ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Merav Rahaf. (Dafna Talmon)
Photo: Dafna Talmon

'We were lied to, betrayed, abandoned. After October 7, who can we trust? They slaughtered our people, and no one did a thing.'

A married mother of four, Merav Rahaf works for an agricultural company and was evacuated to a hotel in Herzliya ● This is her story

Photo: Dafna Talmon

This is part of a series, “Uprooted.” Each column is a curated monologue from an individual among the tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis during the war with Hamas who were evacuated from the country’s northern border and the Gaza envelope.

Saturday, October 7

On Saturday at 6:30 a.m., Inbal, my 16-year-old daughter, went for a cycling training session from Kibbutz Kfar Aza with her triathlon group. A few minutes later, the Red Alert rocket siren started, and loud explosions began. They took cover in a bomb shelter near Kibbutz Sa’ad.

Fifteen minutes later, my son Roee, 23, who serves in a special unit in the army, took his clothes off the drying rack, grabbed his weapon, and went out with three friends from the kibbutz to fight. We heard gunfire. At some point, they were called into a house where they were told there was a terrorist. Roee managed to capture him. He was focused and calm under pressure.

My 21-year-old son, Gil, a soldier on active duty, headed to the location where they were directing the wounded. Avi, my husband, and Noam, our neighbor, both members of the kibbutz’s rapid response unit, saw terrorists through the window reaching the end of our street, and they left the house. Ten response members, along with five officers on Simhat Torah holiday leave at the kibbutz, managed to stop the terrorists. They fought for almost four hours until, finally, the army arrived.

A few months back, the army ordered the rapid response units to store their weapons in army armories, but the head of our local unit refused. Looking back, his decision proved crucial for Mefalsim. In Kfar Aza, there was an ambush near the armory, and those trying to retrieve weapons were shot.

I spent hours in the safe room with my 14-year-old daughter, Neta. Eventually, the family living behind us joined us, after their house took a direct hit.

The evacuation

On Saturday evening, the army advised us to leave, but we chose to stay. Inbal was at my sister’s in Kibbutz Sa’ad, and it wasn’t until Sunday at 7 a.m. that we ventured out to bring her back. The road from Mefalsim to Sa’ad was surreal, with dead bodies scattered on the sides of the road. I got sick to my stomach. In Kfar Aza, the battle was still ongoing.

On the return trip, we swung by my parents’ place in Tekuma, a moshav northwest of Netivot, mainly to tell my father that he needed to leave immediately. The look on his face was one of the most painful sights I’ve ever seen. Back home, our family was reunited. Roee arrived only at four in the morning. We breathed for a moment, kept calm, and packed our bags. The boys prepared for their return to the army, and the girls packed a trolley for themselves.

We didn’t know where to go. Gil, who serves in the Golan Heights, suggested avoiding going north. Consequently, we headed to my friend’s place in Ein Yahav in the northern Arava. Two days later, Mefalsim members began gathering in two hotels in Netanya.

We passed through the Dead Sea, where my family from Sa’ad had found refuge. Later, we asked Avi, who stayed with Mefalsim’s Home Front Command, to meet us at Beit Kama, a kibbutz in northern Negev, and bring some stuff we forgot at home. We spent five days in Netanya, and on Sunday, a week after that terrible Saturday, we relocated to a hotel in Herzliya.

Inbal has braces, and we forgot to bring the rubber bands from home. So, in Netanya, we stopped at a dental clinic. Seeing that shops were opening, we bought some essential stuff. Hotels don’t do laundry as frequently as homes, so we needed a fresh supply of underwear and bras.

As we headed to Herzliya, the car got stuck. It was me and the girls and all our stuff, stranded, and I have to say – people were wonderful. A Wolt delivery guy stopped and managed to get the car going. A Mefalsim resident drove our way, ensuring a mechanic would come to tow the car. But for me, it just felt like one too many bumps in the road.

