International News

Israeli Families Missing Loved Ones Wait for Proof of Life; Patriarch Appeals for Prayer, Fasting

Family and friends mourn Danielle, 25, and Noam, 26, an Israeli couple who were killed in a deadly attack by Hamas gunmen from Gaza as they attended a festival, as they are buried next to each other during their funeral in Kiryat Tivon, Israel, Oct. 12, 2023. The Israel-Hamas war so far has claimed more than 2,600 lives. (Photo: OSV News/Shir Torem, Reuters)

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — Just before the children in her kindergarten class went on vacation for the Jewish Sukkot festival, Romina Shvalb, 42, a kindergarten teacher in the quiet Israeli kibbutz of Nir Oz near the Gaza border, had baked challah — the braided sweet bread Jews traditionally eat on the Sabbath and holidays — with the children.

They had enjoyed eating in the Sukkah, a temporary hut Jews build for the holiday, she said, and made decorations to hang from the roof and sides of the structure.

But by the end of the weeklong holiday, Shvalb, who is originally from Cordoba, Argentina and now lives with her family in Ofakim, a town near Nir Oz, had been through her worst nightmare as thousands of Hamas terrorists breached the border barrier from Gaza and conducted a massacre of more than 1,200 Israelis, including at least 22 Americans as well as other nationals, in the small farming communities and towns along the border.

Israeli officials said there are dozens more Israeli citizens, some with dual citizenship, including mothers with their babies, soldiers, and elderly and young people, held captive in Gaza.

Shvalb’s sister Carina Engelbert, 51, and her family are among the missing.

“I don’t know what is happening to them. My sister just finished treatment for breast cancer and needs medicine and her husband, Ronen, is diabetic and also needs medicine. (Their daughter) Mika has post trauma from all the previous attacks and military operations on the border and needs medicine,” she said.

Homes next to her sister’s house were all burned as the terrorists entered the neighborhoods and used heavy weapons to attack the homes of people hiding in their safe rooms. The terrorists set fire to the homes and then gunned down people as they tried to escape the inferno.

It took two days before friends and neighbors in the kibbutz were able to go to her sister’s house as soldiers still battled hidden terrorists. Friends have told her that they have been unable to locate the bodies of the family which includes 18-year-old Mika and youngest daughter Yuval, 11, said Shvalb.

Their son, Tom, 20, is a soldier and was not at home at the time of the attack. Her nephew is “destroyed,” she said.

“Nobody has any information for us. Nothing. Total silence,” she said.

Bodies still remain strewn along roads and in communities as authorities go through the arduous and gruesome process of identifying so many bodies, some of which first responders have said were mutilated and burned beyond recognition. Some families are missing more than six members. Engelbert’s brother and son have gone to provide DNA samples, said Shvalb.

As the air raid sirens woke them Oct. 7 — not an unusual occurrence for the border communities — her sister sent her a teasing WhatsApp message saying she would not have to come to work the next day, as is usually the case after a missile attack from Gaza. Then Shvalb began hearing gunshots in front of her own house.

“My other sister and I were speaking and writing to Carina. At one point I wrote, ‘How are you?’ and she wrote back to me, ‘They are here,’ and from that moment I didn’t hear anything from her. That was at 9:30 a.m.”

Her sister Paula was speaking to her on the phone at around the same time and heard the other sister screaming, “Paula, they are here, they are here,” and then the line went silent, she said. They don’t know if the family was killed or taken hostage or if they are still hiding somewhere, she said.

“It is impossible to explain what I feel. We are all desperate. My heart hurts and my body burns. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. Nobody in my family can. I can’t stop thinking about my nieces and what they are going through, if they are cold, if they have something to eat, something to drink. If they are injured or not.”

Her husband’s father and his family are religious and are praying for their return, she said, but she finds no solace in that and has lost all hope.

“I just want them to be brought back to Israel,” she said, calling out for international help.

