(Photo: Uvda/Keshet 12)

The Story of a Hostage: Nili Margalit

On Thursday, November 30th, 2023, on the final day of the first ceasefire, 8 hostages were returned to Israel. One of them, Nili Margalit, is a 41-year-old nurse who had been kidnapped from her home in Nir Oz and held for 54 days in captivity. While captive in the Hamas tunnels under Gaza, she used her medical experience as a nurse to treat her fellow hostages. On January 4th, 2024, she was interviewed on “Uvda,” Israel’s equivalent of 60 Minutes. The following is an abridged translation of the interview by Rabbi Aron White. 

Interviewer and producer of the televised interview: Ben Shani. TV Credits: Keshet 12.

How did you wake up on October 7th?

My dog Netchi walked into my room – whenever he wakes up early, it’s not a good sign. A few seconds later, there was the first siren.

Who kidnapped you?

Civilians. After Hamas broke into Nir Oz and started murdering and kidnapping, many Gazan civilians followed after them, plundering the kibbutz. They broke down the door to my house, and I saw a 17-year-old taking three whipped creams from my fridge. It was almost humorous at that point; that’s what you are taking?! Then he took my bag and demanded “masari, masari” (“money, money”). He was then joined by another older man, this one with a tactical vest, holding a large knife. I froze, and it was simply terrifying. I just did what they said – they covered me in the sheet they took from my bed – I was still in my pajamas and barefoot – and they took me outside. I quickly pushed Netchi so he could run away. I also grabbed my glasses and held them under the sheet, to make sure they didn’t take them from me. As I got outside, there were people with guns coming towards me, and then they brought the kibbutz’s golf cart and pushed me inside. They drove us out of the kibbutz and towards Gaza. There was a stream of Gazans, thousands of people, all coming out of their villages and into Israel – men, women, children. I even saw two kids – one 15 years old and one just a small child who was 4 or 5 years old – driving my dad’s ATV, meaning they had already taken it from Nir Oz, driven it one way to Khan Younis, and were coming back to Nir Oz again. 

So you traveled through the fields, and then they took you through the fence into Gaza.

Yes. Then they transferred me from the golf cart to a car that had bloodstains in it, and we started driving in Khan Younis. Suddenly they put someone else in the car – Tami Metzger from Nir Oz. She had bruises on her face and legs, and it took me a second to recognize her. I said, “Tami, it’s Nili!” and we hugged. Then we were silent – we were both in shock. I wasn’t processing what was happening, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was just physically there. 

Then we got to the entrance to a tunnel. It was in a storeroom; there was a hole in the ground – a tunnel entrance. I saw that there was a negotiation going on, between the people who had taken me, and the Hamas people who they were now handing me to, or really selling me to. They sold me – us, also Tami – to them, and that was the last I saw of the people who had kidnapped me. 

For years we had heard about the tunnels Hamas built under Gaza. You are one of the first to have been there and to return to tell the story of what is there.

We went down into the tunnel, and they told us “yalla, yalla, go, go.” There was very little air, it was very dark, and I was walking barefoot on earth. Tami was holding me for support as we walked through the tunnel, and then Adina (Moshe) joined us. I said: “Adinush, where is (your husband) Sa’id?” “He’s dead,” she said. 

We kept walking onwards, and headed further down. Obviously I don’t know how deep, but at one point during my captivity I said to my captor that I can’t breathe, and he said: ”What do you expect? We are 40 meters underground!” so that is the only estimate I have. The tunnel was maybe two meters wide, and not very tall. Luckily, I am short, but someone tall would have to crouch down to be able to fit. They were leading us through, and they knew their way around – we took a right, then a left – it’s a city down there. They refer to it as “Lower Gaza.” It is organized, and they knew their way around the whole system there. They had been planning and waiting for this day.

After about half an hour to an hour of walking, we arrived at a gathering point, where tens of captives already were. There were young people, old people, soldiers – a whole group. 

Was everyone that you saw there alive?

Yes. Most were injured. I was maybe the only one who nothing had happened to. Many people were bruised from their trip into Gaza – many had been brought in on motorbikes and had fallen off. People had black eyes. 

At this point, our captors asked us to make a list of which medicines were needed. I volunteered to do that. “Ana mumarada, I am a nurse,” I said, and I asked them for a pen and paper so I could make a list. 

You speak Arabic?

I speak basic Arabic, as I am a ER nurse in Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva, and we have many Arab patients we serve there. “Ana mumarada fil Mushtusfaa Soroka, I am a nurse from Soroka Hospital.” My Arabic is very basic and I need to improve it. 

As you are describing this now, you are speaking with a lot of resilience. Did you have that in the moment, or was there a moment that broke you?

No, at that point I was operating with mental strength. It’s like being in the emergency room, and an injured or sick child comes in – you have to act, not to think. We are trained to act, and so I took the pen and paper and went around each person, writing down in English what medications they need. 

I was worried about some of the elderly people. I didn’t record the full list of what each of them were taking – there wasn’t time to focus on things like Vitamin B that are not essential. What is important is the heart, blood pressure, and the kidneys. I started working, to figure out the essential things each of these people needed, especially the ones in their 70s and 80s. 

At this point, we were divided into smaller groups, and taken to different rooms where we would be held during captivity. I was with many people who I knew since my childhood. Alex Dancyg, a Holocaust educator who guided me on my Poland trip. Chaim Peri, who is a film director who made a video clip for my bat mitzvah. Yoram Metzger, a good friend of my father. And my neighbor, Yarden Bibas, the husband of Shiri, and the father of Kfir and Ariel, the two gingi (redhead) children the whole world now knows. In total, there were 12 of us being held in this small room. Adina was also there – she had been our nanny from first to sixth grade, so we were very close. She told the captors she was my mother, and we stayed together throughout our captivity. 

