Rachel Shazar, who turned 97 on Saturday, witnessed the October 7 Hamas attack from the window of her house. That morning, Kibbutz Be’eri, which she founded in 1946, faced its most critical moment in history. Ten percent of the community’s 1,200 inhabitants were direct victims of the Hamas killings, kidnappings and disappearances. The survivors of the kibbutz — located just under two miles from Gaza — are now debating the best way to rebuild Be’eri, which was considered the strongest kibbutz in Israel. But the massacre has increased the community’s distrust not only in their Arab neighbors, but also in the Israeli Defense Forces, which should have protected them. They estimate that it will take at least two years — some say up to five — to return to a place that is now a military zone. After the week-long truce, the Israeli army has relaunched its attacks on Gaza, where more than 15,000 people have been killed.
“My five children are the future of Be’eri,” says Shai Friedman, 45, who was born in the kibbutz. She is the granddaughter of Rachel Shazar, one of the two founders who are still alive. But Friedman has serious doubts about whether she will return to what was her home until October 7, when the current war began. “Whether I come back, or not, depends on how safe I feel. I don’t want to return in fear or by paying any price. The war cannot come to a false end,” she says.
Friedman is now living at David Hotel, in Ein Bokek, on the shores of the Dead Sea, where the inhabitants of Beeri have been temporarily moved. There, in the spirit that sustains the community, they have voted on what to do until the summer of 2024, when they will be welcomed in the expansion that is taking place in the Kibbutz Hatzerim, located at the gates of the city of Beer Sheva, and about 19 miles from Gaza. Most have decided to stay in the hotel until then.
But Hotel David, far from being an idyllic holiday resort, is only a temporary shelter where hope buoyed by the release of hostages in Gaza mixes with the uncertainty for those still kidnapped there. After almost two months, the hotel has become an intermediate and mandatory stop that some are finding increasingly suffocating.
Hugo Wolaj, a 46-year-old high school teacher who survived the attack with his wife and three daughters, says that he is looking for a house to rent during the remaining months before settling in Hatzerim. “I am on an emotional roller coaster,” he says, adding that his daughters prefer to stay at the hotel. He speaks of a “broken life” between the two rooms they occupy at the establishment. His daughter Tamar, 15, lost six close friends; the second, Yael, 14, her best friend, Ido. “They both know that they will not see them again, but we have to find a way to continue living,” says Wolaj.
Wolaj however, is clinging to the spirit and strength of Be’eri, which was founded in 1946. “There are people who want to leave, but I believe that there will not be enough space to accommodate everyone who wants to come,” he says, explaining the reaction to the deadliest attack in Israel’s 75-year-long history. Wolaj — who was born in Argentina and came to Israel as a teenager — supports the two-state solution and believes that Hamas members account for no more than 2% or 3% of the inhabitants of Gaza. But, on the other hand, he believes it will be difficult to overcome the support that Hamas has won over, particularly since they do not have opposition and “anyone who dares to speak [against them] will be killed.”
“They don't see me as a human being”
What happened on October 7 has made him rethink his way of thinking. “I have always felt more Israeli than Jewish, but they [Hamas] don’t care if I am an atheist, they don’t see me as a human being, but as a Jew,” he says. “If my daughter is happy, I don’t care if she marries a Catholic, a Muslim... although today I don’t see it that way as much.”
Be’eri today is a militarized zone, where just its most basic functions are working, such as the citrus and avocado crops. That also includes its main business: a printing company founded in 1950 that employs 400 people. It is famous throughout Israel and key to keeping the country functioning. Credit cards, driving licenses and official certificates are made there. That’s why, just a week after the attack, it got back on track even though the business’s director, Ben Suchman, had just lost his mother, Tammy Suchman, one of Be’eri’s most famous activists and Shai Friedman’s aunt.
Before October 7, 1,200 people lived in Be’eri. Today, the death toll from the Hamas attack is 91. The last victim, announced to the community on Friday, is Ofra Keidar, 70, who was taken hostage in Gaza and whose body is still there. During the week-long truce that broke on Friday, 18 hostages from this kibbutz were released. A dozen remain in Gaza or are pending identification among the bodies in the morgues.
Among the 91 fatalities is Vivian Silver, one of the most active and well-known defenders of peaceful coexistence with Palestinians. Her charred body was found inside her house, one of the many in Be’eri which was set alight during the Hamas attack. “It will be difficult to return without Vivian, without Tammy,” says Hugo Wolaj. Both were part of a program known as Road to Recovery, which allowed Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank to be transferred to be treated in hospitals in Israel. “It will be very slow, but we will get there,” says Ada, 69, mother of Shai Friedman and sister of Tammy Suchman, as she helps prepare coffee and tea at the David Hotel. “Be’eri was a paradise,” says her husband, Arnon, 72, the son of Rachel Shazar, the founder.
Israel’s key objective is to eliminate the political and military arm of Hamas. Wolaj goes further and insists that any means of financial support must be eliminated. He wants accounts to be closed and for all international transactions to be stopped. “We have to defend ourselves, return to Be’eri, to the border. We have no other choice. I want a quiet place for my daughters and grandchildren,” he says. Just like Shai Friedman, Wolaj is looking to Be’eri’s generation of teenagers to keep the community going: he wants a future where the shadow of another October 7 no longer looms over the kibbutz.
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