The site of the battle of the police station in Sderot.

The Scene of Destruction – Visiting the Gaza Region

BY RABBI ARON WHITE

In January each year, Israel’s Route 232, the main highway connecting the towns of Sderot, Ashkelon and Re’im, is filled with people traveling to the forests and fields on the Gaza border. Darom Adom, “The Red South”, is a celebration of the beautiful red anemones that flower here at this time of year. This year, a steady stream of cars and buses are driving on Route 232, but they are visiting a wounded region that became the “Red South” in a very different way on October 7th. The lush green fields, orchards and flowers provide moments of respite as one travels between the sites of disasters and atrocities that are hard to comprehend.

Our trip, a Mizrachi mission of rabbis from the UK, visited Sderot, the site of the Nova party massacre, Be’eri and Ofakim. Each place had a different feel and was a unique experience. But more significant than the physical sites were the extraordinary people we met there.

Sderot – an urban shoot-out

Arriving on Herzl Street in the center of Sderot, you don’t immediately realize that you have arrived at a war zone. It feels like a standard, old Israeli street, with apartment blocks and a makolet, with an empty plot of land covered in sand and metal. On October 7th, a three-story police station stood on that plot of land. It was attacked by 26 Hamas terrorists, who wanted to take control of the station to enable them to rampage freely around the city. Yair Avinoam, one of the brave people who fought Hamas on that day, showed us around, interspersing his walking tour of the area with photos, videos and WhatsApp voice-notes from October 7th on his phone.

Yair works as a prison guard and is a member of the civilian security team, the kitat konenut, together with paramedics, hi-tech workers, and other ordinary civilians. On the morning of the attack, after 20 minutes of non-stop rocket sirens, messages began circulating about a terrorist infiltration into the city. The kitat konenut jumped into action, and Yair was directed to head to the police station, where there were reports of fighting. Yair arrived, and saw a car with the driver and front passenger shot and two girls in the back seats. He pulled the girls out under fire, and found one of the students at the Sderot Yeshiva to give the girls to. Their parents were tragically killed, but, thanks to Yair, the two young girls survived.

As Yair showed us where he fought, he saw a policewoman across the road. “She was in the building when the terrorists arrived,” he told us. The battle for the police station lasted for many hours, with 9 policemen losing their lives. This policewoman managed to get to the roof, where she lay for hours pretending to be dead. She was lying in puddles of water, as the shooting had exploded the water tanks on the roof, and had to make sure she didn’t shiver. Eventually, special forces brought her down from the roof. After 48 hours of fighting and once it had become clear that no Israelis in the building were still alive, an IDF helicopter and two tanks leveled the police station. 

The destruction we witnessed at the police station was a stark contrast to our conversation with Rabbi Dovid Fendel, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Sderot Yeshiva. He told us about his plans to continue developing the city. The spirit of Sderot was wounded, but as always in this Israeli capital of resilience, it was not broken. 

Three members of Sayeret Matkal who were injured in October 7th address the mission.

Re’im – where the music stopped

As we drove to the site where the Nova festival took place, almost every road sign pointed to a location that is now etched into collective Jewish memory. The Sha’ar HaNegev junction, Kfar Aza, Nir Am; each of these saw death, destruction and heroism on October 7th. It would take weeks to actually visit every site and take in all the stories from that day.

Arriving at Re’im Park, we saw the field where the central stage of the festival stood, and what seemed like countless pictures of young people who were slaughtered there. 371 were killed, hundreds more injured, and 45 taken as hostages to Gaza, making this the single largest murder scene from that day. The partiers came from all over the country, ensuring the pain of October 7th touched every major city in Israel. While our group was there, the mayor of Yavneh, a mid-sized town nearer to the center of the country, was lighting a candle next to each of the pictures of the 6 citizens of his town who were murdered.

We saw a young man with a cane walking around the pictures. I asked if he had been at the Nova, and he said he had been at Be’eri. I asked him if he would be willing to speak to our group, and so he and two friends told their story. They were in a commando unit of Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) that was called in the morning of the attack and they fought the Hamas terrorists at Sha’ar HaNegev and Be’eri. All three of them were injured in the fighting. One rabbi asked them how old they are. “21,” he said.

Then memorial at the site of the Re’im massacre.

Be’eri – the epicenter of pain

Of all the locations we visited, Be’eri is where the physical destruction is most visceral. Elad Keidar, a kibbutz member, told us his story amid a row of destroyed homes. His pain is unimaginable. His parents were murdered, his mother’s body is still being held in Gaza, and his sister with special needs was saved from her burning home. It is hard to describe the experience of walking through a burned house. Like a modern version of Pompeii, you get a glimpse of the community’s day-to-day life, preserved amid the utter destruction. The family pictures on the refrigerator, burned. The food mixer in the kitchen, melted out of shape from the fire. Clothes and toys in the bedroom, remnants of a normal family living an ordinary life. Seeing the life of October 6th interwoven with the death of October 7th was emotionally overwhelming. 

