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It turned out she saw terrorists at the neighbors' back porch

  • Ayelet S.E's story

Three grenades had been thrown in, Neta yelled “grenade!” and jumped on the third one


My name is Ayelet Shahar Epstein, 50 years old, married and a mother of three, from Kfar Aza. I’ve lived in Kfar Aza since I was a little girl. Ori, my husband, was also born in Kfar Aza. 


Ayelet S. E. (credit: Ben Cohen from "Edut Rishona")

Neta, my oldest son, would have celebrated his 22nd birthday on November 9th. He was murdered one month and 2 days prior, in the October 7 attack in Kfar Aza. 

Rotem will be 19 in December, and Alma is 12 and half. 


On Friday evening - Simchat Torah evening [A Jewish holiday celebrating the completion and rebeginning of the reading of the Torah], we celebrated with a family meal at Matan [a town in central Israel] at my sister in law’s house - my husband’s older sister. 


“Neta, my oldest son, would have celebrated his 22nd birthday on November 9th. He was murdered one month and 2 days prior, in the October 7 attack in Kfar Aza.”

The entire tribe was there - us and the grandparents Amos and Bilha. Neta came with his girlfriend Iren. Only Rona didn’t come, she was hiking in the North. Vered was there, Vered and Ofir and the boys. All of us were there, it was such a fun, happy evening. It was right after the holidays - and we hadn’t seen each other in a while since each time someone else had been abroad. So it was this first gathering where everybody came together.

Later that evening we drove home to Kfar Aza. Neta and Iren drove separately, they stopped to visit a friend in (Kibbutz) Ruhama. They then went to sleep in their apartment in Kfar Aza, and we went to sleep at our house. “We” means Ori, myself and Alma, because Rona was hiking.


We planned to meet at Grandma Bilha’s in the morning to build kites together, since in the afternoon there was the kite-flying contest, and Bilha was a talented kite builder. She was talented in many fields but was exceptional at anything that required craftsmanship. So that was our plan.[...] So that was it. We planned for Neta and Iren to meet us at grandma’s house and build kites. 


At 06:30 am  there was a red alert [siren]. It was surprising, since leading up to it was a relatively long quiet period, and there was no talk about anything that was supposed to happen. Usually - in previous rounds there was some sort of preparation - and this time, nothing. 


“We treated it as a one off alert, the kind we’re used to: you go to the safe-room, you wait for things to de-escalate and you go back to sleep. But after the first red alert we heard another one and another one, and we started to hear gunshots outside.”

We treated it as a one off alert, the kind we’re used to: you go to the safe-room, you wait for things to de-escalate and you go back to sleep. 

But after the first red alert we heard another one and another one, and we started to hear gunshots outside. We didn’t really understand what was going on. 


So as I said Ori and I ran to the safe-room (which is Alma’s bedroom). We came to her room, closed the safe-room, and then Amos - Ori’s dad - called. He said grandma had fallen down and he had called her but she wasn’t responding, and he didn’t know what to do. 

They are older - 81 years old. They have some movement restrictions, and are not in the best physical condition. 


The scenario I had in mind was that she fell because she had tripped, and she just needed help getting up. It had happened before. I didn’t think too much of it and didn’t understand what was going on outside - even though there was a prominent sound of firearms. There were no updates from anyone yet, no reports at this point. It was really just the first few minutes. 


So I just put on my shoes and ran over there, in my pajamas, without brushing my teeth. I don’t remember seeing anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t see terrorists, and didn’t see anyone outside at all really, I just heard very loud gunshots. I don’t think there was a red alert when I ran there. I don’t remember. I do remember that I kept hearing gunshots and they didn’t seem very close to me. I didn’t imagine everything I came to understand later on - that at this point the Kibbutz’ security coordinator Shachar was already gone, and maybe Ofir had already been killed too.


[...] The security squad were the first to go. I’m mentioning Shachar Aviani in particular because he was a devoted security coordinator - there was no way that something was going on in the Kibbutz and we wouldn’t get an update from him. At least from him. Usually we would get a message from him and from Dorit K. 

There were no updates, and we really didn’t understand what was going on. 


“I thought she had a heart attack or a stroke or something like that [...] I didn’t think she was dead. I rolled her over and she was still warm, so I put a hand on her neck to feel for a pulse. There was none [...] Then I noticed a bullet casing from a 556 rifle next to her head. “


I arrived at Bilha and Amos’ balcony, which isn’t far, about 150 meters. Our houses are very close. I found Bilha laying on the floor with her face down. 

