Cruel Deja Vu: To Be Ukrainian In Israel When Hamas Attacks
Among the victims of the recent conflict in Israel are many Ukrainian citizens who fled the Russian invasion and are now finding themselves at the center of another war.
The Oct. 7 attack, with a series of deadly rocket attacks from Gaza and Hamas militants entering Israeli territory to kill civilians and take hostages, has shocked the entire nation. Yet among the frightened Israeli population were some who had seen and felt another invasion less than two years earlier.
They are the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who had relocated to Israel to escape the war between Russia and Ukraine. At least 13 Ukrainian citizens have been reported dead since the conflict began.
The Ukrainian embassy in Israel organized evacuation flights to Romania, which were taken up by some 500 Ukrainians.
Ukrainian news site Pravda spoke to three Ukrainian women living in Israel to discuss their experiences during the initial days of this new war.
No one was ready for war
Svitlana Korobochkina, who originally hails from Avdiivka, Ukraine, moved to Israel in March 2022 with her two children, a 5-year-old son, and a 9-year-old daughter. She initially moved abroad prior to Russia’s invasion, hoping to return when the situation deescalated. But when Russia did invade and it became clear that this was to be a long war, Svitlana and her family relocated to Israel.
On the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, when the Gaza Strip initiated an attack on Israel, Svitlana and her children were in Arad, a southern Israeli city where air strikes were uncommon. They had returned from a vacation the day before and had stopped over at a friend's house. At 6:30 in the morning, they were awakened by sirens.
"It was the first siren in my life that made me wake up with such a fright,” she said. “My friends rent a house without a shelter, so we ran to the general shelter outside, which was closed as no one had been prepared. Generally, in Israel, we are usually warned in advance by the authorities when shelling begins, but this time, we didn't receive any advance notice."
People who also sought refuge in the closed shelter that morning managed to find the keys and open it. Svitlana and her friends stayed there for about an hour and a half.
"At first, we didn't understand the scale of what was happening, because rocket fire is not something unusual for Israel. It's unpleasant, it's uncomfortable, it's stressful, but you know, it happens sometimes. In general, once a year, for sure, sometimes twice a year."
Banning TikTok for the kids
It was only after reading the news about Hamas militants entering the country that Svitlana fully realized the danger and understood that this was a war, not just an escalation of conflict.
Israel has a Home Service, an organization that provides recommendations on how to act during air raids and emergency situations. Israel is divided into three zones: red, yellow, and green, depending on their proximity to the Gaza Strip, each having different rules and restrictions.
We Ukrainians have faced similar challenges before.
Svitlana currently resides in the red zone, which is considered the most dangerous. In the red zone, not all educational institutions are open, and since Oct. 15, students have shifted to online education. Teachers have been creating manuals and providing parents with materials on how to discuss the war with their children.
Svitlana has imposed a moratorium on her children's use of social networks, particularly banning TikTok, which is also recommended by Israeli teachers due to Hamas militants sharing distressing videos on the platforms.
State institutions and medical facilities are primarily offering emergency to wounded soldiers and civilians. Planned check-ups and operations have been cancelled, and many shops and restaurants are closed. Food shops remain open, but there have been shortages of essential items such as bread, milk, and eggs.
Svitlana's children boarding a plane
Different from a distance
Svitlana mentioned that her experience during the war in Ukraine, where she remotely coordinated evacuations of citizens from Kyiv, makes her feel more stable and confident than many Israelis who have not experienced a major conflict for decades.
“When you observe a war from a distance (without being physically present in the country),” she says, “it's a deeply traumatic experience. When you actively assist in any capacity, you become deeply involved in the process, and it can be quite challenging. In my case, experiencing the war in Israel feels somewhat more manageable than for those who haven't encountered a significant conflict for five decades. This situation is entirely new to them, and they are understandably in a state of shock. While I'm also shocked by the circumstances, reading about various initiatives and discussions among Israelis sometimes brings a wry smile to my face, because we Ukrainians have faced similar challenges before."
One of the most distressing aspects of Hamas’s war against Israel for Svitlana and Israelis, in general, is the issue of hostages. It is widely understood that the hostages are subjected to abuse and brutal treatment.
“It's too painful for me to even contemplate, as it brings tears to my eyes instantly. I recently came across a heart-wrenching message from a father who, for the first time since the start of the war, managed to smile. He had received the news that his daughter was found dead, ending a period of uncertainty when she was missing and he had feared she might be held hostage. Capture was worse than death, he had said.”
