An Israeli and a Gazan find comfort in friendship amid Gaza war

TEL AVIV — Barak Heymann had been waiting for a sign of life for two days. He lay awake in a bed that wasn’t his, thinking about a person he had never met. She still didn’t respond.

Every morning and every evening when the Israeli filmmaker Om Ayan messaged the young Palestinian woman in Gaza, he feared it would be the last time. He started typing.

“Are you okay somehow???????? he wrote at 1:15 am on October 28.

One check mark. No answer.

They had met online in 2019, after Heymann donated to a fund that helped Om Ayan’s father receive cancer treatment in the West Bank. and stayed in touch over the years. They knew the names of each other’s parents and children, had shared photos of their homes and hobbies. It was just a friendship, both said, never romantic. But it was Heymann’s only window into Gaza and Om Ayan’s only contact with an Israeli.

The horrors of October 7 and the conflict in Gaza brought them closer together, each finding in the other a refuge from grief and isolation. Heymann, a peace activist who felt increasingly lonely in wartime Israel, knew that someone in Gaza understood him. Om Ayan, who was under siege and bombardment, knew that someone in Israel was thinking of her.

Om Ayan, 28, shared her story on the condition that she be identified by a nickname, out of fear for her family’s safety.

It was strange, Heymann said, to feel so connected to her. Yet here he was, wondering again if she was still breathing.

“My love? Are you there??????? Please send me a sign of life, please,” he had written two days earlier. They always texted in English.

“I’m alive, don’t worry,” she had replied. “We are not doing well.”

Heymann, 48, had already lost people in Israel. Should he mourn her too?

On October 7, it was Om Ayan who was the first to send a text message.

(Video: The Washington Post)

Before the war, they had messaged sporadically, when their busy lives allowed, sending family updates, photos and congratulations.

“I hope this will be the start of a beautiful new year for you,” she wrote on January 1, 2023.

In May, her husband received a permit to work in Israel. Her daughter Aylin had just been born.

“Send me his number and I will call him,” Heymann wrote. “Also – I’ll give him children’s clothes.”

“At the most basic level, we are both parents of young children,” he said, sitting in his airy Jaffa loft on a bright, warm December day.

“We both shared the feeling of a lack of humanity around us,” Heymann said. “So I think we find comfort in each other.”

It was a friendship he rarely mentioned in conversations with other Israelis. After Hamas militants and allied fighters poured into southern Israel on October 7 – killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages into Gaza – he hesitated even to mention it.

Heymann had a high school classmate who was shot in front of her children. The father of a close friend was taken hostage by Hamas.

Many Israelis, shocked and traumatized, felt that no one from Gaza could be trusted. Social media called for revenge for the killing of everyone in Gaza. He was worried about Om Ayan: “It was the first thing I thought of.”

The vitriol was no surprise. It was a familiar hatred. “When you grow up in Israel, they put in your blood, they put in your veins since you are zero years old, that everyone is against you,” Heymann said. “Especially Arabs.”

But there were people who resisted, and he had found a sense of community among them. Now some activists with whom he had protested and fought for peace turned their backs on the movement.

“There are so many good reasons for the Israeli Jewish people to be afraid for their lives right now, and to be full of hatred, anger and the sense of revenge,” he said. “It is natural.”

“To ask or wish or demand that people in such a condition also have compassion and mercy for the Palestinian people in Gaza … is unfortunately quite a big ask,” he said. “And I will continue to fight to change their minds.”

Heymann has Palestinian flags stored in his home, which he took with him for peace marches; he would take photos of the demonstrations and send them to Om Ayan.

His children attend an Israeli-Palestinian bilingual school. He already hopes that his 9-year-old son will refuse mandatory military service, even if it means going to prison. On his bathroom tiles are stickers with the same message in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “Democracy and occupation cannot coexist.”

On the afternoon of October 16, Heymann’s friends called him concerned. He had posted on Facebook that while nothing could justify Hamas’ attack, Israel bore some responsibility for blockading Gaza and denying basic human rights to the Palestinians.

His name, photo and home address were posted on right-wing Telegram channels, people told him. It took him two weeks to tell his partner, who was out of the country with their children.

But he told Om Ayan the same day.

(Video: The Washington Post)

He left his home and stayed at a friend’s apartment, where he lay awake that October night praying for a response from her.

More than 24 hours later his phone rang.

“They shut down the internet in the Gaza Strip for two days. He just came back but we can’t charge the phone,” her message read.

Shortly after October 7, as airstrikes ravaged northern Gaza, Om Ayan wrapped her seven-month-old daughter, stifled her screams, and grabbed a milk bottle and a lollipop, vaccination papers and medical records. She was two months pregnant with her second child.

Before leaving her apartment in Gaza City, she grabbