As a red alert alarm sounded in the busy hotel dining hall, many of the children scattered in fear, as the horrors of the Hamas massacre on October 7 came flooding back.
Thousands of families who survived the attacks on the Israeli collective communities known as kibbutzim are now homeless and sheltering in hotels along the beaches of the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. But even now, they face a new threat from a different militant group, the Iran-backed Houthis.
“Everyone thought that Eilat, southern tip of Israel, would be safe from attacks,” said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, 60, a resident of the Nir Oz kibbutz. “We have had to endure several alerts and some impacts from missiles and attack drones coming from the Houthis in Yemen.”
In recent weeks, the Houthis have claimed several missile and drone attacks against Israel and warned further strikes would come. Israeli jets and its Arrow defense system have been deployed to counter missiles and other “aerial threats” in the Red Sea area.
One alarm sounded in Eilat on November 9 when a suicide drone landed on a school a few miles from the hotel, although thankfully there were no children in the building at the time. While the Houthis claimed responsibility for that attack, Israel later said the drone had come from Syria and struck a site there in response.
“It’s been absolutely awful,” said Dekel-Chen of the repeated alerts. “All of the kids from a very young age, up to and including teenagers, (you) could see the absolute terror in their eyes, because it just transported them back to that absolute visceral fear of death that they experienced.”
As they face this continued threat, the displaced residents are also burying their dead, and campaigning to have their loved ones released from captivity in Gaza.
Dekel-Chen’s 35-year-old son Sagui disappeared on October 7, and the family believes he was kidnapped by Hamas.
“It’s excruciating,” Dekel-Chen said. “We don’t know if he’s healthy, or wounded. We know nothing… Hope is hard to come by right now.”
Dekel-Chen is now helping to care for his two granddaughters and his pregnant daughter-in-law, who is due to have a third child within the next few weeks.
Following the October 7 attacks, Israel declared war on Hamas and it has been pounding Gaza with missiles from the air, land and sea, along with a ground offensive which began in late October. Israel says it is targeting the Hamas leadership and network of subterranean tunnels, but the impact on the Palestinian civilian population has been catastrophic, with more than 12,000 killed and at least 30,000 injured and many hospitals unable to function due to a fuel blockade.
The worsening humanitarian disaster has caused a global outcry and calls for a pause in fighting, but Israel has insisted that there will be “no ceasefire” without the release of the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.
Hotel of horrors
In Eilat, around 160 survivors from Nir Oz are now living in the Isrotel Yam Suf, a hotel which overlooks the beach and the rust-colored mountains of Jordan just a few miles across the narrow Gulf of Aqaba.
But the beauty and tranquillity of this location is shattered by the tales of terror from those living inside. More than a quarter of the community of 400 people in Nir Oz were either killed or kidnapped, residents say, making it one of the worst affected kibbutzim.
And 12-year-old Uri Barr doesn’t have enough fingers to count the number of his friends who were taken.
“Wow, there is a lot,” Uri said, eyes widening, as he worked out that his family knows at least 20 people who were kidnapped, 12 of them children.
Uri and his youngest brother, 8-year-old Noam, and their parents all barricaded themselves into the safe room of their house for six hours in silence, as hundreds of Hamas militants went from house to house, murdering the residents and burning their houses.
“We heard them breaking into our house and smashing it up, trying to open our safety room door,” Yonathan said. “They were shooting at houses. RPG on houses, grenades on civilians.”
The Barr family were lucky to have a safe room which locked from the inside. Most of the residents didn’t, as the shelters were designed for protection from Hamas rockets.
Uri’s main concern during those long hours trapped in the room was for his other little brother, 10-year-old Yoav, who had been at a friend’s house on a sleepover the night before.
“It was terrible,” Yonathan said. “(Uri) was crying in the safe room because of that.”
The family with whom Yoav was staying also survived in their safe room, and the Barrs were reunited later that day, after the Israeli military arrived.
“I collapsed, I broke down that moment,” Yonathan said. “(Uri) said it was the first time he saw me cry.”