I thought she had a heart attack or a stroke or something like that. I approached her, I mean, I gathered that she’s unconscious, but I didn’t think she was dead. I rolled her over and she was still warm, so I put a hand on her neck to feel for a pulse. There was none, so I understood she was dead. Then I noticed a bullet casing from a 556 rifle next to her head. 


I called Shachar again, but he didn't answer. I texted him and he still didn’t answer. I was outside during all of that. I don’t think I was there very long, a few minutes, but he simply wasn’t answering and I didn’t understand how he could possibly not respond.

I texted him “Bilha was murdered” - and from my perspective it was unfathomable that he wasn’t answering. 

I realized I wasn’t getting a response, so I tried to bring her inside. I didn’t want her to stay on the balcony, but I couldn’t, she was too heavy.


The shooting continued, and I realized I should enter the house. I closed and locked the door, and entered the safe room with Amos. I closed and locked the back door too. We entered the safe room and I informed Ori that his mother had been killed… Murdered. He asked me “are you sure? Are you sure she’s dead?” So I had to give him the details, and I told him that I texted Shachar Aviani and he wasn’t responding, he told me that he had texted him as well and he wasn’t answering. At that point something started to sink in. I was thinking how unlikely it was that… But I didn’t understand what was really going on. 


At this point we started receiving directions to enter our houses, lock the doors and enter the safe rooms. In retrospect I think that the fact that we entered the safe-rooms was what trapped us. It was a death trap. I mean, the way the invasion was designed - it was initiated with rockets that would set off the red alert siren which would send everybody into their safe rooms - that brought a lot of people to their death. It was a matter of luck that we weren’t among them. 


Another thing that I understood in retrospect was that as I was running to Bilha, terrorists were in Mira Stahl’s house, which is the house across the street. That is the reason that I’m alive, that they didn’t murder me. A second earlier or later and they would have murdered me. 


“During that time in the safe room I was functioning mostly thanks to Amos. Due to the fact that I had to take care of him and go with him to the bathroom and bring him food, water and medication. He was crying and I tried to hold myself together, for my kids too. “

After I updated Ori - I don’t know if it was a few minutes or half an hour, he called me to ask if I had seen Ofir [Libstein, Ayelet’s brother in law]. I didn’t understand why he was asking me - like in what context? 

I didn’t understand why he was asking me where Ofir was. I told him that I hadn’t seen Ofir. About half an hour later he called me to say that Ofir had been murdered, and he was somewhere near our house. That’s why he asked me where Ofir was. When I ran [to Bilha and Amos’ house earlier that day] I ran fast and turned left, I also cut the turn and didn’t look back. He could have already been there then. 


During that time in the safe room I was functioning mostly thanks to Amos. Due to the fact that I had to take care of him and go with him to the bathroom and bring him food, water and medication. He was crying and I tried to hold myself together, for my kids too. 


In my contact with Rona who was in the Hermon - I called to update her that her grandma was murdered. I caught her right as they were about to start their hike, and she answered me all cheerful and happy “Hey Mom!!”. I asked her to step to the side for a minute and told her, and she started sobbing. I sent my sister who lives in Kibbutz “Hanita” in the north to go pick Rona up. When my sister was on her way - I called Rona a second time to update her about Ofir. 


“It was very difficult for me to text him - the first piece of bad news and then the second. But he really begged me “Mom, please, come on, write to me, I need to know what’s going on but I can’t talk”.  So I did. It was tough to write those messages

I was having the same conversations with Neta who was in his apartment with Iren. He didn’t answer the phone - he texted me that there are terrorists outside and he can’t answer the phone - but he asked me to text. It was very difficult for me to text him - the first piece of bad news and then the second. But he really begged me - I have the conversation with him - “Mom, please, come on, write to me, I need to know what’s going on but I can’t talk”. 

So I did. It was tough to write those messages. At the same time we were getting updates from him about what’s going on at their place - he texted me that there were massive shootings outside and I updated him that there were terrorists in the Magen household - which is close to their neighborhood. Later when we learned that Nitzan was wounded he told me that he knew - Nitzan is his cousin. I was simultaneously chatting on Whatsapp with Nitzan. Amos - Nitzan’s grandfather - wanted to speak with Nitzan, so he would call him, and Nitzan texted me “tell grandpa to stop calling me, there are terrorists outside and I can’t answer the phone”. 


