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Attacked by Hamas at home, Israeli survivors find solace in a hotel

Shefayim Hotel, just north of Tel Aviv, is hosting hundreds of survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, a community that suffered some of the most catastrophic losses in the Hamas attacks two weeks ago.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Shefayim Hotel, just north of Tel Aviv, is hosting hundreds of survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, a community that suffered some of the most catastrophic losses in the Hamas attacks two weeks ago.

SHEFAYIM, Israel — It's disorienting walking into the Shefayim Hotel along the Mediterranean coast: There is so much life and so much loss.

Families lounge on green lawns. Kids play basketball. Dogs are taken on walks through the hotel lobby past a handwritten roster of funerals that keeps getting longer.

These are the displaced residents of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. It was one of the hardest-hit Israeli communities along the Gaza border in the brutal Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 Israelis.

Fifty-eight out of the community's 1,000 or so residents were killed; 17 from the community were kidnapped.

Displaced people congregate on the lawn of Shefayim Hotel.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Displaced people congregate on the lawn of Shefayim Hotel.

Now Israel is retaliating across the border with a bombing campaign on Gaza that officials there say has killed more than 5,700 Palestinians.

The survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Aza have evacuated, with hundreds of them staying together at this hotel on another kibbutz north of Tel Aviv, wondering: what next?

Hiding under pillows, he heard his neighbors get killed

Geologist Bar Elisha sits on a lawn chair in the hotel courtyard. The 41-year-old and his two young daughters were home when the ambush began. He left his house to get his firearm from where it was being stored, but it jammed.

Elisha says it's a miracle he survived.

"I heard them," he remembers. "Entering the houses, breaking doors, breaking windows, and just brutalizing everything all around."

Israeli army soldiers patrol near damaged houses in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip on Oct. 18.
Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli army soldiers patrol near damaged houses in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip on Oct. 18.

Elisha hid under pillows in his neighbor's shed and listened to the attackers go door to door.

"I was like, oh my God, he's dead. His whole family's dead. I was sure they were murdered in cold blood. Then I heard them moving to the next house, and to the next house," he says.

Soldiers rescued Elisha 30 hours later, but the scene he emerged to was devastating. Homes had gaping holes. The attackers left behind an aerial photograph with buildings identified as targets. These are just some of the details that haunt the survivors.

A list of funerals of those killed in the Hamas attacks is posted in the lobby of Shefayim Hotel.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A list of funerals of those killed in the Hamas attacks is posted in the lobby of Shefayim Hotel.

"Our little piece of paradise [has] become pure hell. I don't know how else to put it," says media consultant Avidor Schwartzman.

He moved to Kfar Aza a couple of months ago with his wife and baby. It had palm trees, a plastics factory, a dining hall — the kibbutz ideal of communal living. There was a waiting list to join, even though it's along the Gaza border, where rocket fire is an occasional part of life.

Avidor Schwartzman had moved to Kibbutz Kfar Aza a couple of months ago with his wife and baby. After the attack, he and his family will likely not return.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Avidor Schwartzman had moved to Kibbutz Kfar Aza a couple of months ago with his wife and baby. After the attack, he and his family will likely not return.

"When we moved there, we thought it was safe," says Schwartzman, who is 37. "Yeah, there was constant bombing and everything, but we never thought that dozens or even hundreds of terrorists will infiltrate the kibbutz and will start slaughtering entire families in their home, in their beds."

Schwartzman's wife, Keren Flash, lost both of her parents in the attack — they were killed in their home less than 500 feet away from Schwartzman's home.

Schwartzman does not think he will ever go home again. "We just don't feel safe anywhere right now," he says.

People gather at a food truck where crepes are being made at Shefayim Hotel.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People gather at a food truck where crepes are being made at Shefayim Hotel.

Living in limbo

In Gaza, Palestinians don't have the opportunity to take refuge in a peaceful hotel, and they cannot escape the deadly Israeli bombings.

The Israeli survivors at this hotel are relatively safe, but they are living in a kind of limbo.

Shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning at home, can't be done at home. Their home is now uninhabitable. Shiva after shiva is being held in the lobby of a bank on the hotel grounds.

Ofer Baram is there, surrounded by dozens of family members and friends, sitting shiva for his son, Aviv, who was a 33-year-old stage manager for popular artists.

"Aviv was the glue that gathered us around him," Baram says. "If Aviv is not there — no reason to live there."

Libby Shmuel, a volunteer therapist, holds sessions in an office of the bank. She helped treat a man from the kibbutz who did not know where his father's body was.

People sit shiva for slain family members on the grounds of the Shefayim Hotel.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People sit shiva for slain family members on the grounds of the Shefayim Hotel.

"He was imagining that his body is ... in a bag ... with many, many bags of other bodies." Shmuel says, explaining that, for him, it brought to mind scenes from the Holocaust. "It was so terrible, like Auschwitz, just a very bad image."

Shmuel, who is 48, specializes in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a type of therapy that uses eye movements, knee tapping and guided imagery to overcome trauma.

She guided him to visualize his father on a mountain — a place he fell in love with once on a trip abroad.

"He said, 'Dad, goodbye. I love you,'" says Shmuel. "And he could see his dad and just give him a hug, and say goodbye to him in a normal and dignified way. And then he got peace."

Survivors are lifted up by community

Schwartzman sits on the grounds of the hotel with friends while his baby sleeps in the stroller next to him.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Schwartzman sits on the grounds of the hotel with friends while his baby sleeps in the stroller next to him.

Other attack survivors at the Shefayim Hotel find peace in being among their fellow community members, and those who are volunteering their time to support them.

"The human spirit here is so strong," says Schwartzman. "You see the civilians here that are taking care of everything, everything, everything that you need."

Elisha, the geologist, looks across the hotel lawn toward his daughters and the other families from Kfar Aza.

"I see so many people that I was sure they were dead," he says. "And this is what makes me strong. It strengthens me and makes me feel alive again."

He lifts up his 4-year-old daughter, Yali, and gives her a kiss.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Survivors walk the grounds of the hotel.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Survivors walk the grounds of the hotel.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Claire Harbage
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.