(JTA) — Every day at 4 p.m., Youssef Ziadna receives a phone call from a psychologist. Every evening, he sits on his balcony drinking coffee, smoking, and replaying in his mind the worst things he has ever seen.
The daily routine would have been unimaginable for Ziadna, a 47-year-old Bedouin Israeli resident of Rahat, just two weeks ago. A minibus driver, he filled his days ferrying passengers around Israel’s southern region.
But on Oct. 7, he was called to pick up one of his regular customers and raced headlong in Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel. He ended up rescuing 30 people, all Jewish Israelis, from the massacre at the outdoor party near Israel’s southern border, dodging bullets and veering off-road to bring them to safety.
“I would never wish on anyone to see what I saw,” Ziadna told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “This is trauma for my whole life. When I sit alone and recollect, I can’t help the tears.”
Ziadna has joined an emerging pantheon of heroes who were able to carry out daring feats of rescue during a chaotic, dangerous and bloody attack in which thousands of Israelis were killed, wounded or taken captive. One of the people he saved posted about him on social media shortly afterwards.
Ziadna is “a larger-than-life man to whom we will forever be indebted,” Amit Hadar wrote in Hebrew in a post that was shared widely starting on Oct. 7. “When, with God’s help, we reach better days, save the number for the next time you need a ride — if anyone deserves it, this person does.”
Yet at the same time, Ziadna is grieving a cousin who was murdered during the attack and worrying about four other family members who remain missing. He also received a threat from someone who claimed to be affiliated with Hamas, vowing retaliation for Ziadna’s efforts to save Jews after they were recounted in a local newspaper. And he is concerned that his fellow Bedouins, a minority that remains marginalized in many ways within Israeli society, are at risk given the lack of bomb shelters in Rahat.
The stress of it all has already sent him to the emergency room with chest pains — but he is determined to press on.
“When I think about it, I ask how did we get out of there,” Ziadna recalled Monday, 10 days after the massacre. “I guess it’s fate that we’re meant to live longer in this world.”
Ziadna started Oct. 7 early, driving Hadar and eight of his friends from the town of Omer to the rave at Kibbutz Re’im at 1 a.m. He left with the instruction to pick them up the following day at 3 p.m.
But at 6 a.m. he received a call for help from Hadar. Believing that the call for help was due to a code red for incoming rockets fired from Gaza, Ziadna raced to his bus.
“I didn’t wash my face, I didn’t even get dressed,” Ziadna said. “This is standard over here in the south.”
But as soon as he reached the Sa’ad junction, a mile away from Kfar Aza, one of the Gaza border communities that experienced some of the worst horrors of the Oct. 7 massacre, a new picture began to emerge. A man who had escaped from the party ran towards him, furiously signaling to Ziadna to make a U-turn. Ziadna, not comprehending, exited the minibus to speak to him. Moments later, Ziadna, the man and a woman who accompanied him were caught in gunfire.
“Bullets were flying everywhere,” Ziadna said, adding that the three dived into a ditch on the side of the road. He said, “I raised my head and the guy told me, ‘Why are you doing that? You’ll get a bullet in your brain!’”
Ziadna told the disbelieving couple that he would continue on to the site of the party. “I stared death in the face,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t give up on my missions. I will go and rescue them.”
Navigating through bullet fire, Ziadna managed to reach his passengers at the scene of the party in Re’im where an inferno of bodies, blood and bullets reigned. “I told them to bring as many as possible,” he said. Twenty-four additional people crammed into the 14-seater vehicle, and on the way, they rescued another couple, one of whom had been shot in the leg. Ziadna says he also caught sight of a motorized Hamas paraglider hovering above, spraying bullets with a machine gun at revelers.
Under constant gunfire, the minibus sped away. Ziadna’s intimate knowledge of the terrain proved lifesaving, and he was able to cut a route through dirt roads, avoiding the main thoroughfare where terrorists were ambushing escapees. Many other cars took his lead and followed the minibus, he said.
Cries of terror and anguish filled his minibus as its occupants nursed their wounds and tried desperately to call loved ones amid jammed cellular signals. They arrived at a roadblock manned by police. Saying there was no way of getting to the hospital to treat the wounded woman because the route was overrun with terrorists, an officer directed them to a nearby kibbutz, Tze’elim, where they remained until the late afternoon when the Home Front Command finally said it was safe to leave.
Hadar confirmed Ziadna’s account but declined to speak further to JTA.
Four hundred people from the party took refuge in the kibbutz and, according to Ziadna, were looked after well. “They gave us everything we needed, food, chargers and even cigarettes,” he said.
Finally, Ziadna made it back to Rahat where his home, like the overwhelming majority in the city, has no reinforced safe room. Home to 75,000 Bedouins, Rahat has only 10 public bomb shelters — a fact that its mayor, Ata Abu-Madighem, has lamented for years. On Tuesday, Abu-Madighem filed a request for 60 mobile shelters.
According to Abu-Madighem, who met with Ziadna to thank him several days after the attack together with representatives from the army and the police, three Rahat residents were killed on Oct. 7, two of whom were the mayor’s relatives. One was Ziadna’s: Abed Ruhman was murdered by Hamas terrorists while sleeping in a tent on Zikim beach, Ziadna said.
Seven people from Rahat were wounded, including a second-grader who was shot in the chest. A further five are reported missing, four from the Ziadna family, Abu-Madighem said. (The hundreds of known hostages in Gaza include Bedouins, and Hamas has also been holding an Israeli Bedouin, Hisham al-Sayed, captive since 2015, when he wandered by foot into Gaza.)
The biggest risk, the mayor said, is to those who live in unrecognized tent villages in the region, which have no protection at all from projectiles.
“The state must make a mental switch and start respecting the Bedouin community. It’s also foolish to continue to refuse to plug into the massive manpower we have here,” he told JTA.
Ziadna hopes his actions will prompt greater appreciation and support for the Bedouin community. “After this, the government needs to do a better job of looking after us because we’re also part of this nation,” he said. “We are one people — we are Israelis. We live here together and we need to go hand in hand.”
For now, he is seeking to bolster his mental health and to put aside concerns about the death threat he received. “He told me, ‘You saved 30 Jews’ lives. I’m from Gaza but don’t worry, we’ll get to you,’” Ziadna recounted.
Abu-Madighem confirmed the call to JTA and Ziadna said the Israel Police are investigating its source; police spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment. Other Israeli Arabs who have gained public attention for helping Jewish victims of the attack have faced retribution alongside plaudits.
More substantial than the threats, Ziadna said, have been an overwhelming number of messages of support, which he said have come from all over the world. He made a public appearance alongside Yair Golan, a retired general and former lawmaker who engaged in feats of rescue of his own. He has also been invited by Israel’s embassy in Dubai to tell his story to an Emirati audience.
There, he will share a story that could easily have ended in tragedy.
“I had an option to go back. A weaker man may have done a U-turn at that junction,” Ziadna said. “But I said no way, I will throw myself at death if it means I can save lives.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.”
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