Slowly, it started to become apparent. In the larger whatsapp groups of all the Kibbutz members, not the family groups, there were updates that terrorists had infiltrated every area of the Kibbutz. There was one family - the Mizrahi family, who are close friends of mine. Their daughter is a very close friend, she doesn’t live in the Kibbutz. Her parents do, and her mom wrote in one of the Kibbutz whatsapp groups that there are terrorists in her house. I texted her directly to send me a location, because there was a discussion about sending locations so that evacuation forces from the Kibbutz could come and rescue people. They weren’t evacuating yet. The locations were being sent and every minute that passed it became more clear that the entire Kibbutz had been infiltrated. 


“Then he texted me from Iren’s phone: “Mom, it’s Neta’ we’re ok”. He sent me a heart emoji and I sent him a heart emoji and then he wrote “they’re outside”. That was the last message I received from him. “

I wrote to Neta that there are terrorists at Amnon Tal’s house and at Keren Magen’s house, which are houses close to the neighborhood, and he told me that he knows. I asked him how they were doing and he said “we’re ok, there’s terrible shooting outside”. I asked him “is Ireni afraid?” and he wrote back “both of us are”. So I wrote him “hold her tight and be quiet and don’t open the door for anybody, even if they speak Hebrew. Only if they say the passcode 13 13” and he replied “I know”. Then his battery died. There was a power outage - I mean, they had already turned off the electricity at around 10 am, so by this point his battery had died. Then he texted me from Iren’s phone: “Mom, it’s Neta’ we’re ok”. He sent me a heart emoji and I sent him a heart emoji and then he wrote “they’re outside”. That was the last message I received from him. 


Then Ori called me to tell me that (terrorists) had broken into their (Neta and Iren’s) apartment and that Neta had been hurt. I asked “hurt how?” and he told me that he thinks Neta was killed. I wrote to Iren, who had been texting Ori at the same time, and she told me that three grenades had been thrown in [to the safe room], and Neta yelled “grenade!” and jumped on the third one. They shot him as he jumped. 

I should have realized at this point that he was… But I didn’t, and I asked her if he was breathing. She didn’t answer and I should have understood from her silence, but I didn’t - I refused to understand, and I texted her again - “Ireni, is he breathing?” - eventually she said “No”. 

All I wanted to do was run over there. To see him. To hold him. To close his eyes. 


“she told me that three grenades had been thrown in [to the safe room], and Neta yelled “grenade!” and jumped on the third one. They shot him as he jumped. “

Around that time, Iren’s mother called me and texted me “what do we do?” and “we have to do something” and “we need to save my girl”. I asked her to send me Iren’s location, and I found a phone number in one of the whatsapp groups of a woman named Shirel from Duvdevan [an elite unit in the IDF]. I called her, my phone battery was down to 3%, and I told her about Iren, but there was hardly any reception - so it was difficult. I told her “my son has been killed and his girlfriend needs to be rescued” - and the call got disconnected. I tried to call again and three words into the call, it got disconnected again. I told myself I should be smart as my phone battery could run out at any moment, so I called Iren’s mom, I gave her Shirel’s phone number and told her to call her and make sure evacuation forces are brought there - and that’s what happened. She sent someone there and Iren was rescued. 


My phone died so I didn’t know what was going on anymore. Then, I heard a car pass by the house. I ran from the safe room to see if it was an IDF vehicle, and it was! It was going really fast and I ran out of the house and chased it yelling “Stop! Stop!”. 

[...] I wanted to get there, because I thought it would take so much time for Shirel from Duvdevan, until she really.. Until anybody would get there…

A different IDF vehicle spotted me and drove to me hysterically. “Get into the car immediately!” I told him “drive to my son’s apartment right now, because he was killed, and his girlfriend needs to be rescued” and he wouldn’t listen. I yelled at him but it didn’t help. He told me they were going to take me back home. I asked him who they were, and he replied “Duvdevan”. I asked him “why did it take you guys so long to get here?” It was 3pm. “Where were you?” I asked. 

He told me they had been here all morning, but only later did I realize that there had been a massacre of IDF soldiers too. They hadn’t understood that magnitude of the event and came in small units which were simply massacred. 


