by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
Saturday morning, October 7. It’s Shabbat and the streets of Jerusalem are the kind of quiet you find only on Saturdays in the Promised Land. We are on our way out, heading to the Dead Sea to show a friend from Namibia the white desert of Judea. But then the air raid siren screams.
It’s the first rocket attack since Lily’s birth, which means that logistics in the Strauss house have changed somewhat. My husband grabs a protesting Lily and I tuck a dachshund under each arm, only to realize that there’s another dachshund on the floor and no more Strauss arms. My friend sees the predicament and grabs hold of the little weiner. Within seconds, the seven of us are out the door and rushing to the bomb shelter.
The Cohens and Venturas from next door are already en route—both families clutching a confused dog. The siren caught the three Ventura teenagers still in bed and they peer at the early-morning chaos with bleary eyes. We cram into the tiny shelter and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the late summer heat—giggling nervously—until we hear the dull thud of the Iron Dome shooting the missile meant for Jerusalem from the sky.
Ten minutes later, we’re back in the kitchen. I brew a pot of coffee while assuring my friend that it was a once off. Jerusalem isn’t usually in Hamas’s crosshairs, I explain. The south of Israel on the Gaza border is a different kettle of fish entirely. And even when the rest of the country takes a beating, we only run for the shelter when Hamas is really angry, when the terrorists want to make a point. Of course we’re still going to the Dead Sea, I console her. But the words have scarcely left my mouth when the siren screams again. Strange, I think. That’s a first.
This time, the Cohens and the Venturas are more subdued. I see Sarit sobbing quietly, but she doesn’t want to talk in front of the children. There’s no reception in the shelter, so it’s only when we’re back in the kitchen that the news breaks.
The reports come in via social media and WhatsApp groups for journalists. Thousands of missiles. A Hamas infiltration. It’s bad, they say. Define bad, I wonder. Are we talking about a death toll of one or two? Or is it really, really bad with something like 20 Israelis killed? Impossible, I dismiss the notion.
But then comes the footage. A bomb shelter sprayed scarlet with the blood of a family—husband, wife and three children—who lie butchered where they hid from the missiles. A grandmother shot dead execution-style while her executioner broadcasts the murder live on her Facebook page. Terrorists in the streets. Children slaughtered on the sidewalk. Old people who went for a walk. Joggers. Cyclists. The faithful heading to synagogue. Everyone.
All the atrocities are filmed—complete with Hamas men proudly posing for the camera—and uploaded to social media. There’s a gleeful arrogance about their grisly handiwork that says, “Look, world! Just look what we managed to do! And there’s nothing you can do to stop us!”
At some point, I realize that I’m sitting on the kitchen floor, the world tilting on its axis. I hear Lily crying somewhere on the periphery, but her mom can’t comfort her right now. And then the air raid siren screams again.
By noon, I’m with the Bridges for Peace team at the office. Many of the 24,000 plus needy Israelis we feed every month live close to the Gaza border in the communities Hamas targeted. And they are going to need our help now more than ever.
The office is quiet while we work. Besides, the reports keep pouring in. More than 100 dead, they say. I gasp audibly. There are hostages, they warn. And I shudder.
In the hours to come, the death toll soars as the army overwhelms terrorist forces and liberates communities.
But the scale and magnitude of the attack only begins to dawn the next day. October 7 stands as one of the bloodiest human massacres in a single morning. The darkest day in the Jewish state’s modern history; darker than the Yom
Kippur War. More Jews slaughtered in 24 hours than on any day since the Holocaust. More than 1,300 dead; 3,300 injured and at least 210 hostages, including toddlers and children.
Hours later, our team is already on our way to the Gaza border, our delivery van packed with humanitarian aid, donated in love by Christians from around the world, destined for those who have been hiding in their bomb shelters for days.
Our first stop is Ofakim, a town with a little over 33,000 inhabitants nestled near the Gaza border. The traffic thins to a trickle as we drive south, and at one point, we feel like the lone civilian vehicle among fleets of military and police cars.
The landscape is wholesomely beautiful. Wheat and barley fields roll into the horizon like strips of golden carpet. Coves of cypresses and stone pines flank the road like an honor guard. But villages and communities where children played in the streets just last week now lie deserted as mute witnesses to the cruelty inflicted there.
Setting out, we were warned that we might not be allowed to enter Ofakim. The bodies of the young people that Hamas butchered at the nearby Nova Music Festival are reportedly being processed in Ofakim. But someone clearly spoke to someone, because the army waves us through the checkpoint without asking too many questions.
Forty-eight hours after Hamas terrorists systematically crisscrossed these streets to mow down everything that moved, Ofakim is still a ghost town. Every shop, school and office is shut tight. Blinds hang low in front of windows to obscure inhabitants within. No pedestrians, no chatting mommies with toddlers in the park and no vehicles on the road except us. Residents were told to stay inside. But even without the lockdown, I wonder if anyone would have had the heart to venture outside. Stunned sorrow has wrapped around the town like a wet, woolen blanket.
We park next to Gabi, our contact’s, house and proceed to pile 125 bags crammed with non-perishable food on his porch table. We have to sit and drink something,
he insists, and promptly marches to the kitchen without checking whether we obey his order. Inside, Gabi points to the kitchen table, a sturdy, marble affair. Their house doesn’t have a bomb shelter, he explains. So when the rockets rain down, this is where they hide.
That’s where he and his wife were on that black Saturday morning—side-by
-side as they waited for the end of the bombing to start their day—when the gunshots rang out, he says. His wife dismissed the sound as children playing, but Gabi was in the army. He knows what
gunshots sound like. And so he opened the door to see if he could help.
