The Survival Story of Shai Hermesh on October 7thPublished on: 17.11.2023
By: David Parsons, ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has a long-standing relationship with our good friend Shai Hermesh, a former Knesset member. In fact, Shai credits the ICEJ with saving his life some ten years ago when he ducked into a bomb shelter we had placed in his home community of Kfar Aza during a rocket barrage from Gaza. Shai recently managed to escape harm yet again when he survived the horrific Hamas-led massacre of October 7.
We had just seen Shai two days before when the ICEJ took some 700 Christians on a solidarity visit to the Gaza border area near the end of our week-long Feast of Tabernacles celebration. At a rally that day in the high school of the Sha’ar HaNegev regional council, Shai delivered a warm welcome greeting to our Feast pilgrims alongside mayor Ofir Libstein.
Two days later, we awoke to rocket alarms in Jerusalem and across Israel. As the minutes passed that morning, more and more upsetting news emerged from the Gaza border. At 8:00 AM, ICEJ President Dr. Juergen Buehler called our friend Ofir Lipstein to check if he was okay. His phone did not answer. Not long after, he was the first named casualty of the unfolding Hamas pogrom.
Juergen also tried and failed to reach Shai Hermesh. Not long after, he received a recorded phone message through a mutual friend with the desperate voice of Shai Hermesh speaking from his safe room in Kfar Aza. Somehow, he and his wife managed to hide as outside Hamas terrorists were slaughtering many of his neighbours. After 20 hours in their safe room, they were finally able to escape to safety in the middle of the night.
Ten days later, we caught up with Shai at a kibbutz in central Israel, where many of the Kfar Aza survivors were being sheltered. Here is a partial transcript of our interview with Shai on how he survived that day.
David Parsons: Shai, tell us what you went through on October 7th?
Shai Hermesh: What happened on Shabbat morning was what we are used to having: a heavy [rocket] attack, more heavier than we knew before, but we know what to do. All the families, everyone, walked to their sheltered room, everyone in his apartment.
When that ended by a boom, we left the shelter room and we returned back to the salon, the living room. That was the technique by the terrorists in order to penetrate under the cover of the [rocket] attack. As families returned back to the salon in their homes, they were surprised and were attacked by the terrorists. They slaughtered family by family. No army [soldiers] were there for four hours.
There’s an emergency unit in every kibbutz. They used to have rifles in order to protect us until the army joins in. So, the first, I say, protective wall crashed down. I don’t know whether it’s the first or the second. I think the first one is the border [fence] which we can… We are still under shock how it happened. Israel invested five billion shekels on the buffer [wall] and it fell down in 30 minutes. But that’s not our story. When they arrived, they met our security staff.
DP: They broke through the front gate?
SH: It’s more complicated. They’ve been so sophisticated that a part of them were running in the road, they started shooting and killing families. That was just the beginning. Now they put an ambush in the gate. And when the first unit of the army arrived there [and opened the gate], they shot them and four of the soldiers were killed. The army… couldn’t imagine that one unit of the terrorists [could penetrate our community] by putting an ambush at the gate.
DP: So, the gate was then open, and they could come in?
SH: They come in … and four of the soldiers have been killed. What we did, every one of us returned back to the sheltered room and closed the door.
DP: Do they lock from the inside or not?
SH: Immediately, we see how unprepared and unknowing we were – all of us! How naive we had been – all of us. Then we start running an alert of emergency on the WhatsApp group of the kibbutz. A group of people said: “Terrorists are in our home shooting, breaking, speaking Arabic.” We are in the sheltered room. We are afraid they’re going to break in, and they try to break in. Now the system within a sheltered room, it works just the opposite. It means it’s enabled to open the door from outside. It enables opening of the window, the air window from the outside. Once I asked [about this] years ago. I was naïve. They told me it should be like that because they say if the sheltered room will be attacked by a heavy mortar shell and there will be casualties there or a fire, you need someone [from outside] to enable you to escape.
