When I first heard that Israeli civilians were being massacred on the country’s Gaza border, I thought of my friend Amir Tibon. Amir is an exceptionally talented journalist who is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and has devoted his life and skills to humanistic coverage of what can often be a dehumanizing region. His writing includes award-winning reporting on efforts to achieve a two-state solution and a biography of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Sunday, I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.
That’s because Tibon lives in Nahal Oz, a small community bordering Gaza that has no Iron Dome missile defense to protect it. On Saturday, it came under mortar fire from above and was invaded on the ground by Hamas terrorists. During their incursion into Israel, they murdered more than 900 Israelis, while brutalizing and kidnapping many others, most of them civilians. The death toll is continuing to rise.
Tibon and his family survived the indiscriminate slaughter, but only after enduring a horrifying ordeal. Just before he put his two young daughters to bed tonight, we spoke about what happened, how he was saved, why he thinks Israel arrived at this point, and what he would like to see from the international community in the days ahead. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yair Rosenberg: What does your life look like right now?
Amir Tibon: I’m happy to be alive. I’m happy my family is alive. I’m staying with my extended family. I’m worried sick about friends and neighbors who were injured or kidnapped into Gaza. And I’m worried about my country.
Rosenberg: As a religiously observant Jew, I don’t use electronics or access the internet on Jewish holidays or the Sabbath, so by the time I logged on after two days offline, you had posted that you were safe and shared the harrowing story about what you and your family experienced. Can you talk about what you endured?
Tibon: I’m happy that you missed the events as they were happening, because it was a dark day, really the worst day in the history of the state of Israel. It’s Saturday, October 7. We’re in bed, sleeping. I live with my wife and two young daughters in Kibbutz Nahal Oz. It’s a small community, 500 people, located directly on Israel’s border with Gaza. A beautiful place, very resilient, very courageous people, with a very strong sense of community and togetherness. But it’s Saturday, six in the morning, and we hear a very familiar sound: the sound of a mortar about to explode. It’s like a whistle.
My wife, Miri, immediately pushes me. We run from our bedroom to what we call the safe room. In every house in our community and other communities along the border with Gaza, there is a room that is built of very strong concrete that can withstand a direct hit from a mortar or a rocket. And in most families, that’s where they put the kids to sleep every night. So we run to the safe room where our two daughters are: Galia is three and a half years old; Carmel is one and a half years old.
They don’t know that anything is happening. We shut the door and we wait. I mean, this is something we’re accustomed to. When you live on the border with Gaza, attacks like this happen from time to time. You wait sometimes an hour, you pack your bags meanwhile, and when there is a break of a few minutes, you just shove the kids in the car and you go away from the border toward a more secure place.
But this time as we were packing, I heard the most chilling noise I’ve heard in my life. Automatic gunfire in the distance. First I’m hearing this gunfire from the fields. But then I hear it from the road, then I hear it from the neighborhood, and then I hear it outside my window. I’m in the room with my wife and I hear the gunfire directly outside my window, as well as shouting. I understand Arabic. I understood exactly what was happening: that Hamas has infiltrated our kibbutz, that there are terrorists outside my window, and that I’m locked in my house and inside my safe room with two young girls and I don’t know if anyone is going to come to save us.
That’s how it started.
Rosenberg: One thing for people to understand: Nahal Oz is very, very close to the Gaza border. And that’s why you guys don’t have something like Iron Dome and why you are in the safe room in the first place.
Tibon: Yeah, we’re so close that Iron Dome, which is an amazing invention that protects large parts of Israel from rocket fire, is not relevant in our area.
But I’ll tell you something. In a way, the fact that they shot the mortars at our community before they broke through the border saved a lot of people’s lives, because it caused people to run into the safe room. And this safe room, if you lock it properly, is very hard to open from the outside. A lot of people were barricaded in those safe rooms for hours and sometimes an entire day. In a lot of cases, the terrorists tried to break in and they couldn’t.
