Hour after hour, as a cacophony of explosions and gunshots echoed outside their safe room, Yonatan Shamriz whispered softly into the ear of his two-year-old daughter.
Trying desperately to keep her quiet, to avoid detection by the Hamas gunmen on a killing rampage outside, he told Yali to play a game. “If you whisper,” he said, “you’ll get balloons.”
The day of the Hamas massacre, Oct. 7, was Yali’s birthday, and their home was festooned with balloons. The only food that her father and mother could grab before fleeing into their shelter was her birthday cake. But Yali was happy to play the whispering game, and thrilled to be allowed to eat the cake with her fingers. She stayed quiet for 22 hours, and the family escaped the brutal assault that killed dozens of people in their kibbutz.
“I want to say that we survived because of God, but I don’t think God existed on that day,” Mr. Shamriz says.
When they emerged from the safe room, they discovered that Yonatan’s 26-year-old brother, Alon, had disappeared from his nearby home. His final phone message to them that day, after Yonatan had told him to stay strong, was a heart emoji. Today he is believed to be one of more than 220 captives that Hamas is holding in Gaza.
Mr. Shamriz considers his story to be “boring” in comparison to the horrific ordeals of many others. His kibbutz, Kfar Aza, was one of the communities most devastated by the Hamas massacre. But these heart-stopping stories – the stories of the survivors, the victims and the hostages – are today the driving force in Israel: the centre of political discourse, and the most powerful motivator of political and military action.
On television and social media, in vigils and protests, at press conferences and seemingly endless funerals, in meetings with diplomats and dignitaries, and in dozens of temporary shelters for the 200,000 people who have been displaced from the massacre sites, the stories of death and disappearance have become the collective trauma that has galvanized the country.
Almost everyone in Israel knows someone who was killed, injured, abducted or displaced by the Hamas attack. To keep the hostages at the centre of the national consciousness, Israelis tie yellow ribbons on their car mirrors, display posters of the missing, attend demonstrations or volunteer to help in the online search for clues to the captives.
“Time stopped for us on Oct. 7,” says Adva Gutman Tirosh, an orthopedic surgeon whose sister disappeared during the Hamas attack and is believed to be among the hostages in Gaza.
“The world stopped. Since then, everything else – medical or work problems, even my children’s school work – everything has stopped.”
Her 27-year-old sister, Tamar Gutman, was among thousands of young people who were attending an electronic music festival, a few kilometres from the Gaza Strip, on the day of the massacre. Tamar suffered from Crohn’s disease, which had prevented her from going to university for many years, but recently she had begun to feel better. She entered law school and even felt well enough to attend the festival with friends.
Early on the morning of Oct. 7, in her home in central Israel, Dr. Gutman Tirosh was awoken by sirens warning of Hamas rockets. She messaged Tamar at the festival, who reassured her that she was okay and even asked about her sister’s children. “I think she was calm until the last minute,” Dr. Gutman Tirosh says.
Tamar was with four friends, all of whom were killed or disappeared in the Hamas attack on the festival. When her phone was later recovered, it showed that she was trying to send a message to her sister at 7:51 a.m. local time, telling her that she was heading home.
Later that night, Dr. Gutman Tirosh went to the main hospital in southern Israel to talk to injured survivors, showing them a photo of her sister and asking for clues, but most were so traumatized that they could hardly concentrate on the photo. One woman told her how she had survived by pretending to be dead, covered in the blood of others, under the body of another victim. The hospital was so overwhelmed with injured survivors that she had to help the doctors for many hours, treating those with less urgent wounds.
Since then, she has been poring over every newly released video of a hostage, searching for clues, while also calling hospitals every day, hoping that one of them might know something about her sister. Without specialized drugs and diet for her medical condition, Tamar’s life could be in danger.
Even worse are her frantic thoughts about what could be happening to Tamar in captivity. “I wake up each morning and wonder if I prefer her to be alive or dead. We’re afraid that they’re doing horrible things to the hostages. I don’t know if I’m being selfish by hoping she is alive. By wishing her to be alive, I could be wishing for her to be tortured by these monsters.”
While continuing to search for her sister, Dr. Gutman Tirosh is working for a medical committee at an organization of family members of the missing and abducted. They gather data on the medical conditions of the hostages, both pre-existing conditions and injuries from the Hamas attack, and share it with the International Committee of the Red Cross, hoping that the ICRC will some day gain access to the hostages. Their data suggests that a majority have medical conditions of some kind. Many are elderly or children, even infants.
The families of the missing and abducted are united in their ultimate goal. Their slogan, “Bring them home now,” is everywhere in Israel today. But there are disagreements among them on the military and diplomatic tactics that the Israeli government should pursue.
At the main site of daily demonstrations by family members in the centre of Tel Aviv, near the headquarters of Israel’s Defence Ministry, the placards reveal a range of demands. Some call for a ceasefire in Israel’s war with Hamas. Some call for a prisoner exchange to free people on both sides. Most just want the hostages home. But privately, some family members say they want Gaza to be wiped out and emptied, to eliminate any future threat from the territory.
In this debate, Dr. Gutman Tirosh is in the middle. She wants the Israeli military to continue its pressure on Gaza, but she also wants negotiations on hostage releases to be pursued. She feels empathy for peaceful Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are suffering under the Israeli bombardment and the long Hamas domination of the territory. “They’ve been hostages for years,” she says.
Oded Bahar, a 70-year-old survivor of the Hamas attack on Nir Yitzhak kibbutz near Gaza, sits at the protest site in Tel Aviv with a sign reading: “Save them, cease fire.” He is a long-time peace activist who volunteered for years to bring sick people from Gaza to hospitals in Israel, and he has not changed his mind about peace, even after Hamas killed several people in his kibbutz on Oct. 7 and abducted several others.
“I don’t think our country should be blindly bombing Gaza,” he says. “So many innocent people are being killed, and it doesn’t benefit Israel at all. It doesn’t achieve anything. Revenge is not a policy for a state, but it is motivating our government.”
Mr. Bahar, who spent 14 hours in his bomb shelter on Oct. 7 while Hamas gunmen were attacking the area, argues that a ceasefire could be a key step in winning freedom for the hostages. “My responsibility as a human being is to prevent people from dying,” he says. “Human beings live in Gaza. We must find a way to co-exist.”
Meanwhile, further north, Mr. Shamriz and his family have been evacuated to a hotel in another kibbutz, Shefayim, along with most of the survivors from his community. His brother, Ido, is another survivor. A member of the kibbutz security team, he fought the Hamas attackers for an hour, killing one of them, until his gun jammed. He managed to reach his safe room, where he spent 30 hours before being rescued.
Mr. Shamriz avoids television, trying to stay away from images of the Hamas massacre and abductions. By his count, 60 people from his kibbutz were killed and 17 were abducted, although many bodies are still unidentified. He attends as many as seven funerals a day, comforting others as they comfort him.
“This place is like a big shiva, a grieving place,” he says, glancing around him. “People who were happy and joyful now have hollow eyes. Our community is shattered. Everyone has a story that would make your skin crawl. The trauma and stress that we’ve been through is so deep – it will take years to deal with it.”
Mr. Shamriz, like Mr. Bahar, is a long-time believer in peace and co-existence. But the Hamas massacre has fundamentally altered his world view. Now he believes that the Palestinians should leave Gaza and move southward into Egypt.
“I want Gaza to be empty,” he says. “Most of us strongly believed in co-existence until that day. We thought we could bridge the cultures. But now it’s a new world. Nothing will be the same. We will forget everything that we thought we knew about peace and co-existence.”