Israel and Gaza take comfort in friendship amid Gaza war

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TEL AVIV – Barak Heymann had been waiting two days for some sign of life. He was lying awake in a bed that wasn’t his, thinking about a man he had never met. She still didn’t answer.

Every morning and every night when the Israeli filmmaker sent a message to Om Ayan, the young Palestinian woman in Gaza, he was afraid it would be the last time. He started writing.

“Are you okay somehow??????” he wrote at 1:15 am on October 28.

One check mark. No answer.

They had met online in 2019, after Heymann donated to a fund that helped Om Ayan’s father get cancer treatment in the West Bank, and stayed in touch throughout the years. They knew the names of each other’s parents and children, they had shared photos of their homes and hobbies. It was just friendship, the two said, never romantic. But this was Heymann’s only window into Gaza and Om Ayan’s only contact with an Israeli.

The horrors of October 7 and the conflict in Gaza brought them closer, each seeking refuge from grief and loneliness. Heymann, a peace activist who felt increasingly isolated in wartime Israel, knew someone in Gaza who understood. Om Ayan, under siege and bombardment, knew that someone in Israel was thinking of her.

Om Ayan, 28, shared her story on condition that she be identified by her nickname, fearing for her family’s safety.

It was strange, Heymann said, to feel so connected to her. But here he was, asking again if she was still breathing.

“My love? Are you there??????? please call me,” he had written two days before. They always texted in English.

“I’m alive don’t worry,” she then replied. “We’re not okay.”

Heymann, 48, had already lost people in Israel. Did he have to mourn her too?

On October 7, Om Ayan was the first to text.

(Video: The Washington Post)

Before the war, they had messaged from time to time, when their busy lives allowed – sending family updates, pictures, well wishes.

“I hope it’s the start of a beautiful new year for you,” she wrote on January 1, 2023.

In May, her husband received permission to work in Israel. Her daughter Aylin had just been born.

“Send me his # and I’ll call him,” Heymann wrote. “Also – I will give him children’s clothes.”

“At the most basic level, we are both parents of young children,” he says, sitting in his Jaffa loft on a bright warm December day.

“We both shared this sense of the lack of humanity around us,” Heymann said. “So I think we find comfort in each other.”

It was a friendship that he rarely talked about in conversation with other Israelis. After Hamas terrorists and allied fighters entered southern Israel on October 7 – killing around 1,200 people and bringing more than 250 hostages into Gaza – he was even more reluctant to mention it.

Heymann had a high school friend who was shot in front of her children. A close friend’s father was taken hostage by Hamas.

Many Israelis, shocked and frustrated, felt that no one from Gaza could be trusted. There were calls on social media for revenge, for killing everyone in Gaza. He was worried about Om Ayan: “It was the first thing I thought.”

The vitriol was not surprising. It was a familiar hatred. “If you grow up in Israel, they put it in your blood, they put it in your veins ever since you’re zero years old that everyone is a face,” Heymann said. “Most of the Arabs.”

But there were those who opposed him, and he found a sense of community among them. Now, some of the activists he complained to, who were fighting for peace with them, were turning their backs on the movement.

“There are so many great reasons for Israeli Jews to fear for their lives now, and to be full of hate, and anger and a sense of revenge,” he said. “It’s natural.”

“It’s a very big thing to want or to want or to want people in such a situation to show compassion and mercy to the Palestinian people in Gaza… “And I will keep the fight to change their mind. “

Heymann has Palestinian flags put up in his home, which he used to bring out for peace marches; he would take pictures of the shows and send them to Om Ayan.

His children attend an Israeli-Palestinian bilingual school. He is already hoping that his 9-year-old son will refuse compulsory military service, even if it means going to prison. There are stickers on his bathroom tiles with the same message in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “Democracy and occupation cannot exist.”

On the evening of October 16, Heymann’s friends called him, worried. He had posted on Facebook that although he could not justify the attack by Hamas, Israel was responsible for the blockade of Gaza and the denial of basic human rights to Palestinians.

His name, photo and home address were being posted on right-wing Telegram channels, people told him. It took him two weeks to tell his partner, who was out of the country with their children.

But he told Om Ayan the same day.

(Video: The Washington Post)

He moved out of his home and stayed in a friend’s apartment, where he lay awake that October night, praying for an answer from her.

More than 24 hours later, his phone rang.

“They cut off the internet from the Gaza Strip for two days. It came back, but we don’t have a phone charge,” read her message.

Shortly after October 7, as airstrikes hit northern Gaza, Om Ayan wrapped her 7-month-old daughter, muffled her cries, and packed a bottle of milk. and a lollipop, vaccination papers and medical records. She was two months pregnant with her second child.

Before walking out of her apartment in Gaza City, she reached for the key – not knowing if she would ever need it again.

Israel’s war against Hamas has killed more than 28,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, many of them women and children.

She fled to her mother’s house in Khan Younis, where she was born. It was difficult to provide water, milk and food for her family. By the time she messaged Heymann, she hadn’t shown up in over two weeks.

Om Ayan kept her contact with him a secret.

“It is difficult to explain to the Arabs here that you are talking to an Israeli,” she said. “[They] you might think you’re betraying your country and sharing security news with it.”

In reality, she was wondering if he could send her some money so that she could get flour, a tent, some medicine. And she asked how he was doing, about the health of his mother and children.

As fighting escalated in her home town, she took her family further south, to Rafah, where she and her daughter, husband and three children from a previous marriage went. before into one tent. Water poured down, soaking their nylon walls. Om Ayan told Heymann on December 15 that she was worried about her health.

(Video: The Washington Post)

He was on his way to a show in Tel Aviv when she sent him a message. Thousands of Israelis had called for a rally to release the guards and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. But Heymann was one of the few activists who stopped the war.

The spectators shouted curses them.

(Video: The Washington Post)

On December 30, Om Ayan fled Gaza. Her brother had citizenship in another country and applied for the extradition of his family members. The papers came through after weeks of waiting.

“Hopefully you’ll be out of this nightmare soon?!?! I pray for you all the time,” Heymann wrote when he found out.

But leaving brought its own distress for Om Ayan, who asked that her current location not be disclosed for security reasons. Her husband’s three older children were not allowed to join them and had to stay behind with their siblings in Rafah. They were already sick from sleeping outside in the cold. Her husband cried.

She wrote to Heymann the day she crossed the border.

“I’m safe now. I have escaped the death of Israeli bombing.”

“Wonderful, wonderful!” he cheered in a voice note. “Wow I’m so glad you left.”

“My sisters and my children are still bombarded there,” she said. “😭😭”

“I’m praying for them,” he replied.

Now, in a strange apartment alone, Om Ayan arrives for her daughter in the middle of the night, as she did on the nights under the explosion. Doctors tell her she has high blood pressure which could put her pregnancy at risk. Try to relax, they tell her. But she is stuck with the news, in fear of those who are still trapped in Gaza.

Heymann raised money for her family to help them adjust to their new life. He still attends peace rallies, sometimes bringing his son along.

When His partner and children left Israel for the winter, he decided to stay.

“It’s my memories and it’s my language it’s my food,” he said. “I always fight to make it a better place. “

Om Ayan feels the same pull home, but her house has been destroyed. She doesn’t know if she will ever be able to come back. But she hopes that one day she will meet her Israeli friend.

“It would be good just to see it in the eyes,” she said, “good.”

Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

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