ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 192

Eran Masas stands on the outskirts of Kibbutz Magen on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Main image: Eran Masas stands on the outskirts of Kibbutz Magen on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Inside story

On Oct. 7 killing grounds, a vigilante army vet inspires grieving US Jewish leaders

Eran Masas tells American visitors how he risked his life – and lied to his wife – to rescue survivors despite having no official mandate to act

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Main image: Eran Masas stands on the outskirts of Kibbutz Magen on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On the grounds of the Supernova music festival massacre near Re’im, dozens of leaders of American Jewry quietly mourned the devastating aftermath of a rare moment of helplessness in the history of a nation built on the ethos of self-reliance.

As they inspected the grounds on Monday, many of the visitors were still processing the chilling words of Bella Haim, a Holocaust survivor from Kibbutz Gvulot near Gaza whose grandson Yotam was abducted from Be’eri and accidentally killed in Shejaiya by Israeli troops after escaping captivity.

“I never imagined that in this country, something like this could ever happen,” Bella Haim said during a talk in Kibbutz Magen with the visitors, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations umbrella group’s first delegation to the south of Israel since October 7.

But the visitors also heard on Monday an uplifting testimony that highlighted the resilience of many Israelis during and after October 7. The testimony, a relatively unknown account, was by Eran Masas, an army veteran from the Haifa region who singlehandedly coordinated multiple search and rescue operations in the border Gaza area while pretending to be an on-duty Israel Defense Forces officer to reassure stranded civilians — even though no one had authorized him to take any action.

Capturing both the national weaknesses and strengths laid bare by the trauma of October 7, when 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and murdered about 1,200 people, the visitors’ encounters left them deeply moved — many to tears – and reaffirmed their confidence in Israeli society’s ability to transcend one of the worst crises in the country’s history, several of them said.

“It showed me that this is a place that, when you see someone in need, people don’t think about who to call. You’re it, it’s on you,” Seth J. Riklin, the president of B’nai B’rith International, said as tears ran down his face after the 40-minute talk by Masas. “Israelis and Texans have that in common,” added Riklin, a sustainable energy entrepreneur based in Houston.

Bella Haim, center, speaks at a panel discussion in Kibbutz Magen along with Michal Uzuyahu, right, and Yftach Gepner to visitors from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Masas, 46, broke down in tears several times during his talk, in which he told the group how he ended up leading shellshocked soldiers through the killing fields of Re’im when they were strewn with hundreds of bodies of partygoers — mostly young people to whom he referred throughout the talk as “children.”

His story began at 7:30 a.m. on October 7 in Kiryat Ata near Haifa, when his older brother Avi woke him up by calling his cellphone and alerting him “to get up because we’ve lost the country.”

On social media, Masas, a father of four who was discharged from the army in 2020 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, saw a picture of a Hamas pickup truck on the streets of Sderot. He was “overpowered by an insane desire to go stop that pickup truck,” Masas said.

This made him tell the first of many “lies,” he told the audience: He lied to his wife that he had been called up by the army. He put on a uniform, took his sidearm, and drove 200 kilometers (124 miles) to Sderot. Not far from there, he saw a bullet-riddled car that he identified as belonging to the police’s feted Yamam unit, which is one of the most skilled special forces outfits in Israel and beyond.

A tearful Seth J. Riklin, part of the Conference of Presidents delegation, smiles for the camera on a bus in Kibbutz Magen on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“The officers were all dead. And it was then, when I started to understand the scale of the invasion, that I first felt afraid,” Masas recalled. But he couldn’t afford to give into fear. Nearby, he saw another police car with dead officers inside. The terrorist who killed them was sitting in a pickup truck that, unbeknownst to Masas, was rigged up to explosives to serve as a bomb on wheels. Masas outdrew the terrorist, killing him with five out of 10 bullets in his sidearm, Masas said.

En route to Sderot near Moshav Patish, Masas saw hundreds of young people, whom he later understood to be Supernova rave survivors, in a state of panic, exhaustion, and trauma. He directed the survivors into Patish and assured them that they would be bused out of there within half an hour.

But this was “just another lie. There were no buses. I was just giving them something to hold onto,” Masas said. “People trust the army, but the army was not present. They needed someone to trust.”

To his astonishment, he saw three buses traveling down Route 241 nearing Patish Junction – a fact he said he believed was divine intervention.

“I stopped the drivers and lied again: I told them I was the officer in charge of the sector and that they were to take the survivors to Beersheba. When one of them refused, I told him to do it or get shot. He believed me,” Masas recounted.

With the survivors gone, Masas began collecting bodies using an abandoned pickup truck. The first one was a young woman he called “the lady in green.” She was nearly naked, and he apologized to her dead body for seeing her in that state and having to move her, Masas said.

“I thought of my daughters,” he added, his voice trembling with emotion. He stopped talking and sobbed for about a minute, as multiple listeners shed tears along with him.

Visitors tour the monument of the victims of the October 7 massacre at the Nova Music Festival outside Re’im on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In one of his rounds, a Channel 12 reporter, Adva Dadon, approached Masas with her film crew and described him as the officer in charge.

“At that moment, I thought the gig was up. I was going to prison [for impersonating an officer].” There was also the issue of his wife, a career officer’s spouse. She had sufficient knowledge of the army to realize that her husband, a single officer with a sidearm and no command car, had lied to her to pursue dangerous vigilante action.

“I whispered to Adva and asked her to stop filming me because my wife would kill me,” said Masas, who at that point still had not fully grasped the enormity of what happened on October 7, and how it had sidelined issues like the fact that he wasn’t officially drafted. (Multiple reservists and civilians acted on their own initiative on October 7, rescuing survivors and engaging terrorists.)

The reporter reassured Masas, he said.

“She told me it’s alright, she believes in me, the people around us believe in me and that’s what matters. And it gave me confidence,” he recalled.

Having moved about 15 bodies, Masas encountered some soldiers and told them he was the designated officer in charge (“another lie,” he remarked) and led them to search the party grounds for survivors. The search produced one of the most harrowing videos from October 7: It shows Masas, his sidearm drawn, calling out “IDF, police, are there any survivors?” as he encounters body after body, before finally reaching an area behind the party’s main stage, where he is heard saying, “Oh my god, it’s full of bodies, no one is alive, everyone’s dead.”

CEO of the Conference of Presidents William Daroff, left, attends a memorial prayer for the victims of the October 7 onslaught in Re’im on February 19, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

At the end of the testimony, B’nai B’rith International president Riklin approached Masas to hug him. “I want to invite you to come visit Texas someday soon when this is over,” Riklin told Masas. “It’s a great place to relax and forget about all this business for a while.”

The Conference of Presidents found it important to expose their delegates to the accounts of Haim, the Holocaust survivor, Masas, and others because “together, they form a complete story,” said CEO William Daroff. “It shows what Israelis are made of, and why Israel will not be defeated.”

But Masas’s testimony and filmed evidence have another significance that is at the heart of the decision to tour the south even as the war with Hamas rages on, said Daroff, who had led a previous delegation on October 17 that did not venture south.

“We need to be able to witness and testify to counter the outrageous October 7 denialism, which, sadly, we will be dealing with for many years,” Daroff said.

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