A mobile security shelter at the entrance to Kibbutz Mefalsim. (Courtesy of Kibbutz Mefalsim)

Initially, I marked the weeks. The first week was marked by personal and family survival; licking our wounds, making sure that everyone was okay. The second week was marked by funerals and shivas. There were so many dead to bury, and we moved from one funeral to another.

I also took the girls to the funerals of friends, teachers, and visits to the wounded. Neta has a classmate from Nahal Oz who has no one left — his entire family was murdered.

In the third week, the routine of being a refugee set in. The kibbutz members gathered, and there was talk about starting to operate some kind of educational system. For me, it was another breaking point. The understanding that we are here and that we can’t go back.

The fourth week was marked by “shloshim” memorials [marking the 30-day mourning period after a Jewish burial], followed by the first wave of hostage releases.

Living in a hotel

We’re all sharing a single room now, and it’s challenging, especially regarding privacy. At times, it feels like a “Big Brother” experiment. There are 500 people in the hotel, all under pressure, dealing with mourning, sadness, and the need to carry on somehow. The situation is tough. While it’s true we survived, our home wasn’t destroyed, and the Israeli people have been supportive and warm, the evacuation and the surrounding circumstances are difficult.

I try to keep it together. I suppress my emotions to function. My family never evacuated, not even during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when Avi was on reserve duty. We used to leave on weekends and come back.

Kibbutz Mefalsim. (CC BY-SA Rikmal/Wikipedia)

Once, we left home on a Thursday, planning to return on Sunday. The kids were young. Then came Golani’s battle in Shejaiya, one of the bloodiest in the 2014 war in Gaza, and the phones started ringing — don’t come back.

I took the kids to a zoo up north, and afterward, we went to a movie, had pizza. While at the pizza place, I froze and couldn’t even place my order. I told the kids, “Listen, I know they warned us about the noise, but I want us to get our things and go home.”

Since then, we haven’t left Mefalsim. I’d rather hear the noise of gunfire from home than be here in the hotel. I prefer everything that comes from home. Being away for so long is a profoundly unsettling experience. But I understand it’s different now. I know it’s not safe to be in Mefalsim at the moment.

But even in the past, it wasn’t safe…

If it were “just” the sound of gunfire, I could’ve toughed it out. At worst, I might have left for a few days, not for such an extended period. The real problem is the uncertainty of when it’ll be over.

I feel that we were lied to, betrayed, abandoned. After Operation Protective Edge, the big shots from the army talked about tunnels and a smart fence, and we believed them. But after October 7, who can you trust?

A protestor holds a sign calling for the impeachment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 4, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

I don’t get why this government is still standing. I despise the prime minister and the Knesset members. I despise this group of nobodies who seem more interested in securing jobs and perks for their friends than genuinely caring about the people. Everything feels corrupt, and they act like it’s all fair game.

It will be easiest to blame everything on the army, and obviously, someone there should have had to say: “Enough is enough.” There was a systemic failure, and the simple soldiers were not to blame.

How do you see what happened?

I’ll state it plainly: Judea and Samaria are not officially part of the State of Israel. Until they are annexed, they are considered occupied territories, subject to military control rather than civilian governance. On the other hand, the Gaza envelope is recognized as part of the State of Israel.

It’s unacceptable to draw comparisons between those residing within Israel’s borders and those in territories under Israeli control. The State of Israel must ensure proper protection for its citizens living within its recognized territory. They slaughtered us, and no one did a thing. But there were plenty of forces present in Judea and Samaria during Simhat Torah.

My work

I work for Moshavei Ha’Negev, an agricultural company focusing on geographic information systems. I computerize the history and current status of agricultural plots and measure them. I spend a good deal of time in the field and, before October 7, initiated the process of obtaining a gun permit due to concerns about solo fieldwork. We manage avocado orchards, and many workers are recruited under Tzav 8, Israel’s emergency call-up notice.

I’ve set up a workspace in my hotel room, complete with a large screen and an office chair ordered from work. Everything related to office work is handled from there. I make my way to the fields once a week, sometimes even twice. I started these trips early on, and they’ve become a crucial anchor for me – helping me maintain a semblance of normalcy, a daily routine, and, frankly, my sanity.