The scene was like something out of a nightmare, he shudders. Terrorists armed with machine guns marched down the street in organized formation. He stood frozen in shock as they strode to the park bench in front of his house and shot his two friends who sit there every morning like clockwork. That’s when he turned and fled into the house.
“In a war, it’s one army against another,” explains Gabi. “But this was not that. Hamas did not target the army. They came looking for old people, women and children. The world must know. This is who our enemy is.”
The streets of Ofakim were a warzone for almost 24 hours with the Israeli army on the hunt for Hamas terrorists and Hamas terrorists on the hunt for Israelis. “It was like Russian roulette,” a survivor who wishes to remain anonymous told me. “You didn’t know who would find you first: the army or Hamas.”
We say goodbye to Gabi an hour later. He gestures to the 125 bags of food on his patio table. “That helps us in two ways. The people must eat. Obviously. That’s the physical. But then there’s the heart,” he says, his fist pressed against the left side of his chest.
Gabi stops, clears her throat, and then tries again. But as his voice breaks, the tears run down the deep grooves that the Israeli sun and time have carved into his face. “This shows us we are not alone.”
Twenty minutes later, we are on the outskirts of Sderot. This town is less than 1 kilometer (0.6 mi.) from the Gaza border and was one of Hamas’s first targets. While we were in Ofakim, Sderot came under yet another missile attack. Smoke and flames welcome us to the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World.
A military convoy stands idling next to the main road just beyond the turnoff to Sderot, where Hamas terrorists awaited unsuspecting motorists and slaughtered them one by one. On the spur of the moment, we pull over alongside the convoy, jump out and walk from vehicle to vehicle. “We are Christian volunteers from America, South Africa, Canada and Japan. We stand with you! We are praying for you! Thousands of Christians around the world are with you. You are not alone!”
“South Africa!” calls one of the soldiers in the front vehicle. “My aunt lives in Cape Town.” And so it goes. Each of the men in khaki has family, friends or at least an acquaintance in Washington, Pretoria, Ottawa or Tokyo.
Suddenly, a missile whistles over our heads from Gaza en route to Sderot. The dull thud of the Iron Dome comes a split second before the missile disintegrates in a brilliant ball of fire. “Did you see that?” I shout involuntarily, at which the entire convoy bursts out laughing. “Old news,” chuckles one, his teeth flashing white against black stubble. “You’re brave,” he tries to console. But I’m not. My friend who had to stand on tiptoes to kiss her husband goodbye over her almost nine-months-pregnant belly when he was drafted to war is brave. My friend who was part of the unit that uncovered the gruesome find of 40 children’s corpses is brave.
The scene that awaits us in the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World is surreal. It’s as if the city’s 30,000 inhabitants disappeared overnight to make way for an army base. Military vehicles zoom past eerily quiet apartment blocks. Soldiers patrol the streets, looking for Hamas terrorists still lying low somewhere. Every minute or two a dull thud of counterattacks on the Gaza strip resounds in the distance. Smoke clings to the horizon in gray columns. Just like in Ofakim, everything is closed. International media in bulletproof vests huddle around bomb shelters. Synagogues, parks with swings and slides and modern supermarkets serve as witnesses that there was once life here, that
believers prayed, children played and families shopped. But it’s hard to imagine.
Sderot’s community center currently serves as the central point from which humanitarian aid is distributed. Hundreds of liters of water are piled up next to baby diapers and formula. Biscuits, cans of food and protein bars are portioned, packaged and then distributed door-to-door.
While our team empties the delivery van, I take a seat next to a group of soldiers. It’s dinner time and most are more interested in pita and hummus than conversation. Yet one of them leans shyly in my direction.
Ofer (Hebrew for deer) is shockingly young. Teenage acne still cling stubbornly to his cheeks, but is starting to give way to the downy beard of a young man. Was I also still so much child at 18, I wonder.
Between his broken English and my broken Hebrew, the story comes out piecemeal. Ofer’s best friend died in the attack on Saturday. His aunt too. He shakes his head.
“Did you see what they did?” he asks, his voice hoarse.
For a moment, I mull the strangeness of the question. Of course I saw. The whole world did. That’s why we’re there, after all.
“And what did you think about it?” he pushes. An even stranger question, I ponder. I think what every other right-minded person thinks about murder, rape and torture. What else would I think about it? And then the real question in the soldier boy’s heart hits me.
A rabbi friend of ours often says that there are no young Jews. “All of us carry 2,000 years of death, genocide, persecution and sorrow in our DNA,” he explains. Our rabbi friend is right. From the church fathers and the Crusades through the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms in Europe and Russia to the Holocaust, Jewish history is marked with suffering, pain and loss. Moreover, the Jews often stood alone in the ordeal, without comrade or champion. For generations, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had to learn the hard way that the world was blind, dumb and mute when it came to their anguish—until they came to the conclusion that no one sees and no one cares; until they accepted that they would always be on their own.
And that’s what Ofer wanted to know. “Is it different this time? Do you see now? And if you see, do you care?”
I’m writing this article on day 10 of Operation Swords of Iron. Currently, there hundreds of thousands of soldiers—a civilian army who were bus drivers, lawyers and programmers last week—on the Gaza border, waiting for the order to start the ground offensive. I know how Hamas wages war. After October 7, everyone knows. But the world is prone to forget. And that’s why I write. For Ofer, for Gabi, for the soldier with the black stubble who thinks I’m brave. For the children that the Hamas terrorists took back to Gaza and now only smile in photographs. I see. And I care. I’m not the only one. In fact, I’m one of thousands upon thousands of Christians from around the world who you might never meet in person. That matters little though. What matters is this. Israel, you are not alone. You will never be alone on our watch. Never again.
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