‘There was no air force, no soldiers, we were alone,’ says Hamas massacre survivor

Evacuees from Netiv Ha’asara recount hiding in safe rooms for 12 hours, comforting their children as terrorists ran rampant in the moshav and executed residents

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Liat and David Ben Shimol, evacuees from Netiv Ha'asara who hid for 12 hours in a safe room during Hamas's October 7, 2023 terror attack, at the Yearim Hotel in Maale HaHamisha. (Jeremy Sharon)
Liat and David Ben Shimol, evacuees from Netiv Ha'asara who hid for 12 hours in a safe room during Hamas's October 7, 2023 terror attack, at the Yearim Hotel in Maale HaHamisha. (Jeremy Sharon)

Within the grounds of a hotel perched in the Jerusalem Hills, amid peaceful pine forests stretching to the horizon and under an azure sky, hundreds of people are out lounging in the sun.

Mothers keep a close eye on their kids as they run around between bouncy castles and inflatable slides, older children take part in a flower-arranging workshop, and elderly men and women sit quietly, taking it in.

But the veneer of tranquility is misleading. All staying at Yearim Hotel in the town of Ma’ale Hahamisha at the moment are evacuees from Gaza border towns, who this week went through unimaginable trauma. Having fled the horrors of Hamas’s murderous assault on Israel on Saturday, they are still processing their brush with the brutal terrorists who massacred hundreds in the attack.

Most of the evacuees are from Netiv Ha’asara or Kibbutz Zikim. At least 20 residents of Netiv Ha’asara were among those killed in the terrorist rampage.

Speaking to this reporter, many share the same feelings: utter astonishment that such an attack could be carried out by Israel’s enemies; a shattered sense of personal security; and intense anger at the government.

At the same time, some evacuees — though not all — expressed a determination to return home and to rebuild what has been destroyed.

Glen Eilon, a resident of Netiv Ha’asara and a survivor of Hamas’s attack on southern Israel, speaks in Maale HaHamisha near Jerusalem on October 12, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

“I feel anger and I feel [a desire fore] revenge,” said Glen Eilon, a long-time resident of Netiv Ha’asara, a beautifully pastoral town in normal times, which has born the brunt of innumerable rocket and mortar attacks in the last two decades.

The moshav lies just several hundred meters from Gaza’s northern border and is the closest civilian community to the Palestinian territory.

“I’m not terrified, I’m not scared, I’m not shaking in my boots, but if I had power I would exercise it with those two feelings,” he averred.

Eilon, 82, his wife, his youngest son, daughter-in-law, and three young grandchildren all mercifully managed to escape harm as Hamas terrorists stormed the community and set about murdering whoever they could get their hands on — as they did in numerous other towns and communities in the area.

At least some of the terrorists infiltrated Netiv Ha’asara on motorized para-gliders. One landed behind Eilon’s house, and another behind his eldest son’s home a few houses down.

“One of my neighbors lost his two sons in the attack. Our two elderly neighbors hid in their safe room and when [the attackers] couldn’t get in, they piled up tires against the house and burnt it down with them inside,” he says.

“A young mother was in the bathroom and when the terrorists saw her they lobbed in a grenade and killed her.”

“They came down the pathway between my house and the next-door neighbor, walked 100 meters (yards) up the road and started shooting at anyone they could find,” he says.

“Why they did that and left us alone, I don’t know, maybe there is some reason why He thought about us,” he adds, in an oblique reference to God.

A house hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Netiv Ha’asara, May 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He was quick to say despite these thoughts that he was no longer religious, and lost his faith when another of his sons was killed in an accident 30 years ago while testing an artillery gun.

His son is buried in Netiv Ha’asara and he visits his grave once a week.

Eilon and his family first ran to their safe room when Hamas began its assault with a massive rocket barrage, around 6 a.m. Saturday, and for the first two hours of the attack did not know that terrorists had infiltrated into Israeli territory, since there was no power or an internet connection for much of the time.

At one stage Eilon’s wife even went out to make breakfast for the grandchildren aged 12, eight and five.

“Then we heard them shooting with the Kalashnikovs, we heard them firing in the street next to us,” says Eilon of the moment they realized their dire situation.

