For at least two generations, Israelis have felt secure in the knowledge that the horrors of the Holocaust were behind them. Safe behind border walls and protected by a powerful military, Jews in Israel would never again have to watch as children were murdered in front of their parents, and parents in front of their children.
October 7 changed all that – dramatically.
The Hamas-led killing spree of that day brought Hitler’s willing executions through the gates of Israel. Suddenly, nowhere was safe anymore.
I have spent the past week in Israel, researching a film on Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers with filmmaker Ricky Schroder and his producer, Julie Trammel.
From the very moment I arrived, the presence of the missing – Israelis ripped from their homes by Hamas terrorists – was everywhere. The broad stairs leading down to immigration at Ben Gurion airport were marked with the faces of the missing – on both sides of the hall. On some of the hundred-plus steps, the poster had been taken down to indicate hostages who had been released after more than fifty days of captivity.
By the time I left five days later, the gaps were bigger, as more returnees came home. But more than 136 remained by the time Hamas broke the temporary truce on December 1.
On Ditzengoff Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Tel Aviv, human-sized white teddy bears were strapped to every park bench, their bodies spattered with dirt and blood. Attached to each was a poster of one of the missing.
In Jerusalem, office buildings were lit up with the Israeli flag and holographic projections of the missing, rotating every few seconds.
During that week, we began to learn more about the horrors the hostages had undergone during their Hamas captivity.
Israel’s first lady, Michal Hertzog, revealed that young women had been so brutally raped that their pelvic bones were broken.
Boys and young men were branded – not with a number, as in the Nazi camps – but marked indelibly with hot motorcycle exhaust pipes, so they would be recognizable in case they managed to escape, as some did.
Children were given food and water intermittently and threatened with weapons if they dared to open their mouths. “When I first saw them returning in the helicopters they looked like shadows, not children,” said Dr. Efrat Harlev, CEO of the Schneider Children’s Center where many of the child returnees are being treated for trauma. “They would ask us if they could open the window, or open the drawer, or take a shower,” still fearful of their Hamas captors.
Most children lost ten to fifteen percent of their body weight. Dr. Harlev told the story of two sisters, 15 and 8 years old. “The older one decided how much to eat so she could save food for her younger sister. Sometimes she would not eat for days.”
Even in the hospital, many children picked at their food, telling doctors they had to save it for later. “The last time I read about that happening was eighty years ago, before Jews had a state,” Dr Harlev said on Monday.
One twelve-year old boy, strapped to the back of a motorbike by his captors, was welcomed by a crowd in Gaza and beaten with clubs, sticks, fists, and bats. Another twelve-year old, Eitan Yahalomi, was kept alone in a closed room for sixteen days and beaten regularly by his captors.
Moved to a second location, Eitan and other children were forced by Hamas to watch videos of the atrocities they committed on October 7, according to former Knesset member Dov Lipman. All were told that no one was looking for them, that there was no Israel, no place for them to return. “Hamas was psychologically harassing them on a daily basis,” Dr. Harlev said.
It is well-documented that Hamas used United Nations schools as arms depots and training centers. But they also called on United Nations employees to guard and house hostages, including a Gaza teacher.
Those UN schools, operated by UNWRA, have indoctrinated generations of Palestinians to hate Jews and vow Israel’s destruction. If nothing else, the U.S. and the European Union should take control of UNWRA, fire the Hamas teachers and reform the curriculum, to ensure it returns to its core mission of educating children to live in peace with their neighbors.
We will learn more about the horrors these hostages endured in the days and weeks to come. So far, no military-age men have been released. No one really knows if they are even alive.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the nation the day after the truce and the hostage-swaps expired with these moving words:
“Citizens of Israel,” he began. “’Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.’ Last week, we rescued many worlds. We returned 110 souls to Israel. We freed 86 Israeli citizens – children, women, young people, mothers and grandmothers, as well as dozens of foreign nationals. The entire nation and many around the world held their breath as they followed each release.
“The boys and girls and young people whom we returned home: Raz, Aviv, Hila, Alma, Noam, Emma, Yuli, Emilia, Avigail, Emily, Gali,Amit, Eitan, Nava. Yahel, Noam, Ohad, Uriah, Yuval, Ofri, Erez, Mia, Noga, Ofir, Dafna, Ela, Tal, Agam, Gal, Or, Yagli, Itay, Maya, Bilal, Aisha, Uri, Natali, Mika, Liam – and many others whom we have released.
“These are not just names but souls of boys and girls that we brought back home, we brought them back to life. We will be with them and look after them. I embrace them on behalf of all of you, citizens of Israel: Welcome to those who have left the horrors, welcome back home.
“The Psalmist writes (142:8): ‘Take my soul out of confinement.’ We have taken them out of confinement, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption.”
These were exactly the right words for the Prime Minister to utter. As someone who has been held hostage, they touched me to my core, because that is exactly what liberation felt like, being dragged out of darkness into the light.
The long war to secure Israel’s borders and eradicate Hamas as an organized force has begun. Many will seek to tie Israel’s hands, but they will not be restrained. Should the Prime Minister or anyone in his cabinet suggest that Israel should enter ceasefire talks – not the temporary pauses of the hostage exchanges, but an actual, lasting ceasefire that allows Hamas to fight another day – they would face a mutiny among the ranks of the IDF.
The ancient horrors – the horrors Israelis thought would never happen again – have returned and the weight of that realization is just beginning to sink in.
When Palestinians gloated before October 7 that they want “to finish what Hitler started,” liberals in the West and in Israel just shrugged their shoulders.
Today, leftists in Israel, at least, know that Hamas means it.
Ken Timmerman is the author of a memoir of Middle East wars, And the Rest is History: Tales of Hostages, Arms Dealers, Dirty Tricks, and Spies. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work on Iran.