A 26-year-old trapped “in the dark and silence” of a safe room in his mother’s kibbutz for 17 hours was terrified for his life as terrorists swarmed his neighbours’ homes.
Amir, who did not want to give his surname for security reasons, had travelled from Tel Aviv on Friday night with his wife and sister to visit his mother in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz in southern Israel close to the northern part of the Gaza Strip. At 6.30am on Saturday the sirens for rocket fire began.
“It’s something that we're used to because we lived there all our childhood,” Amir said. “We know what to do and where to run.”
They ran to their shelter as rocket fire and explosions continued. “I lived there for 23 years, and I've never heard anything like that.”
The kibbutz is situated in an area close to the border so all residents have an app on their phones to alert them to threats. Amir’s alerts began arriving thick and fast: “Stay in your shelters, lock the doors, turn the lights off. Don't make a sound because there's possible infiltration from the Gaza Strip.”
The gunfire outside got closer as time went on, and Amir realised that terrorists must be inside the kibbutz.
At that point, he was able to communicate with his father, living with his wife in a different part of the kibbutz. He told his son they could hear gunfire close by and that he hoped he was safe.
While the shelter – a small, basic room – was designed to protect its inhabitants from rocket fire, the blast-protection window and door could be opened by a handle from both sides.
“We tried to lock ourselves in the best we could,” Amir said. “I found a small knife and held the doors [with as much force] as I could because I didn't know when someone would break in. And we just sat there. We weren't prepared for anything like that. We never thought that would be possible.
“We didn't have water, we didn't have food. We didn't have access to toilets. We found ourselves peeing into bags… It was horrendous.”
Since Amir and his sister had grown up on the kibbutz, they were “pretty used to the sounds of war” and tried to identify what they were hearing to get a sense of control of the situation, but with little success.
“I'm an ex-military person, as anyone in Israel is, so we're trained to cope with stressful situations. So when we were there, I said to myself, ‘Anything that will come, will come, whether I'm anxious or terrified. I just need to hold the door. That's the mission.’ But obviously, I was terrified as well. You can't be in such a situation and not be terrified. And the helplessness is just devastating.”
Amir received an alert that special forces were going door to door and searching for survivors, but also knew that terrorists were still loose. He knew that at some point someone would enter the room, but they had no way of knowing who it would be, he said.
When the moment came, he heard a man speaking in Hebrew but still he held the door, and the knife, tight: “I felt the handle start to move. And at that point he said Kaddish in a perfect accent.”
Opening the door, Amir said, “it was like a revelation of angels. It was liberating”.
Their ordeal was not yet over though, as the IDF had to clear the rest of the kibbutz before extracting them.
Still in his underwear from the early morning alarm, Amir grabbed clothes and a phone charger and ran back inside at the exact time that gunshots sounded - a terrorist in the neighbouring house.
As Israeli soldiers started shooting from their house, they were ordered to stay put in their shelter, and when the gunfight ended 10 minutes later, they lost phone reception.
“We were basically stranded,” says Amir.
“We stayed there in silence, and we occasionally heard people stepping through the bushes outside, and fighting. Things that sounded like grenades, mortar shells falling in the kibbutz, and a lot of heavy machine gunfire.”
Suddenly terrified that the lights had been turned on in the house and the door left open, they ran in to turn them off and ensure they wouldn’t be seen, and they took the chance to drink water before returning to the shelter.
At 8.30pm, they received a message from Amir’s father saying that after a hostage situation at his neighbour's house, he and his wife had been rescued: “He said they [would] do everything they could and come for us as soon as possible and told us there was heavy fighting on our end.”
For the next three hours, connection once again broken, Amir held the door tight, “for dear life, because that was the best thing I could do to protect us.”
As the fighting died down, at 11.30pm they once again heard noises at the house. While they hoped that those searching from door to door were the IDF, again the family had no way of knowing who was outside. Amir tried to resist the door handle turning.
“They said they were IDF, but nothing more. There were several voices and I couldn't hold onto the door much longer. And I understood that if I don't step outside right now and do something, we’d die anyway.”
When Amir did open the door it was the Israeli forces there to rescue them. They explained that his father was safe outside.
“They said, ‘The situation is difficult, but we came for you. Take your stuff and leave with us,’” Amir recalled. Grabbing their things as fast as they could, they ran outside and were taken to a different part of the kibbutz.
“I could see all the damage, burned houses and burning houses, gunfire from inside all around us. They told us it was secure but I didn't believe that everyone was neutralised.”
A convoy of military vehicles and civilian buses took the rescued kibbutzim to a different IDF base 40 minutes away. On the journey, Amir witnessed the “carnage”: “A tonne of cars burned. People in body bags everywhere, people that weren't in body bags everywhere. Military cars that were wrecked at the side of the road. Emergency personnel treating people on either side, military tanks going up and down.”
And when they arrived at the base, they saw the others who had been rescued, people from their community who they had known since childhood.
“People were crying, small children devastated, bloodied. Things that you only see in movies and suddenly it was all reality. And people were trying to make a list of who was in the kibbutz at the time.”
Amir and his wife went to her parents’ house, and it was only then that they realised the circumstances of their extraction: “People around me were kidnapped, their daughters and sons were killed beside them. Some were taken after that to Gaza. [People from] houses all around me, small children, elderly people... We were the only ones from our block that didn't take any losses, and it was truly a miracle. I’m not a religious person, but I can really say that it was a miracle.”
In the hours and days since his rescue, Amir has focussed his thoughts on the “amazing” resilience of the community coming together to track down missing people. He points out that kibbutz Nahal Oz was not even the worst struck: “The scope of the catastrophe is just unveiling and we're trying to understand what has occurred. We're not at the point that we could try to understand how we can go back there, because obviously it will be very difficult.”
Yesterday, he received a message from the soldiers who rescued them to check in. they asked if the family needed any help - and to let them know that they had slept at their house and taken some food, even offering to repay them for it.
It was, Amir says, “an amazing lesson of humanity”.