the safe room. But this time, they broke the fence and over went about 2,000 Hamas terrorists, each one of them had received a special instruction. In Nir Oz, which is only two kilometers from the border, the order was to take as many prisoners as you can and kidnap them to the Gaza Strip.
My cousin, Amos Moshe, went into the safe room together with his wife and five children. When the terrorists came to his house, they started shooting. And when they could not open the safe room, they threw grenades. This did not help them to open the safe room, not from the door, not from the window. While my cousin and his five youngest children were inside the safe room hearing everything. Then they put the house on fire. The safe room was intended to protect against missiles. It was not intended to protect you against someone trying to penetrate the room. So he had to keep holding the handle of the door. They were trying to open the door. So it was like two people fighting over whose hand was stronger. When they put the house on fire, the handle became very hot. So he got burned. But still, he didn’t let go, because he knew if he’s going to let go of the handle, they’re going to slaughter them. After seven hours, the army came to rescue him.
In the evening Amos went to his parents house, and there he saw his father from the window. They had managed to penetrate the safe room from the window, using a bomb. From the window they managed to shoot him. And his wife Adina Moshe saw the whole scene. She saw her beloved husband lying on the floor with dozens of bullets. She tried to stop the blood, but she couldn’t. About 15 minutes after they came for her. And they took her to the Gaza Strip.
We found out that her picture was put online by the AP. You see her on a motorcycle with two terrorists. She’s sitting in the middle between the two terrorists. Think about the situation. A few minutes ago she saw her husband, the one that she loved for the last 50 years, murdered in front of her eyes and now they’re taking her to an unknown place in Gaza Strip.
I want to tell you a few words about my aunt. She’s a very powerful woman. She’s very strong. But you can see on her face that she was terrified. She’s 72. Nobody kidnaps a 72-year-old woman. Nobody kidnaps babies.
When I was a child, I spent my summer vacation at the same house. They have lived in the same house for 50 years. It was a desert when they came there. And they made the desert into heaven. Everything was green. They raised potatoes and peanuts and carrots and they loved to be farmers. They were simple farmers, and grew food for everybody. They also loved Palestinians. They gave food to Palestinians every weekend. They have a lot of friends there. They worked with a lot of Palestinian friends who worked in their fields. And the relationship was perfect until Hamas came into power. Hamas is not only terrifying for the Israelis, but also for the Palestinians. It is something I want the world to know. We love the Palestinians. We don’t hate them. We want to live side by side.
—As told to Mathias Hammer
John Lyndon, 40, Paris
Lyndon’s friend, peace activist Vivian Silver, was taken hostage at Kibbutz Be’eri.
I first met Vivian quite a long time ago at a peace demonstration, of course, in Jerusalem. She’s kind of like an institution in herself. She’s helped to found and catalyze all these different organizations and movements. She moved to Israel decades ago and has only created and built things since then around women’s rights and feminism, around Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel, and around Israeli-Palestinian relations cross-border. She was basically one of the founding members of Alliance for Middle East Peace [ALLMEP]. She knows everybody and knows everything. When I’m saying she’s an encyclopedia of peace-building and civil society, it’s totally true. But it would give someone an impression that she’s kind of austere or haughty. She’s so much fun. You know the kind of people that are the smartest people in every room they walk into, but they don’t need to make everybody know that? She carries her wisdom really lightly and with a lot of humility.
The way in which I worked with her most closely I guess was in her role as co-founder of Women Wage Peace, which she co-founded right after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. And it tells you everything you need to know about her. The way she reacted to that horrible war—up until the last few days it was the worst escalation we’ve seen between Israel and Gaza. She lived right on the border at Kibbutz Be’eri. She’s like, No, I’m going to work to build this women’s movement that’s focused on peace and equality and now has almost 50,000 members.
Before the closure of Gaza and the Second Intifada, she spent a ton of time in Gaza. She has lots of friends in Gaza from those times and had worked really, really hard to put Gaza on the agenda in Israel. It’s hard to overemphasize how invisible Gaza is when there’s not rockets firing. People just forget it’s there. Even sometimes the Israeli left. And Vivian was always the voice in the room who was like, ‘No, we need to talk about Gaza, about Gazans, rehumanize them.’ And that’s what makes her kidnapping all the more tragic. This is an Israeli that was focused on this, who knew so deeply the reality of Gaza, who could probably draw you a map of Beit Lahia or Gaza City from her mind.
