The first time I went to Gaza was in 1967.
As a 22-year-old living in the small agricultural kibbutz of Nir Oz, a mile east of the Israeli border with the territory, I would wake up early in the morning to tend to the fields, pick apples in the orchard and work in the day care center.
Until the Arab-Israeli War that year, Gaza was a place we worried about, but we didn’t know much about Gazans themselves. The area, then under Egypt’s control, was just across the horizon and posed the threat of infiltrations by fedayeen and of a feared invasion by Arab armies. It cast a shadow over Nir Oz and the other farming collectives around us, part of a region known as the Gaza Envelope.
That summer, Israel’s victory over the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria brought Gaza under Israel’s control, and the shadows of war lifted from Nir Oz. Not long after, I found myself on the back of a tractor with a group of my friends from the kibbutz, driving across the invisible border to the beautiful beach in Khan Younis. On the way back we took a detour through Rafah and picked up pitas for the slow journey home.
I have happy memories from that day, and in the years that followed, my interactions with Gazans grew. I met Gazan businessmen who traded with my brother-in-law in the city of Be’er Sheva and who came as guests to my home in Nir Oz. I sat alongside them in the traffic on weekend journeys to Tel Aviv. For a time, you could imagine that we were destined to live together.
Nevertheless, we expected that Gaza would eventually return to the Egyptians in exchange for peace and normalization but hoped that the ties with Gazans would remain. After the Camp David Accords left Israel in control of Gaza and the failure of Oslo led to the bloodshed of the second intifada, our hopes for coexistence were extinguished. By the time Israel disengaged unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 and sealed the border, we were strangers once again. I could feel the old shadows slowly returning to Nir Oz as Hamas took power.
On Oct. 7, masked Hamas gunmen burst into the bomb shelter inside my home and kidnapped me; my daughter, Keren; and my grandson, Ohad. My husband, Abraham, was knocked out trying to stop the screaming men from entering the safe room and was taken away separately from us. He is still in captivity, his condition unknown. Hamas also killed my son, Roy, as he tried to defend Nir Oz.
Later that day I was back in Khan Younis, 56 years after my trip to the beach.
Over the next 49 days, I spent most of my time locked in a small room on the second floor of a hospital. My jailer, who went by Mohammad, called himself a soldier of Hamas, but he didn’t look like a soldier. I was being guarded by a man in civilian clothes and held against my will in a civilian building.
Mohammad’s broken Hebrew contrasted with the fluent Hebrew that the Gazan businessmen had once spoken in my home. I can imagine that he might have been one of their sons and picked it up from them. I long for a world where he would have been able to build a business of his own, live in dignity and speak fluently with his Israeli neighbors with mutual respect. In that world, I do not believe he would have joined a terrorist group that sent him to watch over a kidnapped grandmother who wished him no harm.
Mohammad told me that had it not been for Hamas, he would have had no money or opportunities. It was not quite an apology, more of an explanation, but the bitter irony is that because of Hamas, we both now have nothing.
After 50 days as a hostage, I left Khan Younis in a Red Cross vehicle, freed along with my daughter and grandson. I was blindfolded on the way in but now could finally see the city — because of the war, a shell of the place that I remember from my day on the beach. The Nir Oz I returned to is also a haunted ruin after the Oct. 7 attack. Everything our collective built over almost 70 years has been destroyed.
I do not pretend to know what will happen in the years to come. I do not know if Gazans will choose to concentrate their efforts on rebuilding Khan Younis rather than burning Nir Oz. I do not know if young families will ever come back to my kibbutz and pick the fruit from its trees. All I am focused on is getting my husband back home.
What I do know is that I will not go to Gaza a third time. Perhaps one day Israelis will again take a trip to the beach in Gaza or host merchants over coffee at their homes. I hope our two peoples can finally live in peace, side by side. And I know that if Hamas remains in power, that will never happen.
Ruti Munder, 78, is a retired resident of Nir Oz, Israel. She spent 50 days as a hostage in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
Source photographs by MOHAMMED ABED, SAID KHATIB, Peter Turnley, via Getty Images.
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