What happened in our case was that we were sitting there in the dark. A few minutes after we got in and we heard this gunfire, the electricity stopped. We had no food. We did have some water. And we’re telling our daughters: “You have to be quiet now. You have to be absolutely quiet. Not a word. You can’t cry. Can’t talk. It’s dangerous.” And my girls were absolute heroes. They waited silently in the dark for 10 hours and they did not cry. They understood. Maybe that’s not the right word, but they felt that we were dead serious about this. So we’re with them in the dark, and they’re completely silent.
In the beginning, we still had cell reception. A short time later, there was no cell reception either. I texted my parents: “There are terrorists outside.” We actually thought they were inside the house, because they were firing live ammunition into our house and we heard it as if it’s inside. And we’re looking at our group text with our neighbors and everybody’s saying there are terrorists outside my house or inside my house.
I called a colleague and friend, Amos Harel, the veteran military-affairs correspondent for Haaretz. I told him, “Amos, there are terrorists outside my house, maybe even inside.” And what Amos told me in reply was the scariest thing I heard. He said, “Yes, I know, but it’s not only in your kibbutz; it’s not only in Nahal Oz. It’s all over southern Israel. It’s all over. It’s in cities and in towns and in kibbutzim and in villages. Thousands of armed Hamas fighters have infiltrated the country. They have taken over military bases.” That was scary because I realized that if that’s the situation, it will take a very long time for the military to come and confront these terrorists and save us.
Rosenberg: Could you talk to you about how we got to this point?
Tibon: Yes, I want to say something about this failure of the military and of the government. Miri and I moved to this community in 2014, immediately after the war that took place that summer between Israel and Hamas, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. We were living at the time in Tel Aviv, a young couple with no children. And the communities on the Gaza border during that war suffered from Hamas’s use of attack tunnels into Israel. They basically dug tunnels under the border. The fighters would emerge from underground on the other side, and they killed and kidnapped soldiers. The scariest thing back then were the tunnels. We came originally to support the community, and we fell in love with the place and decided to stay there.
But successive Israeli governments, all of them led by Benjamin Netanyahu, invested billions of dollars—I think some of them actually from U.S. support—in constructing an underground wall to prevent Hamas from using those tunnels again. This was a major infrastructure project for the state of Israel. And that project allowed us to sleep at night, because you can deal with rockets falling over your head if you have a safe room in your house, but if terrorists are infiltrating underground and they can walk into your community, that’s a game changer. And so the reason we could live there, and that’s true for everyone, is because of this underground wall that Israel constructed. And in the morning hours of Saturday, October 7, when we heard the gunfire outside our window, we realized that this project is an utter and complete failure.
Israel invested so much in it, and what did the Hamas people do? They took a few tractors and SUVs, and they ran over the border fence. We prepared everything to make it impossible for them to come from underground, and they just walked through the border. That is a major, major failure. And so bringing myself back to the conversation with Amos Harel, when I realized that this is the situation all over, that’s when I thought: Okay, we’re going to die here. Nobody’s going to be able to come in time. And if they manage to break into the house, they will then try to break into the safe room. And if they manage to do that, we will be dead or kidnapped.
Rosenberg: How did you ultimately get out?
Tibon: I called Amos, but I also called my father. My father is a retired general. He’s 62 years old. He lives in Tel Aviv. And my parents told me: “We’re coming. It’s an hour-and-20-minute drive.” Now, this goes against all logic. But I told myself, Okay, right now I’m asking my two young daughters to put complete faith in me and my wife, in their parents, to do what we’re telling them in order to save their lives, which is to be very, very quiet and understand that we cannot get out of the room, we cannot go get food, we cannot go to the bathroom, we cannot go out to play, and I’m asking them to put their faith in me completely.
And I told myself: I have to do the same thing right now. I have to trust my father, who is a trustworthy man, that if he said he will come here and save us, he will do it. Only many hours later, when my father arrived, did I learn what had happened that day to my parents, which is an incredible story by itself.
