ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 196

Nir Shohat. (Dafna Talmon)
Photos: Dafna Talmon

'God, I want to go back, but I don't want to go back to my broken paradise life. I don't want to skate over what has changed'

Restaurateur in Sderot and Yavne and father of three, evacuated to Tel Aviv ● This is his story

Photos: 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

That weekend, my family and two others from Nir Am went to Kfar Hanokdim. I got up in the morning to do yoga and heard explosions I recognized from home. That didn’t sit right with me, so I moved into the dog position, and at that moment, with my head down, it crossed my mind that something was not right.

I folded the mat and returned to the farm where I saw people bustling about noisily with their phones. The reception was terrible, but now and then we got messages from the WhatsApp groups for Nir Am and my restaurant SushiMoto.

The first person to tell me what was happening was Sderot police officer and Nir Am resident Bar Mansuri’s sister Dolev Azulay. Bar rescued police officers who were trapped in the police station and sent a goodbye message to Dolev mid-fighting that read, “Take care of my kids.” She was injured by a grenade but survived.

I understood then that something unusual was happening, but I assumed that it would end when the IDF arrived.

I asked Ohad, my friend from Nir Am who went to Hanokdim with us, if he had a weapon and he said no. I think if his answer had been yes, we would have driven back south and engaged the terrorists, meaning, I would have dragged him to his death. But he didn’t have a weapon, so we drove to Ein Yahav, where we had been hosted as refugees during previous IDF operations in Gaza.

We reached Ein Yahav at 9:30. At 10:20, I got called up to reserve duty. At 11:30, I arrived at the base and got organized. Everyone was already there and a few hours later, I felt like I was losing it. I heard there was still fighting in Be’eri and Kfar Aza (I didn’t know anything about Nir Oz yet), and our forces were just sitting around. We function as an operational reserve and don’t head into battle first. But for two days, they didn’t use us.

Nir Shohat in reserve duty. (Nir Shohat)

Reserve duty close to home

From October 7 until the end of December, I was on reserve duty and everything stopped. Our first task was to scan the homes in Kfar Aza. We saw a pan of fish that was still left on the stove, a birthday party table that was left outside for guests who would never come, a cup on the table with a lipstick mark, and the sukkahs (temporary huts built for the Sukkot holiday). These were the markers of time that had stopped moving.

As a resident of the Gaza Envelope, my friends in the battalion were worried about me, so I stayed calm. Every time they asked me how I was doing, I said my heart was in the bomb shelter. When this is all over, I’ll open the armored window and process the difficult sights I saw: images of destruction and fire and bodies all over the place.

In the first week, we were in Kfar Aza tasked with “purification” and protection. From there, we moved on to Be’eri and then Nahal Oz. On Tuesday morning, we patrolled among the houses, and in one of them I saw a note on the fridge reading “Sorry we didn’t get here in time, Maglan [commando unit] team.”

My legs took me to the safe room. I saw the blood, the bullet shells, and perforated photos on magnets and suddenly realized that I was in Roee Idan‘s home. We used to meet in Nir Am to play poker.

At that moment, I stepped aside and fell apart. All the questions rose to the surface. Who am I? Where do I live? What are my values? My thoughts turned into tangled yarn.

I began to realize that nothing would change if we didn’t solve our identity crisis. When you’re not united and you don’t know who you are, your sources of action are reduced. And we, for many years, because of our identity problems, were scared to act.

View of the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, November 2, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

I understood what had been done to us only when I went out for my first break from reserve duty after almost a month. My family was still in Ein Yahav. I met only a small part of my community there, but for the first time, I saw how broken they were. I saved my crying for the car rides — on the way to Ein Yahav for what I’d seen in the Gaza Envelope, and on the way back to the army for what I’d seen of my community.

Kibbutz Nir Am was saved thanks to an emergency response team that was ready and succeeded in stalling the terrorists’ entry. I am part of the team, but on that day, I wasn’t with them. Border Police and Golani forces reached us early in the morning. Bar Mansuri was able to direct the forces to the area where the sound of gunshots was coming from.