“Israel is always the first to send over medical teams and soldiers to help (when there are tragedies in the world.) Now where are all the people we helped? Those babies killed; the people burned in their homes,” she cried out.

Israel reportedly said it has killed some 1,500 terrorists within Israel and has continued for the fourth day to send its jet planes on aerial strikes against what it says are Hamas targets in Gaza, leveling whole neighborhoods.

ABC reported that according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, as of Oct. 11 at least 1,417 people have died and another 6,268 have been wounded since Oct. 7. At least 447 children and 248 women are among those killed in Gaza.

Israel reinforced its 18-year-old blockade that it, along with Egypt, put in place following the election of Hamas to run the government. Israel said it would allow no food, water, medicine, gas or electricity into Gaza, where around 2 million Palestinians live on some 140 square miles (365 square km) of land.

According to a report in Haaretz newspaper, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported that Jewish settlers killed three Palestinians in the West Bank village of Qusra Oct. 11.

On behalf of all the ordinaries of the Holy Land, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, invited all parishes and religious communities to hold a day of fasting and prayer for peace and reconciliation Oct. 17. Although in many parts of the dioceses, he said, it won’t be possible to arrange large gatherings, he urged people to arrange “simple and sober common moments of prayer in parishes, religious communities and families.”

“We have suddenly been catapulted into a sea of unprecedented violence. The hatred, which we have already been experiencing for too long, will increase even more, and the ensuing spiral of violence will create more destruction. Everything seems to speak of death,” he wrote in his call to fast and pray.

“Yet, in this time of sorrow and dismay, we do not want to remain helpless. We cannot let death and its sting be the only word we hear. That is why we feel the need to pray, to turn our hearts to God the Father. Only in this way we can draw the strength and serenity needed to endure these hard times, by turning to Him, in prayer and intercession, to implore and cry out to God amidst all this anguish,” Cardinal Pizzaballa said.

The homes of four Christian families have been destroyed in the Israeli bombardment in Gaza, said Gaza parish priest Father Gabriel Romaneli, in an interview posted on the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s website. He found himself stranded in Bethlehem at the outbreak of the war and has not been able to return to Gaza.

There are only 1,017 Christians living in Gaza, he said.

The church has opened three of its spaces to receive the needy, he said, and there are currently 150 people staying in the church and monastery building, 30 in the St. Thomas Aquinas Center and another group of people in the Holy Family School. He said there is a shortage of fuel and water, and a shortage of electricity was expected soon. He said that in a phone call, Pope Francis assured him and assistant priest Father Joseph of his support and urged them to continue to help the needy.

“Due to the destruction and devastation left by the war, there are barely any supplies left, and they are mostly nonexistent. Hence, we are not able to buy anything or meet the needs of the people,” said Father Romaneli.

The war also is endangering the work of the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem.
Following the closure of the West Bank, many Palestinians no longer had access to the hospital, according to Sibylle Hardegger, president of the Children’s Relief Bethlehem association that runs the hospital. She made the comments to the Swiss Catholic website, as reported by KNA, a German Catholic news agency. This meant that the only children’s hospital in the West Bank was cut off from many patients.

“This can be very dangerous for premature births, for example,” Hardegger said. Currently, the hospital is treating only 15 small stationary patients. Less than a third of the usual number were coming for outpatient treatment. Inquiries from parents with sick children were being answered by telephone if necessary, KNA said.

“We also fear a possible shortage of essential supplies,” said Hardegger. Therefore, she said, the hospital management had been increasing stocks of medicines, medical supplies and heating oil for the winter.

The post-war deterioration of the health sector and other governmental systems will have a significant impact on daily life in Gaza for a long time to come, Father Romaneli added. “Many will suffer. So we ask everyone, and every official, to do their utmost efforts to stop this war immediately. We ask the faithful, everywhere, to unite with us in prayer and to join the kind appeal made by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa.”