Last December Rick Snizek, executive editor of Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence, took a trip with fellow journalists to the south of Israel, now the site of the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas incursion.
OSV News – Dodging sporadic rocket fire comes with the territory in Israel, especially when you live along the tense border with Gaza in the south.
But this time it was different.
Adele Raemer was at home in Nirim, a kibbutz, or small communal settlement, located on the border with Gaza at the midpoint of its 25-mile length, when the sirens began to wail early the morning of Oct. 7, the last day of the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot.
As Raemer, a transplant from the U.S. many years ago who went to live in the desert south as a pioneer, had told me and a group of fellow journalists and media professionals visiting Nirim last December, we would only have eight seconds to find shelter should a siren sound during our visit, indicating a rocket had been fired from nearby Gaza.
As I saw that day, 10 months ago, her home is only a few hundred feet from the fence that marks the end of her settlement and the beginning of a small patch of cultivated land that serves as a buffer zone between Nirim and the demarcation line of the border. In the early evening dusk, like a dark sentinel poised to strike, a Hamas watchtower looms behind that fence rising about 100 feet into the air, affording a clear view into Israel.
On Oct. 7, Raemer heeded her own advice and hunkered down in the shelter of her home, something she'd done many times before. Each home in the settlement must be fortified with a bomb shelter to help protect the 400 residents living there.
What was different this time was that this was not just a rocket attack. It was a multifaceted, well-planned terror operation that saw more than 1,000 Hamas fighters surmount the tense border, using paragliders and bulldozers. Still more entered Israel by land, where they pillaged without regard for humanity and dragged hostages, including many women and children, back into Gaza.
Other fighters attacked simultaneously from the sea, which forms the western boundary of the approximately six-mile-wide coastal enclave, under Hamas control since 2006, when it won parliamentary elections before violently taking over the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.
As Raemer huddled in her shelter she kept journalists and others apprised of the conditions there through a channel that she shared with us during our visit, should we need information on future attacks there.
From the local updates that she was receiving through her phone, she knew that she was going to be in lockdown mode for an indeterminate period of time. She had never experienced this before.
"I can only say that we're still in lockdown in Nirim because the terrorists are still out there," she wrote the afternoon of Oct. 7 Israel time, which is seven hours ahead of the U.S. (Eastern time). "I'm scared, I'm thirsty ... no hunger – although I haven't eaten anything and it's almost 2 p.m. Fear drives away the hunger."
She said that even when the Israeli Defense Forces arrived in Nirim, the residents would still have to remain in their safe rooms.
"Even when the army gets here, they will have to go bush to bush, door to door, attic to attic – no corner must be left unturned to be sure they get them all. It's going to take a while. Prayers are appreciated."
About five miles to the northeast, in Kibbutz Re'im, Hamas militants were attacking hundreds of attendees at the Supernova music festival, billed as a "journey of unity and love."
Videos from the scene show unsuspecting festival goers seemingly unaware as a column of black-clad Hamas fighters descended in paragliders and began firing indiscriminately, killing at least 260 people.
One video released to journalists by the Israeli Government Press Office showed a young blond-haired boy of about 8 or 10 being led into a home that appeared to be in Gaza, surrounded by local children. A man's voice is heard calling the boy a Yehudi, which means Jew in Hebrew. Upon hearing this, the children began pushing the blond boy around and slapping him lightly with a strap as they taunted him.
Another colleague from my visit, Jonathan Feldstein, was born, raised and educated in the U.S., and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. A married father of six, he lives just south of Jerusalem in the Judean mountains.
"Since Saturday, we alone have had air raid sirens in our community about 10 times," Feldstein said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic Oct. 9.
"We've had to run to our bomb shelters and wait for the inevitable explosion overhead of the Iron Dome (similar to the U.S. Patriot anti-missile defense platform) exploding the incoming rocket."
Feldstein, who writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew there, and produces the "Inspiration from Zion" podcast, said that both his son and son-in-law have been called into the army reserves along with some 300,000 others.
"We all know people who have either been killed or injured or kidnapped," he said. "The number of deaths is greater than the whole first week of the Yom Kippur War," fought 50 years ago: Oct. 6 to 25, 1973.
In December, I also visited an IDF base in the southern Negev Desert, in the area where the borders of Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet, where we saw concrete replicas of the buildings seen in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, the two largest cities in Gaza, with its population of 2.23 million.
The IDF uses this site to fire practice rounds to train for Gaza ground operations, with hundreds of bullet casings lining the floors and stairways of these buildings.
That training may be put to the test in the coming days or weeks as Israel plots its response to an attack on its nation that has been likened to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. in 2001.
Israel has so far attacked targets in Gaza mostly from the air and has placed the enclave in a siege, cutting off its access to electricity, food, water and fuel, as it strategizes its next move. The Israeli military said it was preparing for a potential ground assault on Gaza.
As of Oct. 12, the number of people killed in Israel had risen to 1,300, with more than 3,300 injured. The Palestinian Ministry of Health said the death toll in Gaza had risen to 1,200, with about 5,600 wounded. The White House confirmed at least 27 Americans have been killed.
Hamas is holding about between 100 and 150 Israelis, Americans and people of other nationalities hostage and has been threatening to kill one person each time Israel conducts a strike without first informing the people in the target zone.
In a televised address to the nation late Oct. 9, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.night, said that the war they are now in was forced upon them in the most brutal and savage way. But though Israel did not start this war, Israel will finish it, he said.
"Hamas will realize that by attacking us they've made a mistake of historic proportions," Netanyahu said. "We will exact a price that will be remembered by them and Israel's other enemies for decades to come."
Rick Snizek, executive editor of Rhode Island Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.