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‘It was utter chaos’: Families and survivors describe the horrors of Hamas’ invasion

(JTA) — Yoni Asher’s voice was steady but his urgency was unmistakable. 

“I ask anyone coming to Efrat Katz’s home to tell me they are there, I have not heard from them for four hours,” he said on Israel’s government-run Kan radio. 

“Them” for Asher was his mother-in-law, Efrat Katz, and his wife and his two daughters, aged 3 and 5, whom he did not name. The last time he spoke to Katz, who lives in Nir Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, she described seeing Palestinian terrorists lead away her husband, who is 79.

Since then, nothing. Asher said he logged onto his laptop to track his wife’s cell phone. He saw it pop up in Khan Yunis, a thickly populated town in Gaza’s south.

“I fear that she has been kidnapped,” he said and asked the anchorman if he could recite his own phone number so he could get information. Of course, the anchorman said, and Asher recited the number. “Again, slowly,” the anchorman said.

Such calls interrupted the flow of news on  Israel’s radio stations as families across the country sought information about loved ones near the Gaza border, where Hamas launched a surprise attack Saturday morning unprecedented in its scope and deadly impact. The phrase “It’s chaos” was heard repeatedly, from newsreaders, from families and occasionally from people caught in the raids, whispering desperately into their phones.

Hamas fired thousands of rockets and sent infiltrators across the border starting at 7 a.m. on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath and the holiday of Simchat Torah, a time when religious Jews celebrate the reading of the Torah and the secular join family for barbecues, picnics and partying. 

The attackers killed more than 100 Israelis and wounded close to a thousand, and the casualties were not yet fully counted. They invaded, at least temporarily, of at least 14 villages and towns near the border.

Israel radio said “scores” of people were being held hostage by terrorists, although there was no official tally. Some were spirited back to the Gaza Strip. In some cases Hamas terrorists had barricaded themselves inside homes in Israel and were holding people hostage. 

The radio quoted eyewitness accounts of the horror of about 1,000 youths who were meeting for a nature party at Kibbutz Re’im. They scrambled as they were hit by incoming fire and then saw they were surrounded by armed terrorists who opened fire indiscriminately and tossed grenades into tents. 

Some of the youths made it to their cars, only to be followed by the terrorists; one group of youths reported getting out of their car on the highway before seeing it totaled by an incoming missile moments later.

It was not clear yet how many people were killed at Kibbutz Re’im and how many were missing.

“People woke up to the sound of explosions and guns near our tents, it was utter chaos, people were not completely aware because of what they had consumed” the night before, one survivor said on Israel radio. 

“Some people got away [in their vehicles] others fled into the orchards, some people climbed into trees to avoid the gun fire,” said the survivor. “A group of 50 people were knocked to the ground by shock grenades and then they opened fire on them. I think 12 survived.”

He described watching Hamas terrorists dragging bodies away.

Israeli security forces search from Hamas Militants in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Oct. 7, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Israeli reservists turned up for duty, some of them well beyond the age Israel asks its soldiers to volunteer. Among them is former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is 51.

Officials told civilians in the south entering their sealed rooms to make sure the steel doors were securely shut. The Kan broadcaster reached one woman inside a sealed room who tried to describe her situation but stopped to gasp when she heard a noise. She then hung up.

Others told of relatives waiting for nine hours to be rescued. A relative described a family caught in a sealed room on the edge of Kefar Aza who could hear terrorists inside their house. One man said he had spoken with his uncle in a border village — a terrorist had tossed a grenade inside the house, and his uncle returned fire, killing the terrorist. The family retreated into a sealed room and were awaiting rescue; a small girl sustained a head injury from the grenade attack.

An Israel radio reporter described an interview he had with a wounded man at Soroka Hospital near Beersheba. He was traveling with his wife and child when he saw a group of about 15 riders on motorbikes, whom he assumed were enthusiasts on an outing. They pulled alongside him and opened fire and his wife died immediately. He fled the vehicle, clutching his child.

One woman wept as she asked for information about her daughter, Roni Gonen, and her friend, Gaya Halifa, who were attending the party at Kibbutz Re’im. The last time she heard from her she could tell she was in a car. There were male voices speaking Arabic.

The post ‘It was utter chaos’: Families and survivors describe the horrors of Hamas’ invasion appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Israeli and Jewish activists take campaign for greater concern about Oct. 7 sex crimes to UN

(JTA) — Less than a week after the United Nations secretary general urged an investigation into reported sexual violence by Hamas, the Israeli U.N. mission held a conference on the allegations and pressed the international community to speak out more forcefully against them.

“We have come so far in believing survivors of sexual assault in so many situations. That’s why the silence on these war crimes is dangerous,” said former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, the event’s keynote speaker. “The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that rape is forbidden, therefore it couldn’t have possibly happened on October 7th? Or do we believe the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last few minutes of their lives?”

A CNN op-ed by Sandberg, and an accompanying Instagram post, have been at the center of a growing protest by Israeli and Jewish women who charge that the U.N. and other international bodies have dismissed or downplayed reports of sexual violence during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The protest has spread via the hashtag #Me_Too_UNless_UR_a_Jew and found its real-life expression in Monday’s event, which drew 700 people to U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan took aim in particular at U.N. Women — the organization’s arm for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment — which caught flak for posting and then deleting a statement condemning the Hamas attack.

“Sadly, the very international bodies that are supposedly the defenders of all women show that when it comes to Israelis, indifference is acceptable,” Erdan said in his opening remarks.

