Ronni Kahn was visiting family in Israel on October 7 when she woke to the sound of a rocket attack. First came explosions, then air raid sirens.
As she flung back the curtains in her Tel Aviv hotel room, Hamas militants were forcing their way through Israel’s border with Gaza, just 60 kilometres away. From there, Hamas launched an unexpected attack, killing more than 1300 soldiers and civillian and taking around 200 hostages, including children.
Ronni, founder of the Australian food rescue charity, Oz Harvest, quickly turned on the television “to see scenes that were just beyond comprehension,” she tells The Weekly. She had lived and worked in Israel when she was younger and had seen the country at war, but this felt qualitatively different – frighteningly so.
“All you could see was shooting,” she recalls. “We started seeing scenes from the rave party where we knew people – kids – who had gone.”
At least 260 people were killed that morning at the Supernova music festival and others were taken hostage by Hamas gunmen.
Israel formally declared war on Hamas the day after the attacks, and launched missiles into Gaza, where the death toll rose to 2,670 within ten days.
“This is the thing about Israel. It is a small country,” Ronni explains. “There isn’t a family in Israel that doesn’t know somebody or somebody’s children or grandchildren who have been affected. And the horror just wore on. It was terrifying.”
Ronni’s connection to Israel
Ronni’s connection with Israel runs deep. She was born and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, but during her university years, she travelled to Israel on a scholarship.
The plan was to spend six months on a kibbutz – a collective agricultural community in the Jezreal Valley in the country’s north – but she married, and she and her young husband decided to stay. They remained in Israel for 20 years and raised her two sons, Nadav and Edo, there.
The family left when the boys were in their teens and emigrated to Sydney, where she felt they would have more life choices and greater opportunities. But Ronni still has extensive friendship and family networks in Israel, and a heart connection there too.
In October this year, Ronni had been in the city of Haifa, visiting her sister, “because she’s been very ill,” she explains. “But I had gone to Tel Aviv to put my yes vote in for the referendum and had decided to stay overnight.”
Once the conflict broke out, she was unable to return to her sister’s family. To travel anywhere was considered risky. Her weekend was spent between her room and the hotel’s air raid shelter, watching the horror unfold on the television and listening to sirens and the sound of rockets exploding high above. She left on a flight out of Tel Aviv that Monday morning.
The trip to the airport, she says, “was very scary. It was four in the morning. They had been warning that there were still terrorists who might have put on uniforms and could stop cars and kill people. We were in a taxi, and the taxi driver told us we shouldn’t worry because he spoke fluent Arabic, which wasn’t very consoling. But he drove fast and we got to the airport and we did get out.”
In a state of shock
When we speak, Ronni has been in Italy for a week and is about to fly home. She is worried about her sister, who has begun chemotherapy, and about her nephew who has been called up to the army reserve.
“I am torn with the guilt of leaving,” she admits, “but my life is in Australia.”
She feels that she is still in shock.
“You do normal things,” she says, “you lift your head and see a blue sky, and then you think, how is it possible that I can do a normal thing when there is a baby being held hostage, a mother who has lost a child? And the aftermath, you know, what this has led to and what it will lead to. It’s just horrific …”
“Hamas does not care about the Palestinian people,” Ronni says. “They use civilians as human shields. I am left with the horror, the shock, the pain.”
How Ronni Kahn finds hope
Ronni Kahn’s faith in humanity has been shaken, but she is determined to find a path back to hope.
“I am the patron of an amazing organisation called New Israel Fund,” she says. “It was started 30 or 40 years ago by the Levi Strauss family and it works on civil society. It works with Palestinians and Israelis to find ways to connect, to improve society. So I have come back to be heavily involved in whatever it takes.”
“No political situation,” she wrote on Instagram at the time of the attacks, “can justify this slaughter and torture and terrorism.”
Now, she adds: “We must dig deep to find a sense of hope. We have to understand that notion of humankind. We have to be kind to ourselves and others, we have to listen, we have to learn. The only things we can hold onto are faith and hope.”
To learn how you can help civilians who have been caught in the conflict in Israel and Gaza, read The Weekly’s guide here.