Surviving Hamas

Surviving Hamas

Grandmother, granddaughters tell their story

ON THE COVER: Liora stands between her granddaughters Mika, left, and Gali; they are inset into the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Jewish Agency for Israel)
ON THE COVER: Liora stands between her granddaughters Mika, left, and Gali; they are inset into the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Jewish Agency for Israel)

The thing that strikes you first is how normal they are.

Not that normal is an easy word to define. The two 15-year-olds and their grandmother seem probably smarter than normal, more colloquial and fluent in a second language than is normal for most of us Americans, more comfortable talking to total strangers, with their barrage of questions.

But even if their grandmother seems perhaps a bit watchful, all three are clearly well-adjusted, healthy Israelis.

Then they tell their story, and you look at them differently. You see extraordinary exemplars of the human spirit.

On Tuesday night, a group of American Jews gathered in a house in Short Hills to listen to the three Israelis — Liora and her granddaughters, first cousins Gali and Mika, tell their stories. (At the family’s request, we are not using their last names.)

They were introduced by Danielle Mor, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s vice president for Israel and global philanthropy, whose talk was impassioned.

“If only we could turn the clock back to October 6,” she said; that was a shared wish. Back then, back about eight weeks ago, a lifetime ago, Israel’s promise — that Jews never again would have no place to go, no place where they would be safe — still held.

Today, that promise has been shown to be hollow.

Liora, the mother of four and grandmother of seven, lived in Kibbutz Kfar Aza for 45 years, she said. It’s right on the border with Gaza — two kilometers away — “and from the fence,” which separates Israel from Gaza and is right there, where she lives, “you can see the houses in Gaza. I have friends there. I volunteer with a program called Roads to Recovery; I drove sick Palestinians from Gaza to hospitals in Israel.”

October 6 was a normal day for Liora, who — and why not heap irony on top of poignant irony — teaches dispute resolution and works with both Jews and Arabs. She picked up her youngest son from the airport; he’d been abroad, working on his doctorate, she said. It was the end of Sukkot, so the family — which is not religiously observant — was getting together to celebrate the holiday. “My grandmother, my mother, and I were at my grandmother’s kibbutz for a holiday dinner,” Mika said. “My sister didn’t want to come. It was the first time I’ve ever been glad that she didn’t come to visit our grandmother.

“We had dinner at Gali’s house” — Gali and her family also lived on Kfar Aza. “It was fun. We laughed a lot. We ate good food. Her father was a great chef.”

“And I made a chocolate cake!” Gali added.

Liora hugs two of her granddaughters, Gali, left, and Mika. The three of them, along with two of Liora’s grown children, spent 36 hours in the safe room in her house.

Because the two cousins are good friends, but they live in different parts of Israel, go to different schools, and don’t get to see each other as often as they’d like, they decided to have a sleepover at their grandmother’s house.

So far, so normal. So good.

They were awakened at 6:30 by the sounds of explosions. It wasn’t quite normal — “we didn’t understand why it was so quiet, why we didn’t hear a code red,” Gali said. “That’s when we have 15 minutes to get to the mammad, the bomb shelter room,” Mika explained.

“So we went to the shelter room,” Liora said. “Everything was okay. I wasn’t scared. I was used to it.” So Liora, her daughter, one of her three sons, and two of her granddaughters retreated to their mammad.

“We didn’t even bring anything with us,” Gali said.

“It was a surprise, because it wasn’t a tense time,” Mika said. “But it happens a lot.” They were used to it.

“It’s crazy, but we are used to it,” Gali confirmed.

Yet something was different. The sounds of missiles and gunfire “went on and on,” Liora said. “It didn’t stop.”

“We grabbed our phones, and our friend sent us messages,” Gali said. “My brother sent me a message that said, ‘There are terrorists in the kibbutz,’ and I sent him a message back, ‘No. You are crazy. That never could happen. Stop lying to me.’”

“Then Gali got scared,” Liora said. “She told me to close the iron part of the window, which I never had done. But I did it then, and it probably saved our lives.” That’s because by the end, the terrorists had shot so many bullets at the house that some of them would have come through the window, and also because the terrorists would have seen them.

