Reflections on the Hamas Attack: Returning to a Changed Israel

By Arieh O’Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Arieh O’Sullivan is an award-winning journalist in Israel. He grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, where his father was police chief of Ocean Springs, Miss., and Jennings, La. After his father was wounded in the New Orleans Howard Johnson sniper incident in 1973, he decided to move the family somewhere safer, so they moved to Israel, arriving as the Yom Kippur War broke out.

This war.

I have just come back from the shiva (mourning) of the kid down the street in my little village. He was a platoon commander of an elite combat unit and was killed trying the stop the waves of Arab terrorists who invade the country on Saturday. His family had rented our house for the year we went to Stanford 20 years ago. He was just a toddler then. So sad. His sister is one of my daughter’s best friends.

In our Jewish tradition we mourn for 7 days and comfort the family. There were about a hundred people there, from the village, relatives, a few army comrades. M-16 rifles were casually laid on the patio. A few military helicopters flew over, heading to the front. We are about 40 miles from Gaza but we hear the pounding of the bombs, even shaking the ground here.

It’s been a hellish two days since we got back from Turkey. We were three days at sea in my friend’s sailboat, two couples, totally out of contact. We approached the coast of Israel at dawn on Sunday. About 10 miles off the coast we got a message to head to Haifa, about a 12 hour sail to the north. We had no word about anything. Then, a police boat showed up and told us the country was at war. Huh? And if we continued to the port near Tel Aviv where we were headed, we would be arrested.

Low on fuel and no wind, we figured that was the best option. So we said okay and kept our bearing. The police blocked us and forced us to drop our anchor in front of the marina. It was eerily quiet. Like Yom Kippur. My phone battery was dead. As a journalist, a former military correspondent, I was pretty agitated, desperate to learn what was happening. A war? Everything was so peaceful when we sailed to Turkey 17 days before.

After about two hours they let us into the port but detained us until mid-day when we could get our passports dealt with. The authorities took out their frustrations and fears on us, saying we were forcing the security forces to waste their time with us, when there was a war on.

I grabbed the customs agent. “What’s happened?” He said over 300 Israelis have been killed by Arab terrorists who broke through from the Gaza Strip.

I couldn’t comprehend this. Broke through the security fence. Not even a mouse could touch it without the army showing up immediately. It was supposed to be impregnable. Turns out over 1,000 heavily armed Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists swarmed over in 80 places, riding in pickup trucks or motor bikes, and broke into the kibbutzes and villages and towns along the Gaza Strip, slaughtering hundreds of people like ISIS.

It was our holiday of Simchat Torah and exactly 50 years to the day of the surprise attack on Israel by Syria and Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. The Arabs always seem to strike us on our holy days. I had come to Israel in the first days of the war in 1973 and now, 50 years later, history repeats itself.

Anyway, we got home and our house had become a refuge as our children and their spouses (and their dogs) sought safety from the thousands of rockets Hamas and other Arab terrorist groups were lobbing at Israel. My moshav, village, is a sanctuary with about 230 families, half-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, bordering a national forest. I was one of the founders of the moshav back in 1995. Secure and safe. Dozens and dozens of families were being taken in. The country was at war. Rockets fired all over, choppers overhead. Jets. Windows rattling from the bombings.

We are a very tight-knit community. Until now, we hadn’t lost anyone in all the wars and terrorism that this country has gone through, even though we all were veterans. But upon arrival there is a crowd at the corner. The officer’s house where mourners gathered. And then in front of our house. The young woman across the street, Shani, had gone to a Rave music festival on the border. The Arabs swarmed in and literally massacred hundreds of people. Shooting them and then going among the wounded and shooting them again. They kidnapped people, including Shani, and dragged her back to the Gaza Strip. Video footage showed her being beaten, maybe she was alive, but most believe she was not. They put videos on social media, parading her naked body around town.

Then we hear that the young man who grew up behind me, from the same class as my son, was living with his wife on Kibbutz Kfar Aza down south. The Arab terrorist broke into his house. A former officer, he tried to fight them off, but they gunned him and his wife down. They ignored the 8-month-old twins in the other room. The twins were later brought to his mother, Ravit, just that afternoon, after they had been abandoned for a day until Israeli soldiers retook the kibbutz. Ravit was my daughter Noa’s nursery teacher.

Our neighbor and close friend Orna just found out her niece, a soldier on the border, had been killed. And more and more news trickled in. The death toll was mounting.

My eldest daughter Jessie, who lives near Tel Aviv, came, but stayed with Linda, my ex, at the next village across the street. I rushed to see her and hug her. She was supposed to go to that Rave party, but decided not to at the last minute.

My son Jordan was home with his wife and two kids in Mitzpeh Ramon, deep in the Negev desert, far away from the war. I spoke to him. And he’s staying put. My youngest daughter Noa called from Spain where she is helping young Israelis renovate a little hotel on the northern coast. She’s devastated, wants to rush back, but staying put to see how this pans out. My wife’s four kids and two grandsons were all here, fleeing their apartments in Tel Aviv where rockets hit. So glad we had this big house.

I woke before dawn and sped to work at Israel Public Radio in Jerusalem, the roads were empty. Still not totally comprehending the situation, I fall into reporter mode. Interviewing people, anchoring news bulletins every hour. The scale of the tragedy rising every moment. Hard to keep up with the pace of events. The death toll reaches 900. The leaders of the country are nowhere to be seen or heard. Where was the Israeli army? There was a collective sense of abandonment and then, it seems, the people took over.

This was the worst disaster in the history of the state, the state that was supposed to be a safe haven for the Jewish people. The scale of it was worse than Sept. 11. Not even in our war of independence were so many people killed in one day. Without being melodramatic, not since the Holocaust. It’s only now starting to sink in. This is not just another round of violence. This was an existential threat to the country. We had to fight for our lives.

In less than 48 hours over 300,000 people had been called up. That’s more than in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 100 percent call-up rate in all units. I have fought my wars, serving 28 years in reserves. I was too old, but all of our sons and many daughters were being called up. I see two of my daughter’s friends walking down the street. “Where are your brothers?” I ask. “Called up, in the south, my partner too.”

The moshav has come together very tightly. We have opened our homes to many of the thousands of families who fled the rocket zones and the battlegrounds near Gaza. Mattresses are collected and brought down to the troops, who seem to be lacking gear, despite what the army says. Flashlights and clothes, and of course many cakes. Fathers pull out their old webbing and uniforms to give to their sons. The club house and bomb shelters are turned into kindergartens and activity centers. Some people are glued to the radio. Others seeking to ignore it. My son in law, a young doctor, was called up. In my house it looked like a movie. He cuddles his two young sons. I tell him to keep away from the front. He was a former soldier in the combat engineers. They’ll likely assign him to a combat battalion. He hugs his wife Tamar and heads south.

I’ve left out a lot, but this is just the past 2 days. It’s unprecedented. I don’t think the world realizes how existential this is. I don’t think we realize it yet. If we don’t show we are strong, and do what needs to be done, then we won’t be able to survive here. We are strong, but have forgotten how to use our strength. I think we will be forced to change.

I’ll be reporting. We are safe for now. Support us.