“My family was terrified…. my son was shaking like a leaf, I couldn’t protect him, I couldn’t protect my grandchildren.”

After spending some 12 hours in their safe room and after the sounds of gunfire had abated in Netiv Ha’asara, residents finally received messages from the moshav’s security center that it was possible to leave. Eilon and his family got in their cars at around 6 p.m. and fled.

Rockets are launched by Palestinian terror groups from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza, October 7, 2023. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

Like Eilon, Liat and David Ben Shimol spent some 12 hours in their safe room as they heard the sounds of war all around them.

When the sirens first sounded they jumped out of bed and rushed into their protected space with two of their three children, Shira, 14, and Ariel, 10 (the third, 18-year-old Noga, was abroad).

Although they are used to rocket fire and sirens, the massive barrages Saturday morning felt like something different was going on. Then around 10 a.m., they began hearing the gunfire.

“We didn’t understand what was happening, the power was out, there was no internet, the only thing we knew was that we had been told to stay in the safe rooms after getting cellphone reception for a few moments around 8 a.m.,” says David.

After an hour, during which their only information was the sounds heard from outside, they got a phone call from David’s cousin, a member of the community’s civil defense team.

“He said he had been shot in the leg and that there were terrorists all over the moshav, and for us to shut ourselves indoors,” says Liat.

“That was when we realized we were alone. There was no air force, no soldiers, alone,” she continues.

“The sounds outside were so loud, it was insane. Our son had a panic attack, he was shaking uncontrollably. Our daughter began praying and reciting psalms,” says Liat.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“The kids were terrified, they were shaking, they had a lot of questions, they were worried about their friends, and they asked what would happen if the terrorists came to our home,” she says.

They later learned that the terrorists had opened fire at residents in a home just two doors down from them. Miraculously, they never tried to enter their own home.

Every so often David and Liat’s phone reception would come back and they’d receive messages from injured and frightened residents on the moshav WhatsApp group. Some people left voice messages saying they could hear the terrorists in their homes and pleaded for help. When messages were sent in reply and no response came, “we knew they had been killed” says Liat.

An elderly woman living nearby said she had been wounded and was bleeding, but no one could get to her to help. She was eventually rescued and survived, the couple said.

At one point during the day, amid the slaughter outside, David sent a voice note to daughter Noga, who is currently volunteering with the Jewish Agency in San Francisco, telling them they were fine.

“I wanted her to be calm if she saw or heard what was happening before we could speak, even if I had to lie, I didn’t want her to worry,” he says, trembling and breaking down in tears.

When they finally received notices that it was possible to leave, the couple rushed out with their children and threw a few clothes and belongings into the car. On their way out they saw corpses lying on the ground, though they had already been covered in blankets by emergency and rescue personnel. The smell of burning buildings was thick in the air.

“We’re in pain. It’s inconceivable how this could have happened,” says David. “How do we rebuild the moshav after this?”

A relative of an Israeli missing since a terrorist attack by Hamas is overcome by emotion during a press conference in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

But the couple insists they will return, and they will rebuild.

“We won’t only go back, we’ll go back and build stronger. All the kids from the moshav are saying they want to contribute, to help and to take action, and that they want to go to the army and fight,” says Liat.

Eilon is sharply critical of the government for the failure that enabled Hamas to carry out its unprecedented attack.

“I’m angry because no one is taking responsibility, angry because something like this could happen, angry because the government didn’t know what was going on.

“Where were our vaunted security forces, where were the soldiers, where was the army for the first seven hours?” he demands.

“People were screaming for help but there were no tanks, no jeeps, no soldiers.”

Despite being aligned with the right-wing, Eilon is deeply disillusioned with the current leadership.

“We have no government. We’ve got people looking to blame others instead,” he says. “If the prime minister was a man he’d quit and say ‘I failed the country, I failed the people, I failed everyone, I’m going home’ — with his tail between his legs.”

Eilon says he is unsure if it will ever be possible to go back to Netiv Ha’asara because of how close it is to Gaza. But assuming it is possible, his decision is clear.

“Am I going to leave my moshav with my son buried there? I visit him every week. I’m going no place,” he vows. “Do you go home? It’s our home, where else would we go?”

Most Popular
read more: