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A Day in the South of Israel, in the Gaza Envelope

Wings Mural in Kfar Aza by Artist Livnat Kutz z"l (image courtesy of author)
This past week I spent a day down South with several Anna Sobol Levy Fellows, as guests of the Institute for Counter Terrorism at Reichman University.
We first took a tour of the destruction in Kfar Aza, the kibbutz where on October 7, approximately 70 Hamas terrorists infiltrated, massacred residents, and left the village in ruins. Kfar Aza lost 62 people that day in brutal circumstances. Nineteen people were taken hostage, including a Thai worker.
We were shown around by Nira Shpak, a resident of the kibbutz who was also a member of the 24th Knesset and a Colonel in the IDF. She took on herself many difficult jobs on and after October 7, including the identification of bodies in the kibbutz.
I found Kfar Aza to be eerily beautiful, with its playground and a pool and its “Shchunat Hatzeirim” (Young People’s Neighborhood) where kibbutz residents can go live from the age of 18.
This neighborhood was hard hit on October 7 with many murdered young people and many kidnapped and taken into Gaza from there.
It is a two minute walk from the fence that we saw in all the footage; one of the fences that terrorists broke through and came from; the one Amit Sousana, the heroic ex hostage who gave an interview to the NY Times , was taken into Gaza from, fighting and kicking her assailants.
No one is living in Kfar Aza these days, except for one couple who decided to return in the unlikely case that a kidnapped person finds their way back; there should be a light on and someone to greet them.
At the kibbutz, we met the father of Nir’el Zini who was murdered along with his fiancee Niv Raviv in their home in the Young People’s Neighborhood. Mr. Zini, a resident of Moshav Talmim is a loving, bereaved father sporting a long beard and knitted kippa. He is described by Nira Shpak as the best that Israeli society has to offer. Listening to how he spoke about his son and fiancee was heartwarming. They had been planning a wedding. Instead they were buried side by side.
On our way out of the kibbutz we spotted a large mural by local artist Livnat Kutz, a kibbutz resident who was murdered along with her husband and three teens on October 7. They were found in their home in an embrace. Livnat had gathered broken toys from the kibbutz for this mural. The mural depicts wings. Livnat believed in peace.
Next stop was the Nachal Oz army base located less than one kilometer from the Gaza border which housed members of the Border Defense Corps. We saw burnt offices and heard from one of the commanders who was there on the day of the attacks and who explained the sequence of events on that day, and described how commanders were able to regain control of the base after so many leaders were murdered.
We then had lunch at Uri’s farm in Moshav Talmei Yosef. Uri Alon, a Moshav resident, opened the “Salad Trail” in 2005. There, visitors can see how Israel’s agricultural technologies allow over 80 different crops, primarily fruits and vegetables, to grow in the desert soil without pesticides. We saw and tasted all the different types of tomatoes and other items they grow on the farm. Uri told us about his son and daughter in law who were stuck in their safe room with their 3 young sons on October 7th for hours. His daughter-in-law was on the phone with her sister Hadar in Kfar Aza who was in her safe room with her husband and twin babies. When Hadar no longer answered her messages and she understood that something terrible must have happened, she reached out to Hadar’s neighbor who wrote to her that they are stuck in their own safe room as well but they hear the babies’ cries . Uri’s daughter-in-law made a vow at that moment that if she and her husband and children make it out alive they would adopt Hadar’s twins.
They did exactly that. Uri points out that on Oct 6 he had 3 grandsons, now he has 5. All under the age of 7. His son and daughter-in-law are, like so many others, the unsung heroes of this war.
I told Uri that a few days after October 7, I read about Hadar and Itay Berdichevsky who were murdered in Kfar Aza and left behind their twin baby boys. I was so touched that I wrote an ode to Hadar’s memory using one of Jean-Jacques Goldman’s famous songs on the Shoah.
On our way back north we stopped in Re’im, the site of the Nova festival where 364 party revelers were brutally killed, many more were wounded and from where at least 40 hostages were taken. It is now a heartbreaking memorial site with pictures of the dead and kidnapped. All beautiful smiling fun loving young adults who were just out to dance on a warm holiday weekend.
But before we left Moshav Talmei Yosef, Uri the farmer showed us a few things that are a testament to his wisdom and positivity. He showed us some beautiful Judaica items that were created by local artists, from missile parts that had been launched from Gaza and fell in their peaceful Moshav. Launched to spread death, but molded into a xylophone/metallophone to create music, or into a chanukiah to spread light. He handed doves to some of us to release as a symbol of Peace. Even after all he, his family and community members in the South went through, he still believes in peace.
I will try to keep that optimistic lesson with me always.
About the Author
Valerie was born and raised in Paris, completed her BA (YU Stern) and MBA (NYU Stern) in NYC, was living in Riverdale NY with her husband and 4 kids before they moved to Raanana, Israel in January 2019. In NY Valerie worked in Marketing for various companies, owned and operated an online store, and taught "Global Marketing" and "Managing the Fashion Enterprise" at LIM College. She is now employed at the Raphael Recanati International School of Reichman University (previously IDC Herzliya).
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