“A different IDF vehicle spotted me and drove to me hysterically. “Get into the car immediately!” I told him “drive to my son’s apartment right now, because he was killed, and his girlfriend needs to be rescued” and he wouldn’t listen.”

Nobody understood what was going on. Nobody. They asked me where my house was and they took me back to Amos. I knew I had to stay with Amos.  By this point he knew about Neta and Ofir, and obviously about Bilha. I didn’t tell him about Bilha straight away because he hadn’t realized what had happened to her. He didn’t see that she had been shot. But I did tell him. 


After the shock and rage of the first few days, weeks even, there’s a sadness that is only emerging now, and I know it will stick around for a long time, maybe forever. 

I now feel that I’m really starting to be angry at what happened to us. It doesn’t make any sense that the IDF acted the way that it did. There was something that stopped and I can’t explain what it is. But I’m starting to think that there was some intention behind it. It doesn’t make any sense that the surveillance soldiers spotted and reported it, and those reports didn’t get to who they should have. It can’t be that there was a paratroopers battalion right at the entrance of Beeri and they were told not to enter because it was too dangerous. 

It’s absurd! It’s inconceivable, and it doesn’t make any sense.

It doesn’t make sense that we spent 27 hours in our safe room until we were evacuated. And even when we were evacuated - it wasn’t like they came from their own free will. 

I went out again in the morning. Not outside the house, but outside the safe-room and stood near the window, because I heard a military vehicle stop there. I flagged them over - otherwise we would have stayed there for… I don’t know… 48 hours. I can’t explain it. 


[...] I don’t think this happened by chance, I’m not that naive. I don’t believe that this happened because of a series of mistakes. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. There were senior military officials at the shiv’ah who told us that the fence was breached in 72 different places. That just can’t be. Tens of billions were invested in that giant obstacle. I don’t know. It just doesn’t add up. It can’t be that there was an infiltration into Kfar Aza before the first red alert. 


I had already thought at the time that the rocket barrage was a diversion to hide what was really going on. Now it seems obvious. The rockets were meant to drive us all into our safe-rooms, which would become death traps. 

[...] There were reports from people inside their safe-rooms. It wasn’t as if people didn’t know. We were cut off quite early because there was no electricity and our phone batteries died, but there were many people who did communicate. It’s just inconceivable in any scenario that this entire thing happened by chance, and that the state of Israel stood defenseless. I just can’t accept that. 


“We then heard them yelling really loudly, screaming in Arabic. Then they started shooting at our house. I mean Amos’ house. They shot and shot and shot and shot and shot. At some point I heard a bullet hit something metallic and I thought they’d hit a gas tank and we were about to be blown to pieces”

[Amos and I] went back into the safe-room. During one of our trips to the toilet I heard people outside. I looked through the window that’s near the safe-room and saw terrorists. They wore cargo pants and black t-shirts. They didn’t have the green band around their heads but they looked like fighters, not civilians. They climbed the stairs into Amir and Bella E.’s house, which is the next house. Amir passed away two years ago and Bella was abroad on a trip to Bulgaria with all the other older residents. So I don’t know, I didn’t see if they entered (the house) or not - because as soon as I saw them on the stairs we got right back into the safe-room. 


We then heard them yelling really loudly, screaming in Arabic. Then they started shooting at our house. I mean Amos’ house. They shot and shot and shot and shot and shot. At some point I heard a bullet hit something metallic and I thought they’d hit a gas tank and we were about to be blown to pieces, but that didn’t happen. We sat there together, close, holding hands. I told him “shhh they’re here outside”.

They left. They didn’t enter our house. I can’t explain it. Bilha’s body was on the other side, so it’s not like they saw her. Maybe someone said “this house is already…” but it’s not like she was there, she was on the other side of the house. So I don’t think that’s the reason. They broke into Nira Ronen’s house - two houses from us - and murdered her. And Mira Stahl’s house. So I really don’t know how to explain it. It’s totally random. 


I was functioning. Functioning was what released me from the fear. I mean I was afraid but it wasn’t controlling. My daughter Rona said to me - after the third call, when I told her about Neta - “Mom, please don’t die”. I thought of her and I thought of Alma and I said to myself that I can’t die. I mean, I have to (survive). That was definitely a large factor in my realization that I just have to, I’m required to function. I can’t just… 


When night began to fall I said “ok, we’re not going to be evacuated during the night… The best case scenario would be the next morning when the sun would come up.”