Svitlana wants to stay in Israel. “Of course, there are certain caveats that would force me to leave, such as a lack of food and water. As long as those essentials are available, I'm not going anywhere — I’ll be volunteering. "
Plane tickets to anywhere
Oleksandra Chernyakhivska relocated from Kyiv to Israel in 2021. She began studying for a master's degree in Diplomacy, and after Feb. 2022 began work as a researcher on the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Oleksandra’s initial awareness of the Israel-Hamas war's outbreak came from the news. Residing in the city of Haifa, which is quite distant from the Gaza Strip, she noticed the streets were eerily empty on Oct. 7. However, she attributed this emptiness to the fact that it was a Saturday, a day of observance for Shabbat in the Jewish calendar, when people tend not to work — it was not necessarily a cause for concern.
The Ukrainian embassy told me to find my own way out
Reflecting on the situation, Oleksandra mentioned, "On Saturday I had had a session with a psychologist. We didn't even discuss the topic of the war, because we didn’t realize that things were that serious. It only became clear later in the evening."
On the third day of the war, on Monday, Oleksandra and her boyfriend decided to leave the country.
"It was not clear which airlines we could take. I called the Ukrainian embassy; they told me to find my own way out... We read that Israeli airlines were still offering flights. We started looking for tickets anywhere, to Cyprus, to Turkey, for example, they were the cheapest, but while we were entering our details, someone else bought the tickets.”
The Ukrainian embassy said that the only way out was to fly. The pedestrian and car borders were already closed, and even if they were to open, the embassy did not advise using them.
Tel Aviv was the only international airport still open. The city was being shelled, and there was a risk that the airport could also be hit, but there was no other way to get out of the country.
"This is one of the reasons why I decided to leave. The situation is very intense in Israel right now, a very historic moment. And if the situation worsens significantly with the Tel Aviv airport or in the country in general, there will be no options for leaving," Sasha explained.
On Oct. 9, the couple managed to buy a ticket for the morning of Oct. 11.
"When we were going to the airport, we were the only people on the bus. The driver turned on the radio at full volume and we listened to Biden’s speech. The atmosphere was tense to say the least."
At the airport, people were sitting or resting on the floor, ready to secure last minute flight tickets. A substantial number had had their flights cancelled.
People flew anywhere they could — the most important thing was to leave.
"Our flight was delayed by 40 minutes. It was scary to take off on a passenger plane when you knew rockets or bombs could go off at any minute.”
Oleksandra is currently in Switzerland, looking for a job and preparing to continue her studies.
"From the very beginning, I sensed an overwhelming sense of support from fellow Ukrainians. When I arrived in Europe, I realized that there were many people who were ready to help me out."
Oleksandra says that the Israelis she knows feel broken and confused. Many are working as volunteers.
"Watching the Ukrainian community in Israel is unbelievable. They exhibit remarkable determination and seem highly motivated. There's an optimism among them, a belief that things will turn out well. When the initial siren went off in Haifa, people described it as a 'baptism of fire.' Ukrainians are incredibly resilient people," Oleksandra said
Oleksandra doing a presentation at the University of Haifa
Ukrainian and Jewish heritage
Alla Sterndok, along with her husband and three children, made the decision to relocate to Israel in the wake of the full-scale war in Ukraine. Given their Jewish heritage, when Russian troops targeted the Kyiv region, the couple had no hesitation about their destination.
"We didn't want our children to assimilate into just any European country,” Alla said. “It was crucial for us to maintain both our Ukrainian and Jewish heritage.”
The first air raid siren in Israel caught the Sterndock family while they were on the road. Alla, accompanied by her children, was traveling in a car. Despite her prior experience with missile alarms in Ukraine, "when the anxiety set in,” she said, “we became somewhat disoriented, and I wasn't sure how to respond."
That feeling of waking up once more in a dreadful nightmare, and struggling to believe what’s going on.
Alla reflects that as the war began in Israel, she experienced a sense of déjà vu, with everything unfolding bearing striking resemblance to the onset of the conflict in Ukraine. Back then, her family resided in the Svyatoshyn district of Kyiv, in close proximity to Bucha and Irpen.
"There was undoubtedly a strong sense of déjà vu — that feeling of waking up once more in a dreadful nightmare, and struggling to believe what’s going on. I recall all those news reports. You read them and think, 'No, this can't be happening.'"
Time to unite
Because Israel has a history of conflict and frequent missile threats, the country has established a comprehensive shelter system. Moreover, from an early age, children receive instruction on how to act and where to seek refuge during air raids. There is also a strong emphasis on addressing the psychological well-being of children.
"Almost every house has a bomb shelter here. In new buildings, it's like a separate room in an apartment, which is specially built from solid poured concrete. It has special metal windows that close. There is special ventilation and metal doors that are very thick and close tightly.”
One of the most distressing aspects for Alla is witnessing the acts of brutality committed by Hamas militants.
"It seems to me that Hamas has surpassed the Russian army. They are definitely more brutal, and I try not to watch the news. It appears that they deliberately film these acts. This aligns with the strategy of these terrorist groups — to instill fear and terror."
“I think that it is important for Ukraine and Israel to unite, because after all, the terrorist enemy is the same, albeit with a different accent."
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