The last that we heard from her was a little after 11 a.m., when she was telling people over WhatsApp that “there’s Hamas gunman in my vicinity.” We heard on Sunday that Vivian was unaccounted for. We don’t know for definite that she is in Gaza. There is no confirmed sighting of her being taken in. So we found ourselves—both us and Vivian’s sons—in this weird position of hoping she’s been taken hostage because the alternative is that she’s dead. Her house had been totally torched and decimated. But there was no sign of any human remains anywhere there. So we think that’s another data point that would suggest she was taken to Gaza.
We have a working group of folks from our space who are trying to help. We’re liaising obviously with her family a bit as well and the wider community of Kibbutz Be’eri, which is a very left-wing kibbutz. There’ve been some beautiful messages for people from the kibbutz about discouraging this full force assault on Gaza, the response. I know if Vivian was here, she’d be doing that too.
—As told to Yasmeen Serhan
Doron Libshtein, 54, Herzliya
Doron’s nephew, Nitzan Libstein, 19, is missing from Kfar Aza. Doron’s bother, Ofir, 50, was killed, along with Ofir’s mother-in-law Bilha Epstein, 80, and Ofir’s nephew, Netta Epstein, 21.
I was in Herzliya around 6:30 a.m. Saturday, and I got a phone call that something was happening in the south. I turned on the TV and saw what was happening. I immediately wrote to my brother, “How are you, what’s happening?” This is the first time we had terrorists entering the kibbutzim in huge numbers.
At 9:10 I got a message from Aviv, the oldest son of my brother, that said “I love you.” I said, “I love you too.” He said, “My father was killed.” He said, “Please tell everyone.” I ran immediately to my mother, who is 78, to tell her immediately what happened so she would not find out from the TV.
Ofir was informed that terrorists were entering his kibbutz. He left the house immediately to go to the safe room in the kibbutz to get his weapon. He got the weapon. He came back and started to fight. But he was one against really something like 70 to 100 terrorists, who shot him and killed him.
Ofir’s mother-in-law was killed at the entrance of her house. She went out to pick up her phone and probably the same group killed her. Her name is Bilha Epstein. She was 80. Then those people went after the building where young people were living. Netta was with his girlfriend and they threw two grenades into the room. I don’t know how, but he managed to tell his girlfriend to go under the bed and he jumped on the grenade.
An hour later, Nitzan called his mother and told her that the terrorists were in his room. He went to the safe room and held the door so they would not get in. But they fired on the door, and he was injured in his leg from the shots. He was guided on the phone by his brother and his cousin how to treat himself because he was alone in his room. On Wednesday I went to see his room and I saw the amount of blood. He managed to treat himself and he was waiting to be saved. But the army arrived very late, around 2:30 and only at 4 did they manage to get into his room. They told us that in his room there were only four terrorists. They killed them, but they couldn’t find Nitzan. Since his telephone died at 2:35 p.m. on Oct. 7, we haven’t heard from him. Not knowing is sometimes more difficult than knowing.
—As told to Mathias Hammer
Tair Kowalsky, 37, Herzliya, Israel
Kowaski’s niece, Roni Eshel, 19, was taken from Nahal Oz army base
Roni is a soldier with the IDF. She was a scout. Her job was to watch the monitors at the border fence. We think she’s missing along with five other female soldiers in her unit. The last time that we heard from Roni was when she told her mom by text message, “Mom, don’t worry about me. I love you.” And three hearts. Her mom sent her back, “I love you baby girl. I love you, sweetheart. Take care of yourself.” Since 9:27 AM on October 7, we haven’t heard from Roni. We don’t know her whereabouts. We don’t know if she’s dead or alive. We don’t know if she’s been captured or if she is being treated okay.
Saturday morning I called Sharon, Roni’s mother, and I asked her, have you spoken to Roni? She said yes, she called me and she’s okay. At 7:30 p.m. I called Sharon again, and I said “have you heard from Roni?” And she said, “No. I haven’t heard from her for hours.” Sharon said, “I’m worried sick. We need to find her.”
And this is when we became a war room family. Each and every one of us that is well-connected everywhere in Israel and outside of Israel started pulling all the strings possible. I reached out to dozens of people to help me find information about Roni, because no one knew what was happening down there in Nahal Oz. I reached out to people who were doing their reserves service, and were going down there, and I reached out to people from all over the hospitals to run through the lists, and we showed her picture.
