I was on holiday in Tel Aviv with my best friend Tom Waterton-Smith when the Hamas terrorists attacked Israel and our stay was extended as a consequence. We met wonderful people and this is not really our story – it belongs to them:
Cinema Hotel Reception, Tel Aviv, 8am, Saturday 7th October 2023
“We’re under attack. There’s been a massacre in the south. We really don’t know what’s happened. Please don’t go outside”.
This was the start of a horrifying day midway through a relaxing break in the sunshine of Tel Aviv. We are two friends from London who wanted a holiday in the sun, one of us fulfilling a long-held personal desire to witness changes to a country last visited 30 years ago, the other with a mission to discover more about his Jewish heritage.
A four-day stay in Tel Aviv was enough for us to gain the impression that a large proportion of the ethnically diverse inhabitants are open-minded, peaceful, secular people. There was an ambiance of tranquillity and an air of prosperity, particularly around Dizengoff Square. Passersby walked their dogs, city dwellers worked out at gyms on the beach, enjoyed the sunshine, and generally went about their business. The prominence of rainbow flags emphasised an almost unprecedented tolerance of the LBTQ+ community, reinforced by the numbers of same-sex couples strolling hand-in-hand without prejudice shown against them.
Neither of us is naïve, we knew already the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and the extraordinary reality of Israelis living under constant threat from a neighbour governed by a terrorist organisation with a publicly stated intention to wipe their country from the face of the earth. One of us had visited Gaza in the 1990s and was astounded by the poverty, crumbling buildings and general chaos, in stark contrast to the comparative wealth and order of Israel.
However, we’d visited the West Bank on the day before the attack and our Palestinian taxi driver, Yousef, had explained at length that, under the control of the Palestinian Authorities, that region had reached a relatively peaceful compromise that certainly worked for him. A retired schoolteacher turned taxi driver, Yousef’s pragmatism and acceptance that the past can’t be changed, and that the future seems promising, perhaps lulled us into a false sense of security. As he drove us to see the ‘Flower Thrower’ artwork painted on the side of a garage wall near Bethlehem by British graffiti artist, Banksy, we discussed Yousef’s message and felt somewhat reassured, maybe because it was what we had hoped to hear.
Less than 24 hours after meeting Yousef, we were back in Tel Aviv, quickly learning the routine of relocating to ‘mammads’, the safe rooms located on every floor of our small hotel. As the sirens wailed, warning us that missiles fired from Gaza were directly overhead, we had roughly two minutes to make our way to rooms with reinforced windows and heavy metal doors where we’d wait for the booms that told us the rockets had been intercepted, at least on this occasion.
The hotel’s bedrooms were occupied by fellow tourists from Europe, the US and elsewhere, who for the most part reacted with confusion, trepidation and, in some cases, sheer blind fear. The hotel staff guided us to safety, calmly yet with evident apprehension.
By Sunday morning, news reports and social media screamed that we were in a country now at war. The true horror of what had happened, and indeed was continuing to happen, began to unfold, from the massacre at the Supernova music festival to 260 hostages taken at gunpoint by Hamas fanatics. We recognised that this was an unprecedented terrorist strike that Israelis, taken by surprise by this unforeseen attack, needed to respond to and defend their country.
We watched the efficiency with which the local population packed boxes of supplies for the defense forces, many of whom were reservists transferred to the front line with immediate effect, and we made a small contribution. Some Western governments reacted quickly, repatriating their citizens and, as the tourists flew to safety, their hotel rooms were reallocated to evacuees, mostly from the south of Israel. There were whole families living together in one room; the images on their cameras, taken as they fled their homes, were horrific.
It was our privilege to listen to accounts of what our neighbours were enduring. These are some of their stories and they deserve to be heard:
Many of the shops in Tel Aviv closed after war was declared. Some shut down because they didn’t have safe rooms, but for others, it was because the staff were called away to defend their country. Pongo is a small shop selling T-shirts on Dizengoff Street that happened to open briefly one afternoon. We chose a T-shirt with a poignant message “Peace and Hope from Israel”. The shop owner who printed the T-shirt for us asked if we were frightened. We responded that although we weren’t frightened, we were saddened by the situation and sickened from seeing some terrible images of the massacre. “You haven’t seen the worst”, he said. “You won’t because we will not spread trauma in that way; if we do the terrorists win. Hamas extremists have raped children and murdered young people enjoying themselves at a music festival. An old lady I knew was killed. She was decapitated with a tool – I don’t know the word for it”.
It was a spade; his elderly friend was decapitated with a spade. We could do no more than say we were sorry. He hugged us and thanked us for listening as he tried to hold back tears.