Many of these elderly people didn’t have their glasses or hearing aids, so it was hard for them to hear and see. When I communicated with them, I had to shout in their ear. 

Did you know what happened to your own family, who also live in Nir Oz?

I had no idea what happened to my mother and brother, but I had a feeling then that my father was no longer alive. My father (who was known as “Churchill”) is a legendary horse farmer in the kibbutz, and the type of personality who would never let himself be captured, and would fight back to his last strength. From the stories I heard from others I believed that if he had fought back they would have killed him. You make a certain disconnect in your head, because you just can’t think about it. I told myself, “A tragedy has happened, now I am a survivor and my job is to survive.” You just switch off from thinking about certain things, as they are too much.

Did you receive medicines?

Not at the beginning. They gave us a blood pressure machine for some reason, and I took everyone’s blood pressure each morning and evening and wrote it down. At the beginning, some people had measurements like 218/120, the type of things we see in emergency rooms that would require immediate medical attention, and I used these to show our captors that medicines were urgently needed. After 3, 4 or 5 days we received a black bag with medications in it, and I then had to do a triage, to see who needed what the most, and how to divide up the limited medicines we had. I had one strip of ten antibiotic pills, and decided that Tami was the one who needed it – she had many bruises and wounds from when she fell off a motorbike being brought into Gaza, and the wounds were becoming infected. Some of the people I gave medications to weren’t helped by the medications. But I just had to do what I could with what I had. There was some honey for eating, but I knew that there is a type of treatment where you put honey on as a bandage, and it creates chemical reactions that can reduce infections and help wounds heal. Obviously, this is usually done with medical honey, but I had to use what I had, so I made that bandage for Tami – and it worked like a charm. I would also tell our captors that we needed more medication, that we were about to run out. I kept pushing and pushing to make sure we got the medications.

I also had added Clonex, a relaxation and sleeping pill, to the list of medicines that I asked for. I knew that we needed it, and until it arrived none of us could sleep. At night we would be alone with our thoughts and our fears: What was going to happen? What had happened until now? What happened to our families? When will this nightmare end? Until we received these pills, it was almost impossible to relax enough to fall asleep. 

Were other people coming into the tunnel?

All the time there were other Hamas people coming through, including very senior members. I didn’t know who they were, but since my release I was shown pictures and I now know who I saw. I would often say to them we don’t have enough medicine, and the people holding us would get annoyed at that. They would take away our fans or other things to punish us for going above them and asking the more senior Hamas members – when they took away the fans, it was hot and hard to breathe.

A few weeks in, they told me to come with them, and they took me to another area, where the hostages (Amiram) Cooper, (Avraham) Munder and Margalit Moses were and required medical treatment. I measured their blood pressure, and Avraham’s was very low, and so I gave him an IV of fluids and helped stabilize them. There were people with diabetes, but I knew their treatments were less important – when you don’t have pills, you can stabilize glucose by not eating, and we were eating so little down there I was less worried about glucose levels. 

One of the people I was with was Yarden Bibas, the father of Kfir and Ariel and the husband of Shiri. He had been taken by Hamas, leaving his family behind, and he was worried about them; he had no idea they had been taken – who could imagine a baby being kidnapped! He spent a lot of time wondering what happened – at one point the Hamas captors told him that they had been seen on a video in Tel Aviv, when of course the video that everyone saw of them is very different (being taken captive from Nir Oz by Hamas). 

About 40 days in, I saw some TV for the first time, and saw the protests going on calling for our release. It made me happy to know that the Israelis had not forgotten about us.

(Photo: Uvda/Keshet 12)

What happened when the hostages started to be released?

On the first day, Adina was released. When she was taken from the room, it was very difficult for me, as she was my support. I had a moment when I broke down, but then I took a deep breath, then another one, and regained my composure. It was very scary as a woman to remain by myself – I was now alone in my room within the complex where we were. 

I didn’t know if I would be released, but I said to Yarden Bibas, “If I get released, the others are going to need you,” and I trained him in which person needs which medicine, how many they need, and how to advocate for them with our captors. 

One afternoon, they told me that I was going home, and I was very happy. My happiness was destroyed in a few minutes, as they set up a camera, and recorded themselves telling Yarden Bibas that Shiri and the boys had been killed – something Israel says is not confirmed. They told Yoram and I that we should be the ones to tell him, but I said, “If you want to tell him something this awful, you tell him yourself.” It was just awful – I was crying on the side, and a minute after they filmed him, they took me out. 

When I was released, the first doctor who met me told me that Netchi, my dog, was still alive. When I got to the Chatzerim IDF base and had the first phone call with my family, my brother said, “Dad is no longer alive, but the rest of the family survived.” Gradually I heard more and more about the tragedy of what happened.

How do you see your future?

I will return to work as a nurse, at some point. I am choosing to live, not only to survive but to live life.

I still don’t want to see pictures of Nir Oz and how it looks now. I have been told that there is nothing left of my house, that it has been totally burned. Somehow, to see pictures of it makes this whole nightmare even more real. In my head, Nir Oz is still as it was the day before, on the Friday before. For now, I want it to remain that way. 

I think Nir Oz is the most beautiful place in the world. The sunset in January and February, looking towards Khan Younis, is the most beautiful in the world. It was the most beautiful place in the world.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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