My parents started driving from Tel Aviv. They arrived in the town of Sderot, which is the largest town in the border area. When they get there, they see people walking barefoot on the road. These are survivors from a music festival nearby, where the Hamas people came early in the morning and massacred more than 200 people, people who came to a music festival. My parents put the survivors in their car and took them farther away from the border. They’d already gotten to the border area, but they’re seeing people who need help, so they take them away. And then they turn around and they continue driving toward our area.
They stop in a nearby community that is close to the border, but not as close as we are. And my father convinces a soldier who is standing there and looking for a way to help to come with him to Nahal Oz, to my kibbutz, in order to kill terrorists and save families. They drive toward the kibbutz, but along the way they see a military force being ambushed by Hamas fighters. They get out of the car. My father is retired; he doesn’t have military-grade weapons. In Israel, unlike in America, citizens cannot buy AR-15s, and I’m glad for that. But my father has a pistol with him, and he and this other soldier join the soldiers who are fighting the Hamas cell, they help kill them, and now they’re very close to my kibbutz. They’re five minutes from the entrance to my kibbutz, but two of the soldiers are wounded. And again, my father has to turn around. He puts the wounded soldiers in his car with the help of that other soldier who joined him, and they go back to where my mother is.
My mom takes the wounded soldiers with her in their car to a hospital. My father sees another retired former general, Israel Ziv, who’s closer to 70 than 60. But Israel put on his uniform and came like a regular soldier down south to try to help. My father tells him, “Israel, I don’t have a car. My wife is taking the wounded soldiers to the hospital to save them. I need to get to Nahal Oz, where my family is barricaded. My granddaughters are there. Take me to Nahal Oz.”
These two guys over the age of 60 are driving in a regular car. It’s not even a Jeep or something. It’s not an armored vehicle. It’s just a car, like people take on the New Jersey Turnpike on their way to work in the morning. They’re driving now on the road where half an hour earlier there was a deadly ambush of soldiers. They both have weapons. My father took weapons from the wounded soldiers, who gave them to him because he told them, “I’m going back in.”
They reached the entrance to the kibbutz. And when they get there, they meet a group of soldiers from special forces who are about to begin the very dangerous process of going from house to house in our community to try to engage the terrorists and release the people who are barricaded. By that point, I have no idea that all of this is happening. We are in the safe room. The terrorists are still outside. And we have no cell reception. We have no phone battery. We’re just waiting in the dark.
But we start hearing gunfire again—and this time, it’s two kinds of guns. And we realize there is a battle. We realize that there is an exchange of fire. And I tell my wife: “He’s coming. My father is coming. They’re fighting. He’s with these soldiers.” They didn’t come immediately to our house. They went from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, inside our community. I don’t remember how long it took.
We were just hearing the gunfire getting closer and closer. The girls had fallen asleep, but now they woke up. I think it’s 2 p.m. They haven’t had anything to eat since last night. There’s no light and we don’t have cellphones anymore, so we can’t even show them our faces, and there’s one sentence that is keeping them from falling apart and starting to cry—I’m telling them: “Grandfather is coming.”
I tell them, “If we stay quiet, your grandfather will come and get us out of here.” And at 4 p.m., after 10 hours like this, we hear a large bang on the window and we hear the voice of my father. Galia, my oldest daughter, says, “Saba higea.” Grandfather is here. And that’s when we all just start crying. And that’s when we knew that we were safe.
Rosenberg: I want to move from the personal to the political a little bit. You work for a Tel Aviv–based liberal newspaper. Most people assume you live in Tel Aviv, but you don’t. You moved to Nahal Oz, and you told me you were inspired to go there after you first visited it as a journalist, following another clash with Gaza, during which the community had been rocketed again and again. And yet, you met people there who were Israeli patriots still committed to the place and to peace and who wanted to find something better, even though they perhaps had more reason than anyone to distrust the future. I know you share that faith, but I’m wondering how it feels right now. Is that faith ever shaken?