“At 8 in the morning I got messages from all over the kibbutz, saying terrorists are trying to get into their homes,” Liora continued. “I am starting to believe it, but I’m still not scared yet, because I still don’t really get it.”

This is what the house looks like now.

Soon, though, the truth, the reality that they were living in a waking nightmare, became unavoidable.

“I get up from the bed I was sitting on, and I go to the door, thinking that if somebody comes from the outside, I have to close it,” Liora said. “I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to scare anyone.”

But that ship sailed so long ago, it was halfway out of the Mediterranean by then.

The family is getting message after message, video after video.

“I have a video of the terrorists driving into the kibbutz in a pickup truck,” Gali said. “I showed it to everyone, and we all realized what’s happened. Our friends asked for help. They’d say, ‘Help us, please. They are at the door.’

“But we don’t know how to help. We can’t help. It’s heartbreaking.”

The family had expected the IDF to rescue them, “but we are helpless, with no one to rescue us except the civilian defense team.”

Gali’s father, Tal — who was also Liora’s oldest child and Mika’s uncle — was the head of the civilian defense team.

“His friend had called him to tell him what was going on, so he left his house and went to the armory room,” Liora said. “He didn’t realize that there were terrorists all around. He managed to get a gun, and he started shooting the terrorists, right out of your house, Gali. He saved his family.

“And then he started running across to the other half of the kibbutz to help his friend. The first one was Abigail’s father.” That was Abigail Mor Idan, the little Israeli-American girl from Kfar Aza who turned 4 in captivity the day before Hamas released her. Abigail is now an orphan; terrorists murdered her mother, Smadar, in front of her. Her father, Roy, tried to protect her, but the terrorists killed him too, as he held her. Abigail managed to run to a friend’s house, but Hamas kidnapped her from there.

“Abigail’s father wrote to my dad that the terrorists had broken into his house,” Gali said. “He said that he saw paragliders landing in the kibbutz. My dad ran to try to save his friend, thinking that there were just a few terrorists. He got shot on the way there. He was wounded. But he went on commanding the defense team, telling them what to do, telling them that there were terrorists on the kibbutz dressed as soldiers.

“He said they should deal with the terrorists first, and then evacuate the wounded people.

This is a room in Liora’s house as it looked after the terrorists were removed from Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

“Later I found out that with his last breath, he called the commander of the defense team in the kibbutz to help save them from the terrorists.”

And then he died.

Meanwhile, in the safe room in Liora’s house, “we heard a little bit of people talking outside, and we tried to figure out if it was Hebrew or Arabic,” Mika said. “And then we heard shouting in Arabic, and then we heard glass shattering from inside the house.”

“We realized that they were inside the house,” Gali picked up the story. “Then we heard footsteps getting closer and closer.”

The thing about safe rooms is that the doors don’t lock, the cousins said. “The only way to keep it closed is to hold it closed,” Liora said. That’s because the threats they were built to protect against were assumed to come from the sky, as missiles or bullets, not from inside the house.

“They were fighting my son Ron trying to open the door,” Liora said. “Gali and I went under the bed,” Mika said. “We were holding each other’s feet.”

“We were so scared,” Gali said. “I was covering my ears,” Mika added.

The family was in that safe room for 36 hours; throughout that time Liora’s son and daughter took turns holding the door pulled shut. They’d take hourlong shifts. “Whenever we heard the shooting get closer, my mom grabbed a knife. When they got close, she’d hold the knife in one hand and help my uncle with the door handle with the other hand.”

At around 11 a.m. that day — it was Saturday, October 7 — the IDF arrived. “There was a big fight between the terrorists and the Israeli army outside the house,” Liora said. “A lot of Israeli soldiers were wounded and brought into the house. They were all over the house. There was bloodshed all over the house. It was horrible, a terrible thing to see.”

The IDF treated the wounded soldiers, and eventually they all left. The family was still in the house — “By 3:15 we were left alone again,” Liora said — and as it turned out the terrorists were still in the kibbutz.

By that point, only Gali had cell service. She was able to find out what was going on from WhatsApp; the terrorists had gotten into the group, and she saw it. “I kept sending the IDF their locations,” she said.

