The contrasts are what haunt Millet Ben Haim when she thinks about Hamas’s October 7 attack. As she lay on the ground, hidden in brush, with the sound of bullets and rockets growing ever closer, she looked up at the sky. It was clear blue—and then she saw a butterfly. “It was so beautiful,” she said. “I thought I was going to die, but that the world would go on. There was beauty around me, along with the butchery.”

She was panicked but occasionally calm. She wanted to live but prayed that a rocket would hit her. “I had been in the army,” she said. “So I knew what would happen to us if we were caught—rape, torture, a slow death.”

A small, slender beauty with long, ash-blonde hair and large, grey eyes, Ben Haim, now 28, spoke in a virtual monotone as she recalled how she and four friends survived the Hamas attack at the Nova music festival in southern Israel, in which 364 mostly young Israelis died. Hundreds more were wounded, and 40 were taken hostage.

Ben Haim and I were speaking at the Palm Beach Synagogue—a sanctuary of beauty and peace a galaxy away from the horror of that terrible night in the Negev desert near Gaza. Through determination and luck—mostly crazy luck, she called it—she made it through the frenzied slaughter. But she doesn’t feel lucky, she says. In fact, she doesn’t feel much of anything now. She doesn’t sleep much and doesn’t know whether she will ever return to her studies in Israel to become a therapist. “I try not to look in the mirror because I don’t recognize the woman I see. I don’t know who I am now. I mourn my old self.”

Partly as a form of therapy, and partly as a “voice for those who can no longer speak,” she has been touring Europe and the United States for the past two months, recounting at synagogues, Hillel Houses, and college campuses, to reporters and to anyone else who will listen, her chilling story of escape and survival. “I know that I’m often speaking mostly to the converted,” she says, “but I want as many people as possible to understand what happened that day.”

Ben Haim had never before attended the Nova festival, a rave celebration of music and dancing that coincided with Sukkot, a Jewish holiday. The organizers billed the festival as a celebration of “unity and love.” More than 3,500 people were in attendance.

She was sober, but some festival goers had taken psychedelic drugs timed to savor the sunrise. She was dancing at 6:30 a.m. when the music suddenly stopped. She heard the sound of rockets, but that was not unusual so close to Gaza. A former DJ herself, she asked the DJ near the stage why the music had stopped. Was there a power outage?

The festival was under attack, he told her. She should get out of there. She and many other festivalgoers initially thought Israeli soldiers would come to their rescue. But the shelling grew louder, and no soldiers appeared. “The security people tried to help but didn’t know what to do either.” It was hard to grasp the situation at first, but as the terrorists approached the stages, thousands of terrified festivalgoers tried leaving all at once. “It was total chaos,” she recalled.

Ben Haim and three girlfriends raced to her car and tried driving toward an exit, but Hamas terrorists had blocked the northern and southern entrances to the festival. After she saw the terrorists shooting at cars and saw bloodied bodies in the cars ahead of her, she made a U-turn and headed for the other exit. With that road also blocked, she wasn’t sure what to do.

What she didn’t do probably saved her life. She didn’t run to one of the four packed bomb shelters into which Hamas terrorists threw grenades, killing most of those who had taken refuge there.

Instead, she and her friends abandoned the car and started running to the east, zigzagging their way through fields, desert shrubs, and scraggly trees. The terrorists pursued them, shots whizzing through the air. She did not look back as people behind her fell. She just kept running.

Ben Haim repeatedly tried calling the police. When she finally got through, an officer told her they couldn’t help. They were battling Hamas in neighboring kibbutzim and villages that were also under attack. She was on her own. He wished her luck.

She saw a group of Israeli soldiers and started running toward them. She stopped cold when she saw that the soldiers were carrying rocket propelled grenades. Israeli soldiers don’t carry RPGs. The terrorists were wearing IDF uniforms apparently taken from soldiers they had already killed.

Ben Haim and her friends ran for two hours. About a mile and a half away from the festival, they decided to hide under a tree behind a group of scraggly bushes.

“We knew we had to be silent. The shooting was nonstop. I saw a guy hiding in brush closer to the terrorists. I think they found him. He screamed for help. We could hear their voices, their Arabic,” Ben Haim said. “We heard more shots. And their voices coming close. But somehow, they passed us by.”

Had the terrorists not seen them? Were they seeking bigger prey? She didn’t know. Holding her breath, she texted her family to send them her location, ask for their help, and tell them she loved them.

A friend texted her the cell number of Rami Davidian, a farmer who was trying to rescue stranded Israelis on his own. She sent him a text with her approximate location, begging him to rescue them. “Don’t give up on us,” she pleaded. With her cell battery dying, she turned off her phone.

Minutes turned to hours—an eternity. The shelling never stopped. Six hours later, she saw a white Toyota and turned on her phone. Yam had texted her to look for a car driven by a friend, Leon Barr, a retired colonel. The driver called out to them in Hebrew. Hamas terrorists often drove that model car, but this one had Israelis plates. The four young women piled in. They kept low in the vehicle as Barr searched for other survivors, including the young man who had called out for help. He wasn’t there.

Shocked and dehydrated, Ben Haim and her friends sought shelter in a neighboring village. They drank water and rested, but there was fighting nearby. Some 3,000 Hamas terrorists had spread out to kibbutzim and villages throughout southern Israel; several would remain there for three days. At night, Davidian took Ben Haim and her friends to Beersheba, far away from the fighting and terror.

“I didn’t feel safe until we got there,” she said. “Even today, I can’t believe this happened. We were not ready for 3,000 terrorists crossing the border all at once. We were outnumbered. Many Israelis died trying to rescue us.”

Among those who died was her rescuer, Leon Barr. Hamas terrorists killed him days after he rescued Ben Haim and her friends.

What does she want Americans to do?

“Don’t be silent,” she said. “Join us in demanding the return of the hostages. Do whatever you can to ensure that this never happens again.”

Given her own nightmare, did she feel empathy for the Gazans who were now being killed, bombed, and driven from their homes, particularly the thousands of child victims?

She called the images from Gaza “devastating.” “But I blame Hamas. We didn’t want this war. The fact that so many civilians supported what happened to us that day makes it harder for me to have empathy for them.”

The hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that the world gave Gaza was used to build tunnels and rockets, not feed, house, and clothe civilians. “We can live side by side with Arabs,” she said. “Israeli Arabs live among us. But we can’t make peace with people who want to wipe out the Jewish people. We must do whatever is needed to ensure that Hamas never again poses a threat, never again.”

Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images


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