As one rabbi put it, you can still see the remnants of Gan Eden amidst Gehenom. The paths are beautiful, some homes are untouched, while others are ruined beyond repair. Most jarring is the way time has frozen. The clinic, where 21-year-old Amit Mann treated the wounded for six hours before she herself was killed, is still covered in bullet holes, and much of the wreckage of the attack is still there. The sukkah outside Elad’s home is still standing, months later. Signs in the dining room still advertise the Tai Chi class for October 10th and the parent-children activity planned for October 24th. By that date, 9-year-old Emily Hand and other children from the kibbutz were being held hostage in Gaza. At the time of writing, most of the kibbutz members are living in hotels near the Dead Sea, with a number of residents still held hostage in Gaza.

The group speaking with Elad outside a destroyed home in Be’eri

Ofakim – Moroccan pain and life

On the drive to Ofakim, we passed the beautiful fields alongside Road 241. These fields were the route taken by many of those saved from the Nova festival. Encouraged by local residents and policemen who realized it was the only safe route, hundreds of partiers ran or were driven across these fields, arriving at Patish, Netivot and Ofakim. 

At Ofakim, we are welcomed into the beautiful home of Moshe Ohayon, who was murdered together with his son Eliad on October 7th. Michal, Moshe’s sister, told us the story of her “powerhouse” brother. They grew up in a large Moroccan family in the center of the country, but Moshe moved to a new neighborhood of Ofakim to help develop one of Israel’s poorer cities. He was a “chessed powerhouse,” helping hundreds of families each week. He arranged for local army bases to contribute surplus food to the community, helping to feed 500 people a day. When the opportunity to lead a social entrepreneurship program arose in Haifa, he drove two hours each way to lead the program. On Hoshana Rabbah, just 24 hours before his murder, he hosted a Sukkat Shalom, a meeting in the sukkah of members of different parts of Israeli society. On Simchat Torah itself, he hosted a large number of children with special needs who were enjoying a special Yom Tov celebration. He never stopped giving, until literally his last day.

When the first terrorists arrived in Ofakim, the residents were confused. Initially, many mistook them for IDF soldiers in strange uniforms. Ofakim is a half-hour drive from Gaza, and is part of the south rather than the Gaza envelope. It was difficult for people to grasp that terrorists from Gaza could be driving around Ofakim. Most of the fighting took place on Tamar Street, with each house on this suburban road carrying a story. Moshe and Eliad Ohayon were murdered in front of one house. Rachel and Moshe Edri, who famously kept the terrorists distracted for 18 hours by giving them cookies before being saved, live further down the road. As we walked around the neighborhood in the driving rain, we could feel the residents’ fierce determination to continue living here. On October 7, they fought for their homes and families – and they are determined to stay.

Hearing the story of Moshe and Eliad Ohayon hy”d.

Concluding thoughts

For decades, Jews around the world have come on missions to Israel, but the missions of the last few months have been radically different. In the last 50 years, Israel has fought wars and faced terror attacks – but on October 7th those two horrors merged into one. The battle front was not at the Suez Canal or in a field in the Golan Heights, but on streets in Sderot, Be’eri and Ofakim. The warriors who fought back included the IDF, the police force and local security teams, but also ordinary residents who did whatever they could to defend their homes. The fact that homes became the battlefield raised sensitive issues on our mission. In Be’eri, Elad asked us not to photograph certain homes, whose owners are not comfortable with their private home being photographed by the masses of visiting groups. 

What remains most powerful on these trips is not the places, but the people. Those hours of October 7th affected hundreds of thousands of people, each of whom carry a story and emotional scars. One can read and hear countless stories, but nothing compares to a first-hand interaction with those who lived through that day.

Most remarkable was that every person we met smiled. The handful of people we spoke to represent thousands of Israelis who have experienced loss and trauma that will never fully heal. But their spirit is strong; they are not broken, but determined. And it is their spirit that reverberates among those who visit them, and through them around the world. Gan Eden may have been turned into Gehenom – but they are determined to rebuild their lives. 

On a personal note, during this mission I experienced one of the most moving moments of my life. About a month-and-a-half prior, I had volunteered to join the IDF, along with many other olim and Israelis who had previously not served who were now signing up to join the war effort. As we were standing in the burned home of the Keidar family in Be’eri, I received the call from the IDF telling me my enlistment date. At least on a personal level, I felt I was making the tiniest impact in the large machine that is the IDF, in helping my country ensure no Jewish homes would ever be burned again. 

 

Rabbi Aron White is the Managing Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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