Ella Ben Ami wishes her mother would tell her what happened to her in Gaza in the six weeks she was a hostage. She knows her mother is trying to protect her, but every night she can hear her mother pacing and crying and calling out the name of her father Ohad who is still held hostage.
Neither of them can sleep.
Since October 7 this is a family which has been living in a very particular hell. Ella, 23, was born and raised in Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the epicentres of the Hamas attacks. While the terrorists thankfully didn’t spend too much effort getting into the block of single people where she lived, within just a few hours of their attack on the kibbutz they had taken both her parents.
At 9.30am her father, the kibbutz’s accountant, messaged her to say the terrorists were in their house. They shot him and snatched him while he was still in his underwear. Her mother, Raz, hiding under a blanket in the safe room, was then caught, threatened with an axe and led out onto a motorbike by terrorists while she was still in her pyjamas. Even as she was being hauled onto the bike, the thugs were hitting her with sticks.
By 11am Hamas had posted footage of Ohad, 55, in Gaza. It took two weeks for Ella to discover that Raz, 57, was there too, via another piece of footage.
Raz, who does art therapy with the elderly in Be’eri, was among the last of the hostages released during the humanitarian pause from fighting on November 29. Ella, who has two sisters, got the call saying Raz was on the list at 3am “and I danced and screamed around the apartment I am staying in” she says.
It wasn’t until a few minutes before midnight that Raz was finally able to leave Gaza. “The first thing she did when she saw me and my sisters was smile, it was amazing,” says Ella. “She didn’t think we would still be alive; she was confident she would never see us again. But then she understood that dad wasn’t here; he was still in Gaza. And that was very hard.”
Raz has done a video for the Hostages and Missing People Forum in which she described how she wasn’t allowed to wash and was treated as so “dirty” that she wasn’t allowed to sit on a sofa. Ella admits that her mother hasn’t even told her that much about what happened.
“She doesn’t speak to us about these details because she knows it’s really hard for us to hear,” she says. “She came home very thin and dehydrated but at the same time strong; she is stronger than she ever knew she was.
“I know she was threatened often but she doesn’t speak with us about what happened so I don’t know many details, just that it was so horrible that she can’t even speak about it. She has lost 6kg and said sometimes she didn’t even get to eat a meal in a day.”
Raz suffers from a complex disorder which means she has tumours in her back and spine. The terrorists refused to allow her to take her medicine but for a short while she did get some; but not enough. “She came back just in time and she’s alive so that is what matters,” says Ella.
Scenes of houses destroyed when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Kibbutz Be'eri, and 30 other nearby communities in Southern Israel on October 7, killing more than 1400 people, and taking more than 200 hostages into Gaza, near the Israeli-Gaza border. October 25, 2023. (Photo by Edi Israel/Flash90)
Sometimes Raz smiles. “I was really worried that she would be really quiet and not speak at all. There are moments she goes quiet and I know she is thinking about my dad but there are also times when I see a smile. And she really wanted to go for sushi — we are staying in Tel Aviv at the moment so every night we’ve had sushi for dinner.”
But Ohad is on her mind constantly; he is on all their minds. “She speaks of him all the time and she can’t sleep at night. She walks around the apartment and talks about how much she needs my dad back and how we cannot wait another day.”
Be’eri was one of the kibbutzim which regularly employed workers from Gaza — and Ella came to know them. Like many in the kibbutz she dreamed of a life of peaceful co-existence with them. Now she can’t see that happening.
“I never wanted war; I thought we could be friends. I had this dream that we could walk together to the beach. But that feels so far away from us now. My parents were innocent civilians and they took them; they stole everything from our houses. My trust has been broken. And now we just need the hostages back — whether it is a war or a ceasefire, an exchange, I don’t care. Every morning it feels like there is Russian roulette as news leaks out about a hostage and I wonder if it’s my dad.
“The monsters of Hamas — they are not humans — could just decide they don’t like my dad’s face any more and kill him. We don’t know what will happen to him. My mum should be resting but she, like me, is doing everything she can to bring him home and tell the world what Hamas has done.”
Ella stops for a moment and suddenly looks all of the young woman that she is. “I don’t have a home any more, my parents are not functional, I don’t feel like there is anyone I can turn to. But I just want the world to know that my family were innocent people and I need my father back. I can’t do it alone.”