Today was the reason I came on this trip. I came to bear witness to the atrocities of Black Shabbat, October 7. I came to hear the stories of survivors and to see, with my own eyes, the devastation and carnage in the Western Negev region, which is often called the Gaza Envelope.
Our day began early, on the bus by 7:40 a.m. so we could meet our security window for our visit to Kibbutz Nir Oz, the site of one of the 22 communities targeted on October 7. The kibbutz was founded in 1955 and was a community of 400 people. One in four people on the kibbutz were murdered, taken hostage, or have been missing since October 7. Nir Oz is a business for paint manufacturing, potato crops, and a dairy farm. Many Gazans had work permits as employees of the factories. And still, they came on October 7 to destroy rather than to create.
Our group receives ballistic vests and helmets. We’re told to wear these and duck if the siren goes off while we’re on the bus. You’ve got 10 seconds at most. On October 6, all you needed to go to the kibbutz was a friend. People sat in the fragility of the sukkah sharing wine and joy. But to visit on October 8, you needed protective gear and a soldier.
Our tour guide walked us through house after house of those who were murdered, burned alive, stabbed, and shot. Houses blackened with soot. Safe rooms covered in blood and bullets. A bottle of wine left on the table outside from a last sukkah party the night before. In this house, a friend, in that house, a young family. Doors with a “Bring Them Home” poster of their owner taped to the door.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. We jumped. “Oh, that’s our IDF. They are now in the city directly across from us.” At first, my thought was, “Did I miss the lightning? How far away was the storm?” But of course, for this type of “thunder” in Israel, the siren gives you 10 seconds – that’s as long as you have.
Shattered glass and ransacked rooms. A sukkah left up. A jungle gym and toy house in a backyard which we heard “belong to the Bibas family. This was their home.” Those fiery red-headed children, the boy who at nine months old has disappeared.
This resident used to brag he had the best view from his balcony. His charred exercise bike sits outside the footprint of his home. Come, let’s look. The raised porch is all that remains of his home. SIREN SIREN SIREN. Ten seconds, GO! We rushed to find the safe room, as mortar shells fired from Gaza to Nir Oz. ALL CLEAR.
To another kibbutz 50 minutes away, a kibbutz that has absorbed 400 new residents, doubling their size. An outdoor laundry room was created. People were displaced from their homes because their beds were too close to danger, not knowing when they would return. Families in one-room apartments, trying to live. They fled under fire. They lived their dream life, then faced the worst nightmare possible.
The rain begins. A flash of light and BOOM! Iron Dome? There was no siren. No, that was actual thunder. The rains have begun. We stand in the temporary section of a cemetery in Revivim, created for those murdered at Kibbutz Be’eri because they can’t be buried in their home cemetery just yet, or maybe it isn’t there anymore. El Malei Rachamim – we prayed for their souls to be bound up in eternal life. As we reach “amen” a 15-second-long rumble of thunder. Maybe God is crying too.
Today I was present to bear witness to the aftermath of horrid hatred. We smelled death. We saw homes not only burned and blown up but ransacked for loot after the murders. Today, I saw what evil can do.
And I also saw the good. We have found the helpers, as Mr. Rogers said we would. The community of Israel has come together in strength and unity to make sure Am Yisrael chai. The nation of Israel will live.
There’s more, but my words aren’t ready yet.