We entered the safe-room at 7am, and we left it the next morning at 10am. A little after 10am. After the incident with the terrorists we went back into the safe-room. It was already dark, and I thought that we probably were not going to be rescued during the night. Until that moment I didn’t even think in terms of evacuation. I thought it would take an hour or two for the military to regain control of the situation and we would go outside. I didn’t even think of a case where… 

After what happened with Neta and seeing what was going on outside I understood that it probably wasn’t going to happen so fast. When night began to fall I said “ok, we’re not going to be evacuated during the night… The best case scenario would be the next morning when the sun would come up.”


I brought us candles into the safe-room because it was completely dark. Pitch black. We couldn't see anything. I said to Amos “ok, let’s prepare to sleep here”. Amos said to me - what a hero - “I’m going to sleep in my bed, in the bedroom”. I told him “yeah, no, come in” (to the safe-room). I opened the sofa bed and we lay next to each other. There were constant shooting sounds. I heard the buzzing of a drone, and I wasn’t even sure it was an IDF drone. It seemed like Kfar Aza had been conquered. Like we would see a Hamas flag on the Kibbutz mess hall when we would leave the house. That visual was what was going through my mind. I wondered if we were going to survive. I wondered what would happen. I mean, so many terrorists had entered and they’d conquered Kfar Aza, so what would happen next? They wouldn’t stop. If no one was going to stop them they weren’t going to go back to Gaza, they would advance further [into Israel]. I imagined them advancing west, advancing north, getting to Netivot, getting to Ashkelon. 

I was cut-off, completely unaware of what was actually happening.  


Eventually we both fell asleep. I dreamt of Neta. I dreamt of him all cute and beautiful and alive. I dreamt of different moments of his life - of the moment he was born, of him as a child with long curls. I saw him on the day he enlisted in the military, and in the dream I told myself that what had happened before was the bad dream, that it didn’t actually happen. He’s still here. Then I woke up, and it hit me that that was reality. 


That’s it. When the sun came up I heard a really loud noise outside - it sounded like a large vehicle. I looked out through the window and saw a huge D9 driving at a crazy speed. I thought that it was a military vehicle but it didn’t look like soldiers were driving it. 

At around 10am when a military vehicle passed I went out of the safe-room and signaled them over, and he told me to go back to the safe-room, that they would be back to evacuate us soon. It took about 30 more minutes, and they evacuated us. 

[We were taken] to the Alonit [a chain of gas stations in Israel]. My friend Keren M. and Oren and their daughter Amit too. [...] Keren was crying non-stop, I came to her and she hugged me, then she told me about all those who… About the dead. We didn’t know about everybody yet, but those we knew of at that time, it was monstrous. 


[...] We left as we were. I took our phones and chargers, and his medication box, just in case. That’s it. That’s all I saw. 

When we got to the Alonit I plugged in the charger and the second my phone turned on I called Ori, who had apparently left the safe-room to get a portable charger for his and Alma’s phones, so they weren’t cut off like we were. He told me that Iren was rescued and she is ok. I told him that we were evacuated and I asked the soldiers there to go rescue them. It took two hours for them to get there. Two nerve-wracking hours, it was very tough.

I called Rona, and she was relieved to hear we were ok. I called Dafna and learned they had been evacuated during the night, which really surprised me because I thought they wouldn’t rescue people when it was dark. I asked her how Uri is and she told me she hadn’t heard anything yet. I think she had understood already, but she didn’t dare say it out loud. 


“He told me that Iren was rescued and she is ok. I told him that we were evacuated and I asked the soldiers there to go rescue them. It took two hours for them to get there. Two nerve-wracking hours, it was very tough.”

[...] I gave everything. I’m mad at myself for returning to live in Kfar Aza. 

Since 2008 when the rounds [of rocket firings and ground operations with Gaza] started, I had this fear that something big would happen, and that we would pay the heaviest price. 

I repressed it, because life happens, and there are always things to do. I’m mad that I didn’t let it, that I didn’t listen to it. I am really resentful of that. 


[...] I’m still optimistic. I have two healthy daughters with their future ahead of them. [...] And there is a future. We have a future. I feel handicapped, like someone who lost an arm, or a limb, because my Neta was amputated from me, but we are here and we have a new house, and so many people from across the country have helped here.



Ayelet S.E.

Transcribed from a video testimony by Ben Cohen from "Edut Rishona"