“U.N. Women ignored all of the proof and were blind to all the evidence, including video footage of testimonies of sexual crimes,” he said. “Instead of immediately supporting the victims, U.N. Women brazenly suggested that Hamas’ gender-based violence be investigated by a blatantly antisemitic U.N. body.”

The condemnation of the U.N. is the latest in a long line of complaints Israel has had about the body both before and during its ongoing war with Hamas. In late October, Erdan called on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to resign after he said the Oct. 7 attack “did not happen in a vacuum.”

The United Nations General Assembly has yet to condemn Hamas and has called for a cessation of the conflict, which restarted last week after a seven-day pause in which Hamas released more than 100 hostages and Israel released hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners..

Last week, Guterres called for an investigation into sexual violence by Hamas. But speakers at Monday’s event pushed for more from world leaders. Sandberg called for “the entire U.N. to formally condemn, investigate, hold the terrorists accountable.” Erdan, to loud applause, called for an “investigation of U.N. Women’s indifference to the heinous crimes against Israeli women”

In the nearly two months since the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli law enforcement, search and rescue groups, and the country’s recently formed Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children have collected evidence and testimony regarding Hamas’ sexual violence on Oct. 7. Over the weekend, The Sunday Times reported testimony from survivors of the Nova music festival recalling women being gang raped and beheaded.

Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which organized the event along with other women’s rights groups, drew a parallel between last week’s Torah portion, which includes the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah, and the experiences of the victims of Oct. 7. Katz noted that Dinah’s voice is notably missing from the Biblical narrative.

“For generations, survivors of sexual assaults have looked to Dina’s story because it speaks so powerfully to the secondary trauma of being unheard, ignored and reduced to mere objects for debate,” said Katz, who invited people to step out of the room if they felt the need, given the graphic nature of the event. “And we heard this with new significance this year, because Israeli women and girls were recently tortured, raped, and killed, forever silenced by Hamas.”

Several actors attended the event, including Tovah Feldshuh, Julianna Margulies, Emmy Rossum and Debra Messing, all of whom have spoken out against antisemitism or Hamas’ attack. (Margulies was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)

The event also featured people who tended to victims of the event, including representatives from ZAKA, the Orthodox Israeli first-responder organization, and the Israeli police, who have been collecting and documenting evidence from victims of sexual violence and people who witnessed the violence. They recounted graphic stories, to which the crowd responded vocally with murmurs, gasps and tears. Some in the audience exchanged tissues, hugs and pats on the back for extra support.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat, also came and discussed seeing a compilation of footage of the attack that a group of senators recently viewed.

“I’ve seen much of the raw footage. It takes your breath away,” she said. “You can’t unsee it.”

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the event, Sandberg said silence surrounding sexual violence is connected to a dearth of female representation on the world stage.

“You look in that hall at those flags — those are countries run by men, very few are run by women. I really wanted that to change in my lifetime. It’s not going to happen, not going to be close,” she said. “But that means the progress we fought for to get women’s women’s rights and protection of our bodies, protection of who we are, protection against systematic, sexualized violence — can’t be lost. And that is why anyone can speak out. And when they speak out, we have to all unite together as quickly as possible.”

The post Israeli and Jewish activists take campaign for greater concern about Oct. 7 sex crimes to UN appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza—while delivering a loud rebuke to the recent waves of antisemitism

A detailed report from a spirited snowy scene on Monday afternoon.

The post Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza—while delivering a loud rebuke to the recent waves of antisemitism appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Despite bus driver boycott, thousands attend pro-Israel rally in Ottawa

MONTREAL (JTA) — Despite a foot of snow in Montreal and chartered buses that never showed up in Toronto, thousands of Canadian Jews assembled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday to voice solidarity with Israel and decry a rise in antisemitism.

Despite concerns over overall security in Canada’s capital city, which was tight, the rally’s speakers included several prominent Canadian politicians, Jewish leaders, college students who feel unsafe on campus and family members of Israelis taken hostage or killed by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Local Jewish leaders called the event, organized by Jewish federations across Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a historic gathering. But just weeks after a similar incident in Detroit before a massive pro-Israel rally in Washington, 17 of 70 chartered buses did not show up to pick up rally-goers in Toronto.

Organizers called the no-show bus company antisemitic.

“Despite charging in full in advance and confirming its participation, the [unidentified] company did not send a single bus and has declined all communications while refusing to provide any explanations,” said Adam Minsky, president and CEO of United Jewish Appeal Federations in Toronto.

“We are driven to the view that this shameful decision is intended to disrupt our peaceful rally out of hatred toward Jews,” he added. “What happened today is sickening and outrageous. We will respond aggressively with every legal and public affairs tool at our disposal.”

Israel’s ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed, Liberal Party member of parliament Anthony Housefather and deputy Conservative Party leader Melissa Lantsman all spoke on Monday.

“This is not 1943. I’m grateful that Israel exists and has an army to fight back against those who launched this pogrom,” said Housefather, who is Jewish and represents Montreal’s heavily Jewish Mount Royal district.

Raquel Look, whose son Alexandre was murdered at the music festival in southern Israel attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, called on Canadian politicians to take more action against antisemitism. Hate crimes against Jews — including multiple incidents that have involved Molotov cocktails thrown at Montreal-area synagogues — have spiked across Canada.

“Our sorrow is deep and immeasurable but today we want to channel this immense pain into a call for action,” Look said. “Please let us honour his memory by standing up against the forces that seek to destroy Jewish and Canadians values we hold so dear.”

The post Despite bus driver boycott, thousands attend pro-Israel rally in Ottawa appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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