“This is important,” Liora said. “At that point, only Gali had cell service, and she was making all the arrangements. When we realized it, my daughter and my son and I made the decision, without even talking about it, that we would leave the phone in Gali’s hand. The phone would stay with her. She kept on sending locations and staying in contact with the outside world.

“Later, we realized that we’d made that decision, and I’m very proud of it.”

Two men survey some of the damage to Liora’s house.

“I like being in control,” Gali said. “I’m the responsible adult with my friends.”

“This went on until between 12 and 1 o’clock,” Liora said. “The next time soldiers came into the house, it was midnight. There was a lot of shooting and bombing and silence in between. The soldiers came in and said ‘Open the door.’

“I was still under the bed, and when they said that I started screaming,” Mika said. “I was scared that they would think I was a terrorist. I got out slowly.”

“They said that they would clear the house and soon someone else would evacuate us,” Liora said. “It was midnight on Saturday night, and I was still in my pajamas. I went to my bedroom. I got dressed. I got my ID cards so I’d have them with me. I shut the door to the shelter room. I was sure that they would rescue us. But it didn’t happen. I heard people around the house, rescuing our neighbors — the ones who were still alive — but not us.

“This was hard. What’s the point of rescuing the house from terrorists if you’re not saving us?”

Given her options, Liora chose one. She went to sleep. The IDF brought them bottles of water, and “we had some dates and a few biscuits and fish from Friday night,” Mika said.

The ordeal dragged on.

“On Sunday at 1, the terrorists again tried to open the door,” Liora said. “My son and my daughter fought them and kept it shut. They shot at the door, and later we found out that they threw a hand grenade at the window, but it did not go off. That was pure luck.

“At about 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, the soldiers were in the house again, telling us to open the door slowly.”

Gali picked up the story. “They asked us how many civilians were in the house,” she said. “They asked us, ‘Are you sure? We need to be absolutely certain.’”

“Apparently there were terrorists in the other room,” Liora said.

Gali got a call from the airport. “They said they had an aerial view of the house, and asked if this was Gali,” she said. “We are ready. We need you to be out.”

“The soldiers opened the door again and said that there are enemies in the house, but we will rescue you,” Liora said. “We went running outside of the house, and they raced behind us.”

“We heard explosions all over the house,” Mika said.

“We got out of the kibbutz with only the clothes we were wearing,” Liora said.

They hadn’t been told about Tal yet. The rest of the family on the kibbutz — another son, who had a 7- and a 9-year-old — was safe. “We didn’t talk about any of it,” Liora said. “But we all knew that the saying that no news is good news isn’t always true.”

They were evacuated to a gas station, where Gali and Mika met the soldiers who had rescued them. “At the gas station, Gali’s mother and I looked at each other’s eyes, and we knew. We both knew.”

After Liora, Mika, and Gali finished telling their story, they answered a few questions. One was about how they were able to make any sense of what had happened to them. How could they process it?

“I don’t have the energy for revenge, or to be angry,” Liora said. “I just have the energy to bring my family together again. To understand that even after this, there still is life.”

“I’m heartbroken,” Mika said. “I see the situation differently. It’s not just Hamas in Gaza, but other people, civilians just like us. A lot of them used the opportunity to loot, to do unspeakable things. So I just don’t know what to feel. It’s very personal right now. Everyone has a different opinion.”

It’s hard for her to feel sympathy for Gaza right now, Gali said. “They didn’t feel sorry for us. We have 13 hostages from our kibbutz in Gaza.

“And my dad was a person too. If he can die, anyone can die.”

There had been about 850 people living at Kibbutz Kfar Aza; almost 10 percent of them were murdered.

Danielle Mor, the Jewish Agency representative, closed the meeting by talking about what Israelis, and Jews outside Israel, can do for each other. There’s a lot.

The Jewish world has been coming together, she said. On an organizational level, the Jewish Federations of North America and the individual federations have been pouring not only money but also support and warmth and love into Israel.

So what can the American Jewish community do?

Those of us privileged to hear survivors tell their stories should bear witness to them, she said. The world seems invested in moving on. We cannot let these stories die. They matter.

It also matters for us to keep supporting the survivors, as well as the state itself. She suggests donating either to local federations — the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey or the Jewish Federation of Great MetroWest NJ — or directly to the Jewish Agency, at

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