Survivors of Kibbutz Be’eri Hamas attack stay together at Dead Sea resort
In the halls, parents in flip flops and T-shirts hand out push strollers. There are many children. There are children everywhere. They kick soccer balls in the upper lobby of the atrium. They leave their ice cream melting on the courts. No one stops them.
Why? Because the children must be taken care of, because the moms and dads – those who are not dead or missing – must go to their rooms and close the drapes. To make more phone calls, appealing for help to family members held in Gaza. To plan funerals. To cry.
The resort is a surreal spa for survivors of the worst attack against Jews since the Holocaust.
Some of the guests compare it to a waiting room, where they are afraid of what might come. They describe the strange and terrible twilight: the horror is not over, the future has yet to begin.
The hotel is a temporary home for 900 members of Kibbutz Beeri, a farming cooperative that sits along the Gaza border, which was overrun by Hamas fighters on October 7, and where the rebel, who ‘ burning, erupting – and the last man standing next to him. residents – on for more than 18 hours.
Now they are in Ein Bokek, about 75 miles from home.
Alon Pauker, a handsome historian, welcomed us to his room. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not a vacation room. It is a refugee room. ” The place was piled with suitcases, clothes, paper, donations. Pauker is an informal spokesperson for survivors.
Earlier, giving directions to the resort, Pauker said “Yes, we are at the Dead Sea. Our own dead sea. We understand this.”
He agreed to help us talk to his neighbors. He had only one, simple request. “Go slow with them. They’re not okay.”
They live at one of the lowest points on Earth. Four hundred and thirty meters below sea level.
Even getting through basic math is painful.
Pauker began by telling us that 1,200 people lived in Beeri before the Hamas attack. Then he corrected himself. 1,100 were now alive.
He said 87 were murdered. Then: 89. He apologized. Two others were confirmed dead.
The next day, the number was 90.
Twenty-five were still missing. Among them were men, women, old people, children. They are believed to have been taken to Gaza by Hamas fighters and other terrorists and held as hostages. Many of them smile in pictures that are displayed in the hotel lobby under the word: KIDNAPPED. Candles burn next to their pictures.
Tal Simon, a 29-year-old artist from the kibbutz, sat in a corner at an easel. He sketched a portrait of Yasmin Bira. He worked from a color photo, carefully trying to revive her face. “I keep thinking I’ll walk down the street and I can give her the picture, but then I remember she’s gone.”
There are so many, Pauker admitted, “that I can’t remember who is alive and who is dead.” In all, about 1,200 people in Israel were killed on October 7. Two hundred and forty were taken hostage.
The Beeri kibbutz was one of the oldest in Israel. It was unusual to preserve the socialist, cooperative model he founded. And it was relatively wealthy, with avocado and citrus orchards, and a printing facility.
Its members traditionally lean toward the Israeli political establishment, but are hardened by the challenges of living on the front lines. They hired Palestinian workers from Gaza to help them work the fields; many residents speak a little Arabic; they drove Gazan cancer patients to their hospital appointments in Israel; many of them supported two states for two.
They feel different now.
They are angry. They are split out. Many feel that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has betrayed them. But not, they emphasize, with the people of Israel.
The kibbutz is trying hard to stay together.
“I know we’re stronger that way,” said Simon David King, 59, originally from England, a member of the kibbutz since 1984.
“I can’t imagine being alone,” he said. “Some people wouldn’t do it on their own. It’s too much.”
Tal Shani, 47, remembers hearing rockets and explosions early on the morning of October 7. At first, she didn’t think much of it. These things are happening on the border of Gaza. “I was calm. We were safe.”
It was Saturday. Her children slept inside. She didn’t wake them.
By the end of the day, Shani had been briefly kidnapped, her 16-year-old son, Amit, had been taken away by Hamas to Gaza. Her ex-husband Nir, who lives on the kibbutz, sent a text saying “I can’t breathe. I’m not going to do it.” His house was under attack, the houses around him were on fire. “Tell the children I love them.”
After taking her son, Shani fled to another home and hid with her daughters for hours. She lay on top of their bodies. At the front door was a bag of grenades, abandoned by Hamas. They tried not to make a sound.
We sat on the patio of the hotel near the Dead Sea salt ponds, swatting away flies. On the trimmed lawn, children waved plastic swords. A couple of men were drinking beer. You could smell marijuana burning, from somewhere.
“I’m sitting here with you now and I look normal,” Shani said. “But I can say I’m not normal.”
The first two weeks at the hotel, she said, “I was crying all the time.
At first, she said, “I wished they had fired us.”
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I couldn’t think of the next breath. How to live? The next day? Next minute?”
Her friends told her she looked “like a dead woman walking. ” For the first time in her life, she said, she felt gravity as a physical force, pushing her down. She usually stopped eating.
The hotel offers massage, manicures, hair styling. There are yoga classes, bike rides, culture nights. All from volunteers.
There are many therapists.
Shani forced herself to start recovering. There was a reason she survived, she believed: her children. “That’s not how my children could visit their crazy mother in a mental hospital. “
She was sure that her son Amit was alive and would return. She thought of a ball of light that she would throw to Gaza. Her son appeared in the light. They talked.
“I’m thinking about the costume. I really feel it. I can smell it.”
Shani and others confessed to survivor’s guilt.
Golan Abitbol, 44, described firing a pistol from inside his kitchen window as Hamas fighters approached, on and off for hours, while his wife and four children sheltering behind him in a safe room.
“I could have done more,” he said.
What more could he have done?
Abitbol said his family was fine. But the fear, the loss, the truth about what they have lived, he said, “it’s going to kill… and then it will come true. “
“We will never be the same as the day before.”
Within a week of the attack, Abitbol was back serving in his military reserve unit in Israel, which analyzes DNA samples. It helps to identify the dead.
Some members had gone back to assess what was left of their homes. Many were not. Some were helping with avocado harvesting. They went and returned.
What would happen next for the Kibbutz Beeri? Many members wanted to go back to rebuild their lives. There are fields to tend, houses to rebuild.
“I was never afraid,” Shani said. “Now I’m scared.”
“I don’t trust our country, our army. I don’t want my children to be a wall.”
Pauker said that he himself was a “supporter of peace”. But he said he will not go back until Hamas is destroyed as a military and political force.
There was a desire to stay together. There was talk of moving from the spa to an interim location, such as a high rise in Jerusalem or a rural community somewhere down south. Then maybe go back in a year.
Even now, while the war was being waged, some kibbutzniks worried that the world at large had moved on from their defeat – to the tax in Gaza.
The Gazan health ministry said last week that more than 11,100 people there have died since the Israeli government announced its operation to root Hamas out of the enclave for good. The ministry has since stopped counting.
Yehudit Weiss was a mother of five at Kibbutz Beeri. She was taken by Hamas fighters on October 7. Zemer Weiss, his daughter-in-law, sat with us in the foyer and talked about how she hoped to see him again.
“Do you want us to tell you about her?” she asked. She described a special school teacher, a loving grandmother, a generous cook, a friend to all, who was being treated for cancer when she was kidnapped.
The next day, the Israeli military announced that they had found Weiss’ body at a house near al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.
Shachar May, press officer for the Israeli humanitarian relief agency IsraAid, said 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by the war in Gaza in the south and by rocket fire from Hezbollah in the north. Among them 60,000 people now live in beach hotels in Eilat and 16,000 in Dead Sea resorts.
Many of their stories may be the same.
Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem and Heidi Levine in Ein Bokek contributed to this report.