Tibon: The politics of our area, of the Gaza-border area, is very interesting, and it’s a microcosm of politics in Israel. The kibbutz communities, like mine, are very left-leaning. And the large town in the area, Sderot, which also went through a terrible, terrible disaster, is actually much more right-wing and religious and supportive of Netanyahu. So there’s this split. But we’re in this together. It’s true that there is this divide, but we are both suffering from these same conditions right now. And I think a lot of people are going to reexamine everything once it’s over.
I love my community. I love my neighbors. I’m proud of them for their resilience on this horrible day. What we went through is not a unique story. This is the story of an entire region in Israel.
I’m ashamed of my government. We had a contract with the state that communities like ours protect the border. This is why people live there. We protect the border with our presence there. This is a fundamental strategy of the state of Israel since the earliest days of the country, that a border that does not have civilian communities and civilian life along it will not be properly protected.
We kept our part of the contract. We lived on the border. We went through difficult situations sometimes, with mortars and with the use of incendiary devices to set fires in the fields. If you live in a place like Nahal Oz, you wake up every morning and you know there are people on the other side of the border who want to kill you and your children. And so the contract was: We protect the border and the state protects us.
And this government, which is the worst government in the history of the state of Israel, led by a corrupt, dysfunctional, and egoistic man who sees only himself—Benjamin Netanyahu—failed us. There were warning signs that this will happen. The military and the intelligence agencies warned that Israel’s neighbors were seeing the internal divide in the country over the government’s disastrous plan to eliminate the powers of the judiciary. There are reports coming out as we speak that Egyptian intelligence warned Netanyahu a few days ago that Hamas was planning something massive on the border.
The way that the events of the day unfolded is the worst failure in the history of the state of Israel. I mean, people like my father, like Israel Ziv and other retired officers, had to come down to save citizens, to try to save their own families and others. Meanwhile, the military is falling apart, and all the civilian infrastructure that is supposed to support the military and society in such an event is also not functioning.
Listen, right now we have to win this war. We have to destroy Hamas. We have to make it impossible for them to ever, ever again conduct anything that is even close to what happened on Saturday. No country in the world can allow something like this to happen to its citizens and just go back to business as usual. I feel very bad for the people of Gaza. I’m heartbroken. But this was our 9/11.
After we win the war and we eradicate Hamas, there will be time also to throw into the dustbin of history any politician, starting with the prime minister, who had anything to do with this failure. But that’s a conversation for tomorrow. Today it’s about saving our citizens and destroying the enemy’s ability to do something like this ever again.
Rosenberg: Tomorrow, what happens to Netanyahu?
Tibon: First of all, we have to win the war. This is the most important thing. After the war, I believe the people who went down to fight and to rescue their families, and the people who have loved ones kidnapped inside Gaza, and the people who lost their homes—these people will not allow this government to stay one more day. The protests that Israel saw in the last year are going to be a children’s game compared to the anger of the public after this. But right now, it’s about winning the war.
Rosenberg: This is not over. This is ongoing. There are people held hostage. What do you expect now from the U.S. and the world?
Tibon: First of all, I was relieved to see the very, very strong commitment of President Biden, verbally but also in action, in sending U.S. military forces to the region and making clear that if any other actor in the region is confused, the United States will support Israel if someone is trying to use this moment of crisis in the wrong way.
There is the issue of the Israelis who are kidnapped, some of whom are dual citizens of other countries. And on this, as someone who covers diplomacy, I think the language really matters. You can say “Hamas is responsible for their fate.” That’s, you know, the usual diplo-speak. But the sentence I hope to hear from countries, including the United States but also others, is: “We expect their immediate release.”
These are citizens, okay? The majority of them are not soldiers. There are many women there. There are children, there are elderly people. And I think the international position should be that they must be immediately released. This is what I hope to hear.