We got a rumor on Sunday saying that they were being evacuated to a base called Julis. So I flipped the world upside down to find someone from that base. And I found people, and they say it wasn’t true. The day after, we got a rumor about a helicopter coming from Nahal Oz, saying there were five female soldiers on it. So we went all through the hospitals again and again and again—nothing. She wasn’t anywhere.
We haven’t slept. We haven’t eaten. The government also didn’t approach us, or say anything, because they also didn’t really know all the facts and the scenes were so horrifying. We thought we would have a list of everyone who is dead within 24 hours. But people are still getting notice about their dead now.
I want to tell people who might have a concept in their head of what a soldier is that she’s a little girl, and she has a mother, and she has a father, and she has two brothers younger than her and she has a dog. His name is Dooby. And she likes Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, and her plans were to go and see one of these concerts after she finished her military duty one year from now.
As the time passes, there’s no good outcome. The best thing I can wish for my niece is to be captured by monsters.
—As told to Anna Gordon
Kinneret Stern, 40, Karmei Yosef, Israel
Stern’s cousin, Moran Yaini, 40, was abducted from the Nova music festival.
I’m following my cousin through social media, and she shared with us her excitement about taking part in this music festival to showcase her jewelry. Moran is a jewelry designer. She uploaded some videos during the festival, so I knew she was there.
I don’t know if you can imagine what it is like to wake up to the sound of explosions–and I don’t live close to the Strip at all. There still weren’t sirens or anything. I looked at my husband and I said, “What is this? This is crazy.” Within 20 seconds the sirens started, and while we were sitting in the shelter, my husband started looking at Twitter and Instagram and he was saying “This is absolutely insane, this is absolutely insane.” We have three kids that were sitting with us in the bomb shelter, so he didn’t want to scare them too much. Then he said, “They attacked at the festival.” And that was when the realization dawned on me: she is there.
From that moment on, I knew my life could never return to what it was before. We started trying to get in contact with every hospital and doctor we could, to see if she had maybe arrived wounded or something. We found out that at some point she called someone and said that she managed to run away with some friends on a vehicle, and we shouldn’t worry. And the whole time she was saying that she was trying to get out of there, and she was okay, but she was hiding, and she kept having to hide, but soon she would get out. The hours passed, and from what we understood, at some point the group of friends split up. Moran ran away, and nobody has heard from her since 9:00 in the morning that day.
We finally found a video on TikTok that showed the terrorists with Moran, who has been captured. That was the last and only evidence we have from her.
I want people to know that Moran is the most loving, caring person I know. Full, full, full of compassion and love for other human beings, always seeking peace. Such a positive person in all her interactions. Warm, happy, just radiating positive energy. And the most horrible situation anyone could possibly imagine happened to her.
—As told to Anna Gordon
Moran Alony, 41, Rehovot, Israel
Alony’s sister, Sharon Alony-Cunio, 34; Sharon’s husband David Cunio, 33;and their twin 3-year-old daughters, Emma and Julie, were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir-Oz, along with Alony’s older sister Danielle Alony, 45, and her daughter Emilia, 5
Saturday morning we woke up to a missile alarm in Rehovot. We sent a WhatsApp message to my sisters. Sharon said: “We don’t know what’s happening. We were just told that there are terrorists in the kibbutz, and we’re in the safe room.”
After a while, she sent a message to the family Whatsapp group, saying ‘We hear the terrorists at our neighbor’s home.’’ At 9:30 a.m., she wrote that the terrorists were in the house. At 11:00 am, she called and left a voice message, saying “They are burning the house and smoke is getting under the door and she doesn’t know if she’s going to make it, and she loves us.”
She sent me coordinates. I tried to send it to people in the army or police or whatever. The last message she sent directly to me, not in the family Whatsapp. It said: “help, we’re dying.”
We came across an article in which one of the survivors described her point of view of everything that happened. During the kidnapping, she met two parents from the kibbutz that had 3-year-old twins. I found her phone number and called her. She said that they kidnapped her from her safe room. I heard that the terrorists went door by door, and they said, If you don’t open, we’re going to burn you down. The ones that opened got kidnapped. The ones that didn’t got burned.
They kidnapped the survivor and ran her to a field where a truck was waiting. When she got into the truck, she saw Sharon, David and one of the twins. They had a conversation there. David said, ‘I know that I left the safe room with two babies, and now I have only one.’ They tried to understand where they lost her, and how.
While they were in the back of the truck, soldiers came and started shooting at the terrorists. Either the terrorists were dead or ran away. David, my sister Sharon and the other family, they tried to run or hide. But the babies were crying, so another group of terrorists came and picked them up. And that’s the last thing we know of what happened .