A few days ago, a video was released of Border Police troops charging Nir Am. It all could have been so different in a matter of minutes.

The evacuation

I didn’t evacuate during Protective Edge in 2014. I stayed in the Gaza Envelope and made a barbecue for my friends. I laughed about the forced vacations that Hamas gave us. But when you have kids, it all looks different.

It will take a while for us to stop beating ourselves up over our indifference, naivete, lack of attention, and the fact that we kept hold of the fairytale we told ourselves that most of the time we live in paradise and we don’t need to forsake the country over a few military operations. It hurts to know that we didn’t forsake the country, but the country forsook us.

In reserves, I didn’t feel the evacuation. I was in another world. My two restaurants in Sderot and Yavne were closed. War. Sderot is a ghost town. There was no one to work. The Thai workers had left, and it didn’t matter to me. I was in a “the world has collapsed” mood. Who cares about my little restaurant right now?

Nir Shohat’s SushiMoto restaurant in Sderot. (Facebook)

Oshri Azran, a close friend and colleague of more than 20 years, wrote to me, “Brother, Yavne is working.” I wrote back that I couldn’t wrangle up people from Sderot to operate the Yavne restaurant, and he responded, “Tomorrow morning, the restaurant will be open.” And just like that, while I was in reserve duty, Oshri managed the restaurant voluntarily and saved me from economic collapse.

I think about reserve soldiers who cross the border and disconnect. They cannot get messages, speak to the bank or stall payments. They will return in two, three or four months to discover that their life’s work has fallen apart.

A month after the war began, the Nir Am community moved to a hotel in Tel Aviv, and at the end of December, I was released from reserves. And then everything clicked.

I went into coping mode. I couldn’t take a break, talk, self-reflect or stay at home (in the hotel) with the flu. I was immediately sucked into my business. After I was released, my fellow reserves entered Gaza. I so much wanted to take part and feel closure. But I understood that my body had collapsed, and so had my soul, and it seemed that the former had happened because of the latter.

I learned to give the pain its space and not listen to the “be strong” advice. And then, the more the pain and sadness are let in, you discover that life is strong and start to feel a little better. After negotiations with yourself on the moral quandary of whether it’s legitimate to feel better, you let yourself feel good and know that it will pass in an hour. It will pass by tomorrow morning.

I’m glad to discover that despite the abyss, I haven’t lost my optimism. I still believe. But for things to be good, we need a change.

Nir Shohat with his three children in the Tel Aviv hotel they were evacuated to, February 2024. (Nir Shohat)

Identity crisis

In the two decades that I have lived in Nir Am, I witnessed our tangled political leadership. For two decades, the nation sat on the fence. Neither here nor there. Neither a peace agreement nor war. Only defense and defense until what happened happened.

While I was an unsuccessful activist from the Gaza Envelope, we set up a protest movement on the lack of policy regarding our reality. I was charmed to see religious right-wing people from Sderot sit with secular leftists from the kibbutzim and try to create something in the face of a political freeze. The group failed to create a coherent protest because everyone was pulling in different directions.

After one of the previous Gaza operations, we arranged a protest. We invited the media and even had a group of reporters waiting for us, but only three protesters showed up. After I delivered my, “It cannot continue this way” speech, one of the photographers said to me, “Forget it, I grew up in Kiryat Shmona [on the northern border with Lebanon]. My father fought and yelled, and I still grew up in shelters and terror. There’s no point. It won’t change.”

I’ve never liked to sit on the side and complain, but I admit, I feel tortured. Once after one of the operations, I arranged a protest of restaurateurs from the south when the country thought we weren’t eligible for compensation.

We invited Tomer Mor, CEO of the Restaurateurs are Stronger Together Association, and I remember him saying, “If you’re going to protest, you need to be prepared to take it all the way. If you don’t have the energy, it’s best not to start, so that those who follow won’t be forced to start a protest on your broken backs.”

So I loosened up and stopped the protests. I told myself that we live in 95 percent paradise. When COVID-19 started, I worried about myself, just as everyone in Israeli society knows how to do when times are tough, and now it’s come back to me. We didn’t succeed with our protests, we gave up, and we’re paying a high price.

