Almost three months into the Israel-Hamas war, Jewish leaders are being guided through the villages of the Gaza envelope that were attacked on Oct. 7. I was part of a World Zionist Organization board mission and another mission organized by B’nai B’rith International.
The horrific scenes in Kfar Aza and Ofakim remain horrifying, despite the efforts to respectfully repair the signs of massacre. Body parts have been collected and removed. Pools of blood have been mostly mopped up. Untouched houseware and appliances, overturned furniture, torched and bent vehicles, even a sukkah stand as the remnants of a once-peaceful life.
Yet the scorched houses are filled with reminders of what took place and who is fully accountable: Hamas. Something in this cauldron of horrors is both real and unreal. Not even the unpicked orange trees or violet blossoms can conceal the ravages of Oct. 7. These violated towns can be reborn, despite everything, because the residents have the passion, pride, will and resilience to live.
Meanwhile, the sounds of artillery and machine-gun fire break through the constant roar of jets and rescue helicopters. Periods of silence interrupt what an IDF spokesperson calls “a symphony of war.” But what we have witnessed speaks for itself.
There is no covering up what happened here in only a few hours. Hamas, and Hamas alone, is fully responsible, no matter what the court of public opinion — the media, depraved politicians, enemy activists and the United Nations — say about Israel’s military goals. Even most of the relatives of victims and hostages are fully onboard with the IDF’s operations, despite understandably conflicting views.
The work of volunteers from the south and the north who have come together to provide respite for IDF soldiers is impressive beyond words. The thumping of techno music fills the air in a festive atmosphere at Gilad Junction, where soldiers can be refreshed with food, snacks, soft drinks, massages, showers, haircuts, books — whatever they need. Volunteers can pack boxes with IDF-approved knee guards, special jackets, homemade cakes, cookies, candy and more.
In Tel Aviv, retired Israeli ambassadors have set up their own command center to “speak for and on behalf of” the hostages, who cannot speak for themselves. The newly renamed Hostage Square is a place where, among other activities, parents of hostages can share details of the harrowing experiences of their sons and daughters still held captive.
Parents of Nova festival victims share memories of the event held in the name of peace. One father describes the odd combination of suffering and joy he experienced when he heard that his son was alive after being told he had likely died. The hope that cuts through the pain is extraordinary. Another father shows up daily at the Tel Aviv Expo’s recreation of the Nova grounds, including tents, clothes, actual vehicles and portable toilets — bullet holes and all. These are evidence of the life that has survived the monstrous slaughter of 1,200 souls.
Israelis are pulling together in extraordinary ways. Hotels throughout the country are making space for families evacuated from their homes. One seaside high-rise hotel in Tel Aviv brought in four new washing machines and dryers just to facilitate cleaning clothes. Other spaces keep children cheerfully busy. Countless vacant apartments have been made available to other evacuees. It’s not uncommon for individuals simply to hand over the keys to perfect strangers.
The three-day World Zionist Organization mission includes a shiva call in Yanuh-Jatt, where we met the Druze family of Alim Abdallah, a hero who courageously fought and died for his country. We visit a nearby facility where Druze seamstresses sew 11,000 uniforms and patches a month for the IDF. The pain and gratitude are felt everywhere.
Then there’s Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chair of World Mizrachi and a WZO board member whose family experienced the collision of one son’s wedding and the news that another son had been taken hostage. Rabbi Perez relates how, at one moment, the family prayed for his son Daniel and the next moment celebrated a very happy wedding.
“For those three minutes it was very, very, very painful,” Rabbi Perez recalls in a soft voice.
But of the wedding, he says, “A close friend said it was the holiest, saddest, happiest and most inspirational event. I learned it’s possible to have such incredible angst, pain and worry; and it’s also possible to have incredible blessing and gratitude. Human beings are much stronger than we think we are. And the Jewish spirit is much stronger than we think it is, as we have had to struggle with such impossible dichotomies from the beginning of time.”
Charles Kaufman is immediate past president of B’nai B’rith International.