In one of the video clips that Hamas shared, we saw David’s face. We think we saw one of my sisters, and maybe her daughter, Emilia, from the back. An army soldier came to us and said they can officially say that all the six are counted as kidnapped. My assumption is that someone found the other twin. That’s the lesser evil of the messages that we can receive. It’s surreal to think that the message that my family was kidnapped was some sort of relief during this time. Other than that, we don’t know their state, we don’t know how they’re doing. I don’t know if they’re together. I don’t know anything.
—As told to Charlotte Alter
Yuval Tias, 25, Rishon L’tzion, Israel
Tias’ brother, Elia Cohen, 26, was abducted at the Nova music festival.
I was staying with my mother for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. We woke up on Saturday morning from the sirens. We live in a neighborhood that rarely gets sirens. If they do get here, they are usually late into a war, so this really surprised us. We decided to just go to the synagogue—at least there we could be other people who would tell us what is happening.
People were saying there is a really big crisis going on. There’s rockets all over the country. We heard something about hostages. And we said to ourselves, this doesn’t make any sense. We tried to go ahead with the prayer service but we weren’t really able to pray at all because every minute we would have to go to the shelter and come back. And then during that time there was also a radio, and we heard someone say something about a festival. But it didn’t really occur to me that my brother was there. Of course, I knew that my brother and his girlfriend were at a festival, but we didn’t know that it was the same festival.
We gave up on praying because the situation was too scary. Once we got home, the sister of my brother’s girlfriend called my mother and said that there was some kind of attack on the party, but don’t worry there’s a picture of Elia, and he is in the hospital. It’s a famous picture now. But they hadn’t found his girlfriend or her nephew, who was also there with them. We were so stressed, worrying for everyone.
We called up so many hospitals, but nobody had heard my brother’s name anywhere. We called the ambulance, the police, but nobody knew anything.
Someone sent my mom a message on Facebook, asking if it was true what she had heard. So my mom asked, “What have you heard?” And she told her that Elia was one of the hostages. It didn’t make sense. If he was kidnapped, all the army and police would be here. We managed to talk to his girlfriend, who was at the hospital, but she was really hysterical and couldn’t manage to talk. The social worker at the hospital told us that we should try to call again at a different time.
We waited hours and hours, and then tried to call her again. This time she was able to tell us. There were a lot of rockets. They told everyone to leave the festival. They started to pack up and leave, but then someone else called my brother and told him, you can’t go in that direction, along that road—there’s terrorists that are shooting at all the vehicles. Stop, find yourself some cover, run away, but just don’t go near that area. So they entered a bomb shelter with around 30 other people. And they waited for around half an hour, until terrorists from the outside started throwing grenades at them.
Then, between 10 to 12 terrorists started shooting at everyone inside the bomb shelter, spraying bullets on everyone. The luck of Elia and his girlfriend–I don’t know if you can call it luck–was that they were towards the side of the shelter, so all the bodies fell on them. They were basically buried under the bodies. They managed to hold hands, and they whispered to each other asking if they were OK. Elia told her he was okay, but he was shot in the leg.
After a couple seconds, they heard screams, and felt that someone was grabbing Elia. And then we connected this story to the picture we had also seen that morning. That picture we had received around 11:00 a.m., so originally we had thought Elia was OK and they were taking care of him. But then we realized that it was a picture that was going around Telegram from Gaza. The army has spoken to us and told us that based on their intelligence, they think he is one of the hostages. We have zero information other than that.
This has been one big hell. I want people to understand that we just went through something almost like a Holocaust. I can’t say it’s a Holocaust, but it felt like a Holocaust 2. Something that we never thought in our lives could happen in our country. We always felt protected by the army.
But people there did evil things. A terrible massacre—there’s no other way to describe it. To murder kids, parents, babies, old people. To burn houses, to kidnap children. These are not normal things. The level of hatred and lack of humanity it’s beyond understanding. It’s important to me that people know this. We’ve been dealing with this for years and it needs to stop.
This is the most important thing. It’s important that people support us, support the nation of Israel. These people were truly innocent. Really young kids. Ages three, four, five. They didn’t do anything to anyone. They don’t need to undergo this horrible trauma.
—As told to Anna Gordon
With reporting by Leslie Dickstein, Simmone Shah, and Julia Zorthian. Production and camera assistance by Oded Plotnizki.Leave a comment