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VIEWPOINT: On the front lines of terror

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It has been nearly three months since Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists killed and kidnapped innocent civilians in Israel.

Rob Cook | PHOTO COURTESY OF ROB COOK

My wife Cindy and I have been following closely because we were in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 7, the day the war started. 

We were part of our church’s Holy Land trip. Forty people had signed up for this trip slated to begin on Oct. 11. We, however, were the only two people who decided to go a week early to explore Tel Aviv. 

We claim no expertise on Israel or the Middle East, but want to share our firsthand experience, and observations.

First off, Israel is incredibly small. From our hotel in Tel Aviv, we were only 30 miles from Gaza, and 25 miles from Jerusalem. The country has only 10 million people of which 7 million are Jews, slightly less than 2 million are Arab Muslims, and a small percentage are Christian and Druze. The population seems pluralistic and integrated.

Many of the Jewish inhabitants relocated to Israel from around the world – Russia, Indonesia, Europe, Africa, and the U.S. Everyone we met seems intent on living their lives in freedom and peace focusing on the very things we focus on here in the States — education, jobs, family, health and leisure. But perhaps, because of its size, there was a sense of intimacy and vulnerability often reflected in conversations with Israelis. 

Our hotel was on the beach in Tel Aviv and on Friday, the beach was packed with families. The weather was gorgeous, and it was the weekend of a major Jewish holiday. We went to the beach, went to Jaffa, and ate at an Arab restaurant. It was a wonderful day.

On Saturday, we woke up to loud booms. When we went outside, we could see the rocket plumes and explosions of rockets being intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile defenses. In the lobby of the hotel, people were crying. The beach was deserted, and families were checking out of the hotel. By Saturday night the hotel, which had been full, had only a handful of international visitors. At this point, our tour had not yet been cancelled, and we weren’t sure what to do. 

On Sunday, the beaches were vacant, restaurants closed, and basically the country shut down.  All of the young men and women working at the hotel, restaurants, taxi companies, and tourist areas, disappeared. We learned later that 300,000 people were activated for the military in the first 36 hours. Buses stopped; businesses closed. We found a small café where we ate for the next two days. 

Finally on Sunday night our tour was cancelled as the major Western airlines cancelled their flights, effectively stranding tens of thousands of people. Turkish Air, El Al, and Emirates continued to fly, and we began to try to get two tickets from Israel to anywhere in Europe. Finally, after spending hours on my phone, I was able to book two tickets to Istanbul for Tuesday morning. 

All this time, we were trying to get news. Much of the reporting in Israel was in Hebrew. We called the U.S. embassies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and both were no help at all. We heard rumors that Hezbollah was going to invade Israel from the north in Lebanon, and that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be squeezed between Hezbollah and Hamas. 

Our friends and family and people we didn’t even know in the States were texting and Zooming us. 

I wasn’t worried about being hit by a rocket. My concern was being kidnapped. For two nights I couldn’t sleep working through our options if Hezbollah invaded, and how we were going to get to the airport. My greatest fear was that our taxi cab driver would drive down an alleyway on the trip to Ben Gurion airport, and we would be handed over to Hamas or Islamic Jihad for payment. Rumors were that Hamas was paying sympathizers to kidnap international visitors.

During those fearful sleepless nights, I considered everything: stealing a sailboat and sailing to Cyprus, hot wiring a car to go to the airport, or even renting scooters to get to Ben Gurion. On Tuesday, we were able to secure a taxi cab driver the hotel verified, and made it safely to airport, to Turkey, then to Croatia, and finally to the U.S. We both had nightmares and some temporary PTSD for a couple of weeks, but we have recovered mostly.

What has happened since is not surprising to us. After the attack, the Israelis we talked with had a singular perspective. They were furious, in disbelief, and resolved to defend Israel and destroy Hamas. It was their 9/11. Israelis talked about “flattening” Gaza, killing all Hamas, and ensuring that this would never happen again, but with some resignation like, “What else can we do?” But they clearly had “had it” with Hamas.

I’m not surprised at the Israel Defense Force’s tenacity in Gaza.  I’m not surprised that this has continued for weeks. I am surprised there has been a temporary ceasefire as Israel vowed not to negotiate with terrorists. 

But what is most disturbing and surprising is that the Arab nations surrounding Gaza will not offer sanctuary to Palestinian families trying to leave Gaza. Innocent Palestinians, caught between Hamas and Arab nation rejection, literally have no place to go.

And lastly, it’s clear that in 2023, evil has a highly disproportionate impact on the world. This conflict communicates again that terrorism can never be tolerated by the civilized nations of our world. 

We pray for resolution, and safety for the innocent, Israeli and Palestinian both, and hope for peace soon. 

Rob Cook is a former CEO of the Speakman Company in Wilmington.

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