Nir Shohat. (Dafna Talmon)

I think the citizens and soldiers who were killed didn’t die to be martyrs. Their death orders us to change. We are a generation that has become dulled by our fathers’ sins. We were dulled by a capitalistic economic rain and commitment to ongoing life instead of doing what was needed: solve the abyssal differences between us. Solve the identity crisis of Israeli society.

The heckling towards our political leaders needs to be turned on us and our elections. We need to elect leaders who won’t just care for their own constituents and crush the citizens who didn’t vote for them.

It’s like a married couple who isn’t willing to discuss core issues and prefers to set them aside because of the kids and work, because nothing will change in either of them, because discussing the differences will lead to fights. But the choice to repress problems leads to a tear and two decades later, the couple finds they no longer have anything in common.

I don’t want to see Israel break up, but I worry that if we don’t fix the identity crisis, we will once again become the split Kingdom of Judah and Kingdom of Israel. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, but what can be apocalyptic after October 7?

In reserves, you can see all Israel’s tribes unite under the same uniform and flag and not feel the divide. Maybe that’s the only place where the “melting pot” still works. You meet people you would never have met without the army.

But when I climbed the stairs of Habima to give a speech as a resident of the Gaza Envelope in one of the protests, I saw a crowd of people of the same sort. I also want to listen to people who speak a different language to understand the gaps because I understand that we are a generation that is paying the price for identity problems.

Nir Shohat hosts his company in his home in Nir Oz the night they were released from reserve duty, December 2023. (Nir Shohat)

I long for new leadership. For a leader who will cauterize the polarized hatred. A leadership in which everyone who comes to the Knesset brings a ladder to get the public down from the tree so that we can sit under the tree and listen.

In the meantime, we are tearing each other apart, making “we will win together” a hollow slogan. The soldiers know how to make the connection when they leave their families and businesses and march on together, but our emergency government doesn’t know how to create that togetherness. It doesn’t know that there is no choice but to compromise. It’s not the leaders, it’s us who slip our votes into the ballot so that our leaders can shut up the other faction.

Life in the city

I always remind myself that I’m not a refugee from Ukraine. They don’t get housed in hotels. I also know that I’ve been evacuated in far better conditions than the residents of Khan Younis. The embrace we get from citizens, discounts for evacuees, and the support from the Tel Aviv municipality that does so much for us. There is a heartwarming consideration from them.

At the beginning of the war, my wife Gal and I talked about how awful it is to be a needy refugee and get donations. Now, it’s fine. The kids have been absorbed well into routines, and the hands that reached out to help us are still there.

Still, it’s not easy to live in a hotel. You need mental flexibility and to think differently to make it work. I think that we can take advantage of this opportunity, what the city has to offer, and the experience of living in a different place.

Someone from Nir Am whose relatives were murdered in Nir Oz said that there was something positive about being evacuated to Tel Aviv, which forces us to live.

Nir Shohat. (Dafna Talmon)

Last week, four months after the massacre, the restaurant in Sderot also opened.

That’s right. And I stayed, for the first time since the war began, to sleep in Nir Am.

How did you feel?

It was like sleeping next to a friend’s body and hoping that in the morning he would have come back to life. It’s a little similar to the feeling I had when I got to Sderot to open the restaurant.

I thought I would feel like a soldier who had been on base for 28 days and was dying to get home to a warm hug from his mother. That was how we felt every time we came back after previous Gaza operations. This time, the feeling was different. It was a difficult sensation like returning to an abusive home.

I thought, God, I want to go back, but I don’t want to go back to my broken paradise life. I don’t want to skate over what has changed.

Do you really want to go back?

I’m dying to go back. But to do that, I want to feel like I live in a place that is given affirmative action in security. That I am in the safest place in the country, maybe even in the world. But I will also be insolent and say that I don’t want to see that. I mean, I don’t want roadblocks and security checks on every corner.

Find a way to do it so that our lives will be good. Right now, returning is not possible, and for it to happen, we have to feel secure.

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