Ayala is a Jewish woman of Ethiopian descent, married to a Nigerian man. Together with their two-year-old son, they had been evacuated from their home in Ashkelon, a coastal city 20 km from Gaza. A charity arranged their relocation to our hotel and was paying for their stay. On the surface Ayala seemed buoyant, sharing food and drink with us and, although she explained that she’d seen terrible things from the Hamas attacks, she chose to chat about more ordinary topics and ask us about ourselves. However, a single brief account of a previous experience in London, working in criminal defense law was, with hindsight, insensitive and sufficient to reveal the trauma Ayala had experienced. She asked us not to mention “that word” (rape) and became visibly distressed. She knew women who’d been raped by Hamas terrorists. The anguish with which she revealed this was heartbreaking. For our part, we spent time playing with her son, Eliad, an incredibly sweet little boy, allowing his parents to discuss the next steps to be taken following their evacuation. Their future was so uncertain that as she explained, “I don’t know if we can return home”.
Two days later Ayala told us there was no more money to support her family in Tel Aviv and they would have to return to Ashkelon. Her demeanor was different now; she was afraid; they didn’t have a safe room in their home and she believed that the Iron Dome Defense System was more effective over Tel Aviv than further south. Nevertheless, it was a tribute to her parenting skills that young Eliad believed he was on holiday and continued to smile as he looked up to the sky, even when sirens blared and the booms from detonated rockets blasted above us.
We felt helpless and shocked. Last we heard, additional funding had been secured for a few more days in Tel Aviv but their future is unknown and desperate. We have since learned that in the past few days, rockets have landed on Ashkelon demolishing buildings.
Overheard in Tel Aviv:
Vigils in Dizengoff Square continued night after night after that first attack. They were dignified and heartrendingly moving. We could feel the heat from the hundreds of lit candles surrounding the central fountain. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was sung beautifully again and again, sometimes in English, sometimes in Hebrew, with a poignancy that we will both always remember. Over the days that followed posters describing the hostages and the dead were placed on the benches. Pictures of babies, still dependent on liquid food, old people, defenseless and weak, and of many young people who, not long before, were simply dancing, carefree and joyously, at a festival.
A man sitting close to us was talking on his phone. “Why do they hate Israelis”, we heard him say, his voice breaking. “We never attack anyone; we must defend ourselves all the time. What’s wrong with the world? Our people have been massacred and tortured yet everyone’s talking about the situation in Palestine. Why doesn’t anyone care about us?” It felt this way to us too although neither of us is an Israeli. Even some of our family members and friends, contacting us to check we were safe, seemed oblivious to the predicament of the Israelis; international media attention seemed disproportionately focused on the plight of people in Gaza. We listened in silence and wished there was something helpful we could say to the man sitting beside us.
Rachel from a Kibbutz:
As the days following the massacre passed, the profile of the people in the area around our hotel began to change. There were more men wearing koppels and women dressed more modestly compared to the local residents who preferred casual attire of vests and shorts. Families with lots of children looked slightly lost and out of place. Other groups came from some of the kibbutzim in the south and we spent some of our time entertaining their children; we felt it was the least we could do, allowing the parents to contemplate their future.
We met Rachel and her friend outside the hotel. They were evacuated from a kibbutz and asked us why we were still in Tel Aviv, and if we were scared. “Not scared but very sad for Israel”, we responded. She told us: “We’re not too scared either. This is normal for us. There are attacks on Israel every few years and we must defend ourselves. Our children learn about sirens and attacks from birth. We’re sorry that innocent Palestinians get hurt but Hamas won’t protect them. Hamas use them as human shields. Hamas controls everything in Palestine and they teach hatred of Israel. Our priority is to get our families to safety. Most of us want a two-state solution but it’s difficult to see how it can work right now. We just want peace, acceptance of Israel and to stop being attacked. This is our 9/11. It must have taken Hamas months to plan the attacks, but Israel didn’t know what was coming. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. But this must stop”.
We are home now, still processing what happened to Israel and contemplating the future for some of those wonderful people we met. Still hyper-vigilant to ambulance sirens and loud bangs that are everyday occurrences here in London. We will always remember that not a single Israeli whom we spoke to wished harm or spoke ill of the Palestinian people. But Hamas lives amongst them, although not the children of the Hamas leaders because many of them live in safety elsewhere. There can be no peace and hope for Israel while Hamas exists and a hatred of Jews permeates so many societies. Israel has every right to exist and its people have a right to live without enduring fear. What is happening in Israel and Gaza now must never happen again.