Initially, I considered the idea of working in a shared space, but I quickly realized it wouldn’t be practical, especially in the early stages when the day’s unpredictability was at its peak. Being physically close to the girls is essential for me, especially since Avi stayed with the emergency response team in Mefalsim.

Members of Kibbutz Mefalsim play soccer on the lawn of the Hotel Dan Accadia in Herzliya, November 2023. (Courtesy of Kibbutz Mefalsim)

The kibbutz children have enrolled in local schools now. Neta is attending a junior high in Herzliya, close to the hotel. Inbal, who’s in the 11th grade, is studying at Ben-Zvi High School in Givatayim. The people there are welcoming, which is nice, but it’s still challenging. Back in Sha’ar HaNegev, they used to interact daily with kids from other settlements in our regional council. Here, however, many of their friends are far away.

The day they announced the start of integrating the children into schools was tough for me. It felt like a clear signal – we’re not going back anytime soon. This is going to be a lengthy process.

How do the girls feel?

Without intending to sound like I’m complaining, a couple of issues have come up. One of them revolves around the hotel’s laundry smell – one of the girls can’t stand it. She insists on having that familiar scent of home laundry. Initially, I relied on a friend who didn’t move to the hotel and rented an apartment in Kfar Shmaryahu. But later on, I started taking laundry even when I traveled to Mefalsim.

The second challenge is with the hotel’s dining room. The girls won’t eat there; the food disgusts them, especially with the overwhelming quantities. The standard has dropped a bit over time, considering it’s challenging to maintain consistency with such large quantities. Ultimately, it’s another missing piece of home.

I’ve organized kitchen accessories in our room. We now have a toaster, and I bought a microwave and a 100-liter mini-fridge. It’s funny how these additions have unexpectedly opened up my life. Once a week, during my travels to Mefalsim, I cook, do the laundry, pack everything in boxes, and bring it back to the hotel. Despite the logistics, it significantly contributes to creating that overall feeling of home.

I make sure we have essential products in the room and I’m content with how I’ve organized things. At the end of the day, we find joy in the little things.

How do you feel when you arrive in Mefalsim?

Our homes in Mefalsim have become dusty and unkempt. A vacant house tends to accumulate dust, and it loses the warm feeling of home. My husband lives there alone, and when I visit, it feels more like a dorm than a home. I come, work, cook, ensure the kitchen is tidy, take care of what needs to be done, and then head back to the hotel.

A few weeks ago, we managed to gather all four kids and had a family dinner there. We had decided not to stay overnight. Despite the excitement of being together, my mind couldn’t help but dwell on those who wouldn’t experience a family meal after the war, those who wouldn’t return.

I hesitated about Avi sharing a photo on Facebook because I felt it might come across as rubbing it in people’s faces. It’s different from previous fighting rounds where, in the end, everyone comes home, and things return to normal. This time, we’ve lost a lot of people, and nothing about this situation is easy.

The future

Every time they talk about “flattening Gaza,” I can’t help but think it’s an impossible task. If our return home hinges on eliminating Hamas and “flattening” Gaza, it seems like we’ll never go back.

Merav Rahaf. (Dafna Talmon)

I just want to feel safe, to know that my country is looking out for me and keeping me secure. That’s what I believed when I chose to live there. But if my country can’t ensure my safety, I’m in a tough spot.

At one point, I thought the residents of the Gaza envelope should unite and outline our demands for a safe return. But I’m struggling to pinpoint exactly what those demands should be.

In my view, the government is to blame for this situation, and my lack of trust in it started a long time ago. I don’t have faith in leaders like Netanyahu. Unprofessional and unqualified people have been nominated to senior positions. I can’t rely on them, and if my home is not safe – nowhere here is.

I’m mostly frustrated and feeling hopeless because I can’t see a way forward. I’m not usually a pessimistic person, but finding a solution seems challenging. Eventually, we’ll return to Mefalsim. I understand not everyone will come back. After every conflict, some don’t return. I genuinely hope the majority of the community will return. A home is wonderful, but I don’t want an empty one.

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