There are some examples of members of the kibbutz who held [the shelter’s door handle] for hours, brave people, in order to avoid… [the terrorists] penetrating the shelter room. Some places they succeeded to do it. Some places they failed. In some places they failed but people were wounded because they shot with the Kalashnikovs at the lock of the door, and people [were holding] it there. Everyone was calling for help and no one could help.
My son, Omer, his place is unknown until now, 48 years old, not married. He lived in his apartment in the first area, in the first block where the terrorists penetrated [the kibbutz] and killed everyone. He heard noises, he went to the window and moved the curtain and told me: “Abba [father], I see three black [clothed] people running and shooting.” And he sent a picture of the blood on his hand and said: “Father, don’t worry! It’s all destroyed around [here], the blood is nothing, and I’m escaping to the safety room.” My son is missing, he’s not… if he would be kidnapped by the Hamas, the army has the list of names, he is not there.
DP: Your son, Omer Hermesh, 48, is still missing…
SH: Yes. And my daughter just gave birth to a baby. She returned from hospital after a C-section on [Tuesday]. We planned a brit milah on Sunday afternoon. She stayed in a sheltered room with a baby five days old, with a granddaughter three-and-a-half years old, with a dog and with her husband. They are my grandchildren. While there, her situation was much worse than me, because the terrorists were non-stop knocking on the iron door with a window, and trying to open it. They didn’t succeed, if they were able to succeed to open it, they would kill them in a second. And for 20 hours, they sat quietly. Not one of them wept, not one of them cried, no one said where they were, including the dog. All with no food, with no water, with nothing, for 20 hours they did not go out. We did not analyze that they could open the door. We sat there and said: “Okay, now we’re in the safe room.”
DP: So, the doors never really fastened?
SH: What was the miracle? They simply did not penetrate into our apartment. That’s all! If they would have entered, we would not sit here now and talk.
DP: So, you escaped at night after 20 hours, and then your house was destroyed because Hamas gunmen finally got in and were using it as a stronghold. It was too risky to try and storm it?
SH: All we have was lost. Sixty years of collecting and building in the apartment. Albums, memories, pictures, I’m not talking about valuable properties. I don’t care about that. But the whole story of the family, all the memories are now under the ruins…
Let me add that your presence here is not unusual. You [ICEJ] are with us everywhere. [Operation] Protective Edge in 2014, you were the ones who came into Kfar Aza under the rocket fire and put the sheltered room. We can’t forget it, everywhere.
DP: You said it saved your life, one of our bomb shelters had saved your life one time?
SH: Really, it’s not a joke. So, I have to say thanks to the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the staff and the supporting congregations all around the world, on behalf of the people here, [who] are really feeling like refugees or survivors. Refugees is not enough, we’re like survivors because we are Jews. We don’t have the words in order to thank all of you, and encourage you for all that you’re doing, your commitment, your support. You being with us at the most difficult time, and I can’t find a more critical time than it is now, which the people here are survivors but by miracle. We did not fight. I have never been so scared, and I’ve been at risk and under fire [before]. What we found in those 20 hours, it’s a trauma that will take years for us to recover and understand the impact of that on us, on our children, our grandchildren and for generation to come. Who knows?
POST-SCRIPT: An hour after our interview with Shai Hermesh, he was informed that the body of his son Omer had been identified. He was found lying not far from his home in Kfar Aza.
The tragic toll that day came to over 1,200 dead, and more than 240 taken hostage. The Hamas terrorists brutally raped women, tortured victims, and even beheaded children. Israeli President Isaac Herzog called it the worst single day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Everyone was shocked at how this could have happened, especially 50 years exactly since the surprise attack on Yom Kippur.
The Christian Embassy has been investing in the security and well-being of the Gaza border communities for more than 15 years now, and we are committed to helping them rebuild their lives and homes in the days ahead. Please consider a generous gift to our Israel in Crisis fund to help with these worthwhile endeavours.
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