Some Israelis shelter in Athens as war with Hamas rages on

Exact number of Israelis who left for Greece after October 7 hard to estimate; Israeli embassy asks Greeks to extend tourist visas from 90 to 180 days to facilitate their stay

The moon rises in the sky behind the 5th century BCE Parthenon temple at the ancient Acropolis hill, in Athens, July 31, 2023. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)
The moon rises in the sky behind the 5th century BCE Parthenon temple at the ancient Acropolis hill, in Athens, July 31, 2023. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

ATHENS, Greece — Hours after the devastating October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Michael and his wife knew they had to abandon their Tel Aviv home and flee the country, to Athens, for the sake of their family.

“We left Israel to protect our children, so that they are (as little) traumatized as possible,” the social scientist, who declined to give his surname, told AFP.

“It’s not normal for a child to hear alarms and hide in a safe room for a whole day,” said the academic, who lost family members and students in the October 7 attack that left 1,200 dead, mostly civilians. The cross-border attack by some 3,000 terrorists from the Gaza Strip came under cover of thousands of rockets that were fired across Israel. At least 240 people were abducted that day and taken hostage in Gaza.

In response, Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas and unleashed an air and ground campaign aimed at removing the terror group from power in the Gaza Strip, where it has been the de facto regime since 2007. For several weeks, Hamas and other terror groups continued firing rocket barrages at Israel, including at Tel Aviv.

Michael and his family, including a newborn, had never been to Athens before.

But many European airlines had suspended their connections to Israel, and the only available flight was to the Greek capital.

Like most of the Israelis AFP contacted in Athens, the 40-year-old wished to remain anonymous for fear of possible attacks.

A picture taken from Israel’s southern city of Sderot shows rockets fired from northern Gaza towards Israel on October 30, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Anti-Semitic acts

The Central Council of Jewish Communities in Greece has expressed “concern” amid antisemitic acts in the wake of the war, including damage inflicted to a Greek Jewish store and the vandalism of a Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki.

Some exiles here also fear being accused by fellow Israelis of having left the country during one of the worst crises in its history.

The exact number of Israelis arriving in Greece is difficult to estimate.

However, the Israeli embassy in Athens has asked the Greek government to extend tourist visas from 90 to 180 days to facilitate their stay.

Greece, which today has a small Jewish community of 5,000, is historically close to the Arab world and its population is largely committed to the Palestinian cause.

Most protests on the Israel-Hamas war in Greece since October 7 have been pro-Palestinian.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are regional allies and cooperate on economic efforts in the Mediterranean Sea, including on electricity and gas. They also share a fraught relationship, if not outright enmity, toward Turkey, which has been trying to expand its presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The three countries held a naval drill last year in a sign of their deepening military ties.

A Greek F-16 fighter jet takes off during the Israeli Air Force’s Blue Flag exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Greece has strong military cooperation with Israel and the countries’ air forces have held joint exercises. It is drawing a growing number of Israeli visitors. With 722,549 tourists last year, Israelis ranked in the top five nationalities to visit Greece.

Most head to Thessaloniki, the northern Greek metropolis that was for centuries known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” before the Nazis annihilated its prosperous Jewish community during World War II.

According to the Israeli community center Mazi (“together” in Greek), which was launched in 2021, around a hundred families have asked for help since October 7.

The association has set up an emergency telephone line to support new arrivals, particularly to help find housing, which is in short supply in the Greek capital.

The mood in the community of exiles is gloomy.

“Our lives are now on hold. We live day by day. We don’t know when we will go back home, what will happen,” said Tamar, a writer in her 30s who initially stayed with friends.

Passengers look at a departure board at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, as flights are canceled and delayed because of a massive surprise attack by Hamas, on October 7, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Panic attacks

Roy Danino, who coordinates a psychological aid program within Israeli Community Europe (ICE), says some in the community suffer from anxiety problems and panic attacks, and there are cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Tamar dreamed of opening a newspaper in Tel Aviv. But the heavy atmosphere in her city pushed her to come to Athens, where she quickly offered to create a daycare for Israeli children.

“I was immediately overwhelmed with calls!” she said.

Talia, an art therapist who has been in Athens with her two children for over a month, is still haunted by images of the Hamas attacks.

“I feel alone in a foreign country and the other people cannot understand my sadness,” said the 47-year-old single mother.

“We are not on vacation here! My kids saw 30 rockets flying on top of their head. My uncle was murdered on the 7th of October,” she said.

But despite her sadness, and difficulty in paying over 1,500 euros ($1,640) a month for her Airbnb rental, Talia remains hopeful.

“When I go back to my nation I want to take care of the women there and reach out to the Palestinian women. No one wants (their) kids dead. We need to teach our kids to love each other,” she said.

Israeli soldiers gather near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on November 26, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

While some left the country, there was a flood of Israelis who returned home after October 7.

On October 25, the Knesset’s State Control Committee said that more than 200,000 Israelis had returned to Israel since the war started.

The Knesset report did not detail breakdowns of why the Israelis returned and whether they subsequently joined the war effort.

The report further elaborated on a lack of funding for dedicated consular services to repatriate Israelis for humanitarian reasons, and the lack of policy dictating priority for repatriating Israelis during emergencies.

According to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza, more than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors. However, the figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and do not differentiate between civilians and terrorists nor between those killed by Israeli military action and those killed by misfired rockets aimed at Israel that landed inside Gaza.

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