Now Uri’s main worry is for his close friend Eitan, who was taken hostage by Hamas.
“He is a very good friend and we (were) playing soccer in the kibbutz,” Uri said, adding that he plans to “hug him” if he escapes from captivity.
Uri tries to take his mind off his missing friends by taking part in sports and playing in the water. He’s old enough to be accustomed to hearing the missile alerts, but said some of the younger children panic when they hear the warnings.
Nir Adar, a 35-year-old from Nir Oz, said he tries to stay relaxed when the alarms go off, in the hope that his two young daughters understand that they are safe.
“They see all the people around running and afraid, so this is what’s really affecting them,” Adar said.
Adar and his daughters, 6-year-old Noga and 4-year-old Rani, survived October 7 by hiding in their safe room. The door did not have a lock, so he pulled the handle shut with all of his strength, he said.
“The terrorists came to my house, breaking the door and shooting around 10 bullets at the door of the safe room, which at the same time I was holding,” Adar said, adding that the bullets luckily did not penetrate the door.
The community’s WhatsApp group chain from that day, now posted online, shows the abject terror the residents were experiencing, minute-by-minute.
As Adar sent panicked messages and watched his phone battery drain down, he told his daughters fairy tales and pretended that a tree had fallen on the house to explain why they were trapped.
“(My daughter) asked me if this is soldiers in our house, so I said yeah, this is soldiers and they (are) keeping us safe,” he said. “I tried to create them an alternative reality.”
When they finally emerged from his home in the late afternoon, Adar realized that his brother’s house – just 20 meters away – had been set ablaze.
His brother, 38-year-old Tamir, was kidnapped by Hamas, while his wife and children escaped capture. But Adar fears that even if Tamir has survived to this point, he’ll now never get out.
“I’m afraid that the men will stay left behind,” he said, partly because the negotiations for hostage release are currently focused on women and children.
Adar said his brother’s children are struggling to cope without their dad. “It’s very hard for them, especially at night,” Adar said. “They’re crying a lot there. They miss him.”
Adar has also learned that his 85-year-old grandmother was kidnapped by Hamas. “She’s sick, she needs medicines,” Adar said. “I’m not sure if she will be able to survive.
‘We were abandoned’
Before October 7, Nir Oz was “a kind of garden of Eden in the middle of the desert, thriving community, multigenerational, and what’s left after the Hamas attack is a smoking hole,” Dekel-Chen said.
The kibbutz is now largely deserted, apart from a handful of locals who have been managing the site by retrieving valuables and possessions, boarding up houses, and ensuring that damaged water pipes and electricity cables are made safe.
As anger grows among Israelis about the failures of their government, Connecticut-born Dekel-Chen flew to the United States last week, to attend a march in the capital and meet with White House officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, to advocate on behalf of the families of the hostages.
“As a country (this) will take us generations to really work through, not just because of the monumental failures of our government and army as well on that day, but just the ripple effects of the damage done,” Dekel-Chen said.
“We were abandoned at our moment of need.”
“I don’t think we can go back to Nir Oz because what we’ve been through is horror,” Yonathan Barr said. “All the security and safety that we felt in our home is gone. And I won’t do it again to my children.”
“The country should protect the civilians and if they can’t do it, (the) deal is broken between the citizens and the state,” Adar said. “How can you live here if you’re not safe?”
As they work out their next steps, the families hope that staying together as a community in Eilat will help the grieving process.
“Children are resilient, if surrounded by love,” Dekel-Chen said. “(But) most of them are terrified to be more than a meter or two from their parents,” he added, and they are “incredibly fearful of any sound that isn’t normal, or any person that they don’t know.”
The families are receiving psychological therapy and the children are attending a kids’ club, but they haven’t been in school for a month – and their uncertain future is unsettling the whole community.
The key focus for the families now is to grieve their loved ones, and to bring back the hostages.
“The main idea is that we want our people to come back,” Yonathan said. “It’s like we need them, (for) us to be whole again.”