By Andrew Adler
Dawn was breaking over Beersheba on October 7, 2023 when the sirens began wailing, a sound that every inhabitant of this southern Israeli city knew carried one imperative: run to the nearest shelter before the rockets fell.
Adi Damri was one of those residents. Jolted awake shortly after 6 a.m., she – along with her mother and brother –raced out of their home and found their way to at least relative safety.
“We were in that shelter for like an hour,” Damri recalled during a recent WhatsApp video call from her family’s current apartment in Tel Aviv. “They didn’t stop shooting rockets that day through all of the country – there were sirens after sirens.”
The “they” was Hamas, which launched an estimated 2,000 rockets from bases in the Gaza Strip while large numbers of terrorists breached the fence dividing Gaza from southern Israel. The ensuing murderous rampage slaughtered some 1,400 Israelis, about 1,000 of whom were civilians – the greatest single loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust.
Scarcely two months earlier, Damri had wound up her summer as a shlichim counselor at the Trager Family JCC’s Camp J. From Louisville she’d vacationed in Hawaii with her Israeli boyfriend, returning to Israel with plans to begin university studies. At 23, having served her required stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, she was eager to get on with the business of living. Now those plans were on indefinite hold, the business of living having been replaced with the business of simply surviving.
Like many Israelis at that moment, Damri was getting much of her information via smartphone. What she saw and heard was horrifying.
“The Hamas terrorists hijacked victims’ Facebook and TikTok (accounts) and broadcast live how they killed them,” Damri said. “Seeing Israeli people being executed live on TikTok, Israeli families being abducted live on Facebook.”
Many young victims had been attending the outdoor Supernova techno rave a mere three miles from the Gaza-Israel border, marking the close of Sukkot with a “festival of peace and love” that turned into a scene of bullets, blood and death. At least 260 people, predominantly in their teens and early 20s, perished.
“We saw people running from the rave online,” Damri said. “We saw people being abducted. We saw women being raped on social media. And these things traumatize you forever.”
As if that wasn’t abhorrent enough, Damri has had to contend with extremist naysayers. “The weird thing is that people keep telling me these are lies, and we all made everything up. When I saw this with my own eyes.”
How does she feel in the face of such reactions, including demonstrations on various U.S. college campuses? “Mostly sad and frustrated,” she said. “In their eyes I’m the occupier who’s occupied this land for 75 years, and my people deserve this massacre because of the occupation. You never expected them to say those things about you, your community, your state. To criticize the government is fine, but there is a difference in criticizing Binyamin Netanyahu or the government of Israel and supporting atrocities by Hamas. People were murdered brutally, and I am the bad guy by defending myself, by being proudly Israeli, Zionist and Jewish?”
Meanwhile. Damri spends most of her time inside her family’s apartment, located on the second floor of a seven-story building. “It’s not really safe to go outside because there are rockets all day long,” typically intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome mobile air defense system, she explained. Indeed, midway through our WhatsApp conversation, there was an audible boom in the background – apparently yet another Hamas-launched rocket destroyed in the sky by an Iron Dome missile.
She and her family have helped some of those displaced by the Hamas actions in the south. Hamas “burned to the ground something like 22 towns (near) the Gaza Strip,” Damri said. “So there are people in hotels who lost their houses, and now Lebanon is sending rockets from the north,” fired by Hezbollah – like Hamas, backed by Iran – prompting additional evacuations.
Damri acknowledges that on that fateful morning she and her family, by dint of geography and sheer chance, were lucky to avoid Hamas’s frenzy of destruction.
“They got (within)15 minutes of Beersheba,” she said. “It’s the only city the terrorists didn’t get into.”
Not to say the danger is past – far from it. “The scary thing is that a lot of terrorists went inside Israel on October 7, and they’re still hiding. We can’t really find them. Some of them may be just like normal civilians from Gaza that took advantage of the (border) wall being bombed. The military stopped them, but they’re still everywhere. So you can’t go on buses or public transportation.”
And day or night, she listens for the sirens’ warning wails. When they sound, she sprints. “I go looking for my dog and get out of my home as fast as I can,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how I’m dressed – I’m just running to the shelter. But my mom is 60 years old, and it’s tough to go up and down the stairs three or four times in one hour. I have an old neighbor who can’t go down, so she just hides in a certain corner.”
Damri’s mother is a civilian IDF employee working in human resources. Her brother, now 18, had his mandatory service postponed because Adi was abroad in Louisville this past summer – a delay she believes may have saved his life.
When Damri did her required IDF service she was posted to military intelligence, a branch of the IDF that – like its counterparts in the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and elsewhere – conspicuously failed to anticipate and detect Hamas’s plans.
What does she believe went so terribly wrong?
“I just think that for many years, nothing seriously was happening between Gaza and Israel,” she said. “And we have a great defending infrastructure and Iron Dome, so we can save ourselves. There had been terrorists getting into Israel before, but nobody expected this size of attack to happen.”
The resulting fallout, physical and emotional, is intense, unrelenting, debilitating, arbitrary.
“I knew a friend who was at the rave, and who luckily survived,” Damri said. “I don’t know how. He was talking (by phone) to his sister who told him, ‘There are terrorists! Drive as fast as you can!’ He got shot but not severely, so he just kept driving to get to the north. He’s safe now. But he ran away with only one friend, and now all of his other friends are dead. I know so many people who lost friends and family. I have some who serve in the IDF and who lost more than 20 friends in one day. There were like 50 girls who were supposed to be lookouts on the border of Gaza, who did nothing to harm innocent people, just watching the wall. They were all murdered.”
Faced with one awful narrative after another, a reasonable question is, simply, how does someone like Adi Damri manage to keep from unravelling?
“Everybody is dealing with it differently,” she replied. “I have friends who are always active: helping, donating whatever they can. Myself, unfortunately, is more depressed. I’m just staying at home – I’m too scared to go out. I’m a very bubbly person, so this is so different from my (normal) personality. I can’t go out and have fun when so many people have died, and I don’t feel safe outside because I don’t know how many terrorists are left in Israel right now. I don’t know if they’re waiting across the street.
“It’s going to take a lot of time to process what’s going on and get better,” Damri realizes. “I don’t think there is any Israeli who isn’t traumatized.”
Meanwhile, what message would she like to send to her friends back in Louisville?
“I just want to say to them, ‘Leave politics aside; choose love, not hate, peace, not war. Share in the grief of innocent victims – all we need here is your love and support.’”