After a very long day at sites of destruction, we were so blessed to have time with freed hostage Liat Atzili.  Liat was kidnapped by Hamas and returned after 54 days in one of the exchanges last fall.  Liat had already written quite beautifully about her experience for the New York Times in February in a piece called Choosing Rebirth over Revenge After my Release from Gaza .  I was looking forward to meeting someone who was so clearly cognizant of many conflict resolution principles having served as an educator at Yad Vashem for years.

She, and her entire kibbutz, are now relocated about 45 minutes north of their kibbutz in a town called Kiryat Gat.  There were several newly constructed apartment buildings that happened to be unoccupied and so the entire kibbutz could be moved together.  (Liat is below in her new apartment and the art on the wall, from her husband, survived the destruction.)

Student Andrea Shahrabani shared her impressions:

Meeting Liat Atzili, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz who endured a 54-day hostage ordeal at the hands of “Hamas activists”, was a profoundly moving experience. The devastation wrought upon Nir Oz during the October 7th attack, leading to the relocation of its surviving residents to apartment complexes, starkly contrasts with the close-knit, nature-surrounded lifestyle they once cherished.

Liat’s account of her ordeal revealed a remarkable resilience. Nir Oz, known for its involvement in left-wing activism and pursuit of peace, made her tragedy even more striking. Her husband’s murder by Hamas terrorists on October 7th and her subsequent captivity at the hands of Gaza civilians underscored the brutality of the attack.

What truly stood out was Liat’s capacity for empathy, even towards her captors. Despite the trauma, she sought to understand their perspective, offering insights into life in Gaza. Witnessing her compassion amidst such adversity left a lasting impression. Meeting with Liat was a privilege, and her story serves as a testament to resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship.

As described by student Adela Cojab, visiting with Liat was a wonderful way to end the day for the students:

There is so much I can write about this trip, but I think what was most impactful was meeting with a released hostage, Liat Atzili, who welcomed us into her home and served us pastries and tea as we gathered on her couch and carpet. Liat was taken from her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz by Hamas and taken to Gaza. She was held in an apartment in Khan Younis for 54 days before being released. She returned to hear her husband was killed (her three 20-something children were not at the kibbutz at the time and thus spared), her home destroyed, and her community displaced.

Liat was oddly calm. She was soft-spoken, but at the same time quick and sharp, her voice etched with both sorrow and tenacity. We had spent three days meeting with stakeholders in the peace process, from an avocado farmer in a southern Kibbutz, to a Supreme Court Justice of Israel’s judiciary, to activists in Shared Society— each spoke about the hostages and the need to bring them back home. 

There was something surreal about hearing from someone who was in the midst of it.  She spoke about how she was treated well by her captors, and how, through conversations in broken Hebrew, she was able to get them to see her as a person as opposed to a Jew. Liat spoke about the realities of being in captivity, and how she understood she was, if there ever was such a thing, one of the luckier hostages. 

I left Liat’s apartment with a sense of hope, but at the same time, I felt uneasy. The weight of unresolved conflict lingered in the recesses of my mind. There is so much controversy about the path forward: prisoner swaps and hostage deals, tactical operations versus bombing campaigns, and whether or not the war can end until ALL hostages are returned home. While these questions still linger, Liat embodies a serene defiance, her spirit unwavering despite the tumult that has ravaged her life and her country.