In her dreams, Lihi Levi-Ingber is often back in Kibbutz Be’eri, hugging her doctor husband Daniel. She feels enveloped in happiness, their small children have freedom and they feel an integral part of a community they have come to love in the 12 months they have been living there. The landscape is beautiful and peaceful.
And then she wakes up to her nightmare. Daniel is gone. Her home is gone. Her life as she knew it is completely over.
Lihi speaks and weeps in the reception area of the Hotel David in the Dead Sea. Around us the fountain splashes noisily while a saccharine smell is pumped out; this is a four-star resort accustomed to housing tourists excited at the thought of floating in the “sea” in the lowest place on Earth. Now they are used to people crying here.
Every corner of the hotel is filled with what remains of the people of Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the worst affected of all the targets attacked on October 7.
There are huge photographs of the hostages in the lobby; people mill around bearing T-shirts of loved ones still missing. One former meeting room has become the kindergarten. Other spaces are housing different therapy groups for different ages and needs; from juggling to talking therapy. It is hard to find a quiet space.
The Dead Sea resort is a refuge – few rocket attacks reach here – and a comfort. Only here can others understand the pain. Everyone here has lost someone they loved; from a community of 1,200 people, 93 are dead and 11 are still abducted; some of those are believed to be dead too. Of the hundreds of homes, around 115 were burned to the ground, while most are uninhabitable. So this is where around 700 of Be’eri survivors have landed.
But the David Hotel has become a prison too; a hotel is not a home. Families have no space, no kitchens. You can feel the pain, the subdued agony, as you walk through the grounds, see the haunted looks on the faces of the inhabitants.
On the kibbutz, meals were once a noisy community time when everyone would eat together; now they sit quietly in family groupings. The bonds of camaraderie are stronger than ever as they are all in the same kind of hell – but the joy of living a kibbutz life is impossible where they are. And many believe that the joy they once experienced in Be’eri will never return.
Lihi, 33, has already made the reluctant decision to move on. Neither she nor Daniel, who died aged 34, were born kibbutzniks. She is a property agent from Kiryat Ono, a town outside Tel Aviv, while Daniel was an immigrant from Peru who made aliyah. They met and married in Tel Aviv but when, as a brilliant ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist, he won a post at a hospital in Beersheva, they moved to the south of Israel.
As their family grew – Emily is four and Liam is two – they made the decision to move to the nearby kibbutz where Daniel was put on the night-shift rota in the kibbutz’s clinic. She remembers it as “the best time of our lives. The people welcomed us; they loved us, we loved them”.
Like everyone in the south, they were woken on October 7 at 6.30am by the sound of heavy rocket fire, which was unusual in its ferocity. Quickly rumours started that terrorists had invaded but in those early hours it was presumed to be just a handful of men; not the 300 who attacked Be’eri it would take the IDF two days to clear.
Daniel was expecting to do a shift in the hospital and was still planning to go there until one of the kibbutz’s medics told him the dental clinic was filling up with the injured and asked if he could help. “I remember we kissed, we said, ‘te amo’ ‘I love you’ in Spanish and he promised to let me know he had got there safely,” said Lihi.
For much of the morning they messaged each other as Daniel had to tend to more and more wounded. At 1.58pm Daniel sent her a message saying, “We are under attack. I love you.” She replied, “Are you OK?” A minute later she got a message from him saying: “Yes.” But when she wrote a few seconds later, “I love you”, her message went unread.
Lihi and her children were rescued at 7pm that evening. At first, she still hoped Daniel would return to her; “I thought he is so smart and clever, he probably had a plan B or a plan C or maybe they took him because who doesn’t need a doctor?”
It took the army three days to confirm that Daniel had been killed in the clinic. Since that time, she has been living in a “weird reality”, plunged into a nightmare she cannot escape from.
At first, she went to her parents. Daniel’s parents came from Peru to bury him. She found it all too much and moved to the hotel to be with others who could understand her pain and so that her children could be with their friends. But now she has reluctantly decided to move back to her home town. “Everyone here is very close because only we can understand each other. For the rest of my life, I will be tied to them and the tragedy of Be’eri Kibbutz. But it is time for me and my children to try to begin a new life because I have to,” she said.
For others who spent their lives on Be’eri, the decision about whether to stay or go is even harder – even as they all recognise that living in a hotel is far from ideal.
Miri Gad Messika, a 45-year-old mother of three and marketing consultant, spent most of her life on the kibbutz her grandparents arrived there two years after it was founded in 1946 and she has 30 members of her family who are part of the kibbutz community. Astonishingly, they all survived the attacks. But everyone who grew up there feels like family too; they went to school together, had adventures together, their parents and their children are friends. On October 7, she and her immediate family escaped from terrorists who had set their home alight by jumping out of a window and managing to reach the safe room in another house.
“We have a roof over our heads but the situation is not comfortable,” she said. “I am trying to do my job from the bedroom and we are far away from anywhere we are thinking about renting a flat somewhere because we need to settle. But at the same time, we want to be with our community. The main thing we are trying to deal with is bringing home everyone who was kidnapped. It feels like every minute is a waste when we aren’t doing something to get them released; we know some of them are in very bad shape.”
She has been back to the kibbutz once; her entire home has gone.
Work is already taking place to accommodate the community in hastily built makeshift homes in a new temporary kibbutz adjoining Kibbutz Hatzerim in Beersheva. The plan is then for them to return to Be’eri in 2025 when it has been rebuilt. But no one knows this for sure and it is the uncertainty about their future that is causing additional anguish.
“You can make all the plans you like but we know that someone up there will be laughing at the idea of plans,” says Miri. “My heart will always be with Be’eri but if we are going to return there it will only be when it is completely safe; when there is no Hamas and not even a root of Hamas.
“These creatures and what they did; it is worse than Isis. They murdered my friend’s nine-month-old baby – they shot the baby and then they killed her husband, then they shot her. What kind of monster kills a baby? Not one that any of us can be in danger from again.”
The job of trying to hold the kibbutz together falls in part to Amit Solvy, 70, the chairman of Be’eri. The printing press that made the kibbutz famous throughout Israel is already working again, while a small army of workers and volunteers are collecting crops from the kibbutz land though 35 per cent of this has been taken by the army.
Amit’s father was a founder member, his mother a Holocaust survivor, and he was born and raised there. His sister and brother-in-law, Mayan and Yuval Bar, were murdered on October 7. But he is determined they will return and rebuild. A few have even moved back to help run things but I know it will take time for the majority of the community,” he said. “We are trying to do whatever we can to help people psychologically. It will take time; maybe ten years, maybe 20. Maybe for everyone who experienced this total evil they will never be able to escape it.
“I am an optimist and the fact is that nowhere in Israel is safe; we live in a sh*t neighbourhood. We are tiny state surrounded by millions and millions who don’t want us to be here. But I can’t see myself living anywhere else but Be’eri. It is my home. I like to think time heals everything. But I don’t know if it will.”