Opinion By Stephanie Griffith, CNN
(CNN) — A kibbutz is more than a physical place and more than a form of cooperative living. Yulie Ben Ami says that the inhabitants of the Be’eri Kibbutz in southern Israel, where she lives, are more like extended family.
Their strong bond continues, she says, even though they have been forced to flee and now are scattered across the country, after last week’s horrific attack by Hamas militants claimed the lives of at least 100 of the kibbutz’s inhabitants.
Just a tiny fraction of Israel’s 9 million-plus people live on kibbutzim. Ben Ami, 27, says she wouldn’t live any other way. She grew up in Be’eri with her parents and two siblings. She chose to put down roots of her own there, as did several of her relatives, each living in separate households a short distance from each other on the kibbutz.
On October 6, Be’eri held festivities marking the 77th anniversary of its founding. On October 7, it was attacked by Hamas militants. The community was one of first places targeted by gunmen who breached the border early Saturday. In addition to the dead, an untold number of its inhabitants are missing. Ben Ami believes that her father and mother are among those kidnapped and being held in Gaza by the militants.
Members of the Be’eri kibbutz who survived the attack are living for now throughout Israel, according to Ben Ami. But they remain a community, checking up on each other and holding out hope that they will eventually be reunited with those who survive. Ben Ami said she hopes eventually to be able to return to her beloved community. She spoke to CNN Opinion editor Stephanie Griffith about the events of last Saturday and her love for her community in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
The views in this commentary are Ben Ami’s and have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Ami: I was awakened at 6:20 in the morning by the alarm app on my phone. At about half-past the hour, we got a message saying that someone got into our kibbutz. Someone. A terrorist. From that moment, we had to lock the doors, turn off the lights and remain quiet.
I started texting the other members of my family: I was in my house, my sister was in her house, my parents in their house, my aunt in another house and grandma in another house. Everyone was in their own place in the kibbutz. We wanted to know that everyone was fine, so we sent each other messages on WhatsApp.
At 9:30, my mom sent me a message that the terrorists were trying to get into the house and they tried to break the door — that they were shooting into the safe place. She wrote that she’s scared and doesn’t know what to do. And I think like 10 or 15 minutes later, my mother and my father sent us a message that they [the attackers] are in the house and are breaking everything. At 10:06, my father sent us a message: “They are in the safe room. They caught us.”
So they caught both my mom and dad. A half hour later, we saw a picture on Telegram of my father with two men who were taking him someplace — we don’t know where.
We don’t know what happened to my mom, she wasn’t in that picture. She wasn’t around them. We think my parents are in Gaza with other kidnapped people. But we don’t really know where they are.
CNN: You think that your parents could both be hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Do you fear that your relatives could be harmed as Israel tries to free the hostages?
Ben Ami: I trust my army. And I really think that they know what they are doing. And I’m pretty sure that they will do everything to keep them safe. I really want to believe that because they saved my family. They saved me and my boyfriend, my sister and my other family members. They took us out of our houses and kept me safe. So I really want to believe that they know what they’re doing and my parents will come home quickly and safe.
CNN: Tell me how you managed to stay safe with your boyfriend.
Ben Ami: We were inside the house. We locked the doors. We didn’t make any noise. The light was off. But the real thing that I think explains why they didn’t come to my house is because my house is very small. And my parents’ house is very big.
I feel that maybe they were looking for families. They [roamed] through the entire neighborhood where my parents live and almost everyone there were families with small children. And they burned all of their houses.
CNN: How did they get into the safe space in your parents’ home?
Ben Ami: There’s no way to close the door that prevents you from being able to open it from the outside. The best you can do is to hold the handle very (firmly). But at some point, you can’t hold it any more. And also some homes at the kibbutz were set on fire. People couldn’t breathe. In some cases the terrorists came with a lot of (tools) and made holes in the doors and threw grenades inside.
CNN: Problems in the region have gone on for decades, generations. What do you think is the source of such intense hatred?
Ben Ami: They believe in one thing and anything else doesn’t matter. Like their belief is the big belief. Everyone needs to do what they want.
CNN: Tell me about kibbutz life. Why did your family choose to live on a kibbutz?
Ben Ami: I think it’s the best place to live. Everyone knows each other. You have a community that is strong and everyone cares for each other. I felt safe there. Until Saturday, I felt very safe.
CNN: Have you been there your entire life?
Ben Ami: Yes, from the age of five.
CNN: So your parents raised you there and then you moved into a home nearby but on the same kibbutz. What did you actually do on the kibbutz as an occupation?
Ben Ami: I’m a student. I’m studying visual communication and design. I’m not really working right now. When I work, I work at the store, so I know everyone and everyone knows me. We have a lot of things that we have a printing business. We have a lot of agriculture. We are a very strong community,
CNN: How many people?
Ben Ami: Twelve hundred to 1,500.
CNN: When this nightmare is over, will you be able to continue to live there again?
Ben Ami: It’s the best way of living. I really love my kibbutz. I really love the place. I really love the people. I won’t lie to you and tell you that we feel the same [after the attack] but I want to go back there, because I love my kibbutz.
CNN: What kind of communication has there been between the members of the kibbutz since the attack?
Ben Ami: We know that more than 100 people got killed. We don’t know the number of people that are in Gaza. We don’t know the location of the people that are missing.
We really love each other, and we protect each other, and I couldn’t ask for more from my community. And also specifically in this situation, I feel that everyone is around me — helping me and supporting me.
CNN: Where are you staying now?
Ben Ami: I’m with my family. We are in the north of Israel and just waiting for good news about my parents. And we are praying for the best.
CNN: You’re living in a home right now with relatives who did not live in a kibbutz?
Ben Ami: No, someone from Israel who is not here loaned us his house, because we have nowhere else to go. People who we don’t know allowed us to use it. The Israelis are the best people ever. They opened their home to us and gave us a place to be together.
CNN: You were waiting for hours to be rescued. The army eventually was able to free you. Can you talk about that moment when they got you — when you were finally safe?
Ben Ami: It was a big relief. We felt like finally we were able to be with other members of the family, other members of the kibbutz. And I felt so thankful for them [members of the military] because I know how hard it was for them to come for us, because it was a really complicated security situation in the kibbutz, because of all the terrorists who were there with their guns shooting everywhere.
CNN: And how are you holding up emotionally? I know you’re waiting to hear about your parents and you’ve been through trauma.
Ben Ami: I think that I am still processing. My family is all together, so that helps. But we have a big trauma to deal with psychologically. There are people to talk to, people who are taking care of us, to see how we’re feeling.
CNN: The government has provided psychological counseling?
Ben Ami: Yes. They’ve provided everything we need. People gave us food, gave us clothes — everything we need, because everything stayed there.
CNN: Do you feel that people don’t understand how terrible the moment is?
Ben Ami: I feel like every time something happens, people say that we are the people that need to be blamed, but I feel that we are definitely the victims. I think the world needs to understand what the gunmen did to children and mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers and 100 people from one community.
CNN: Do you think Israel will emerge stronger?
Ben Ami: Of course, it will be stronger, but all the people that we know — a lot of them are missing. They are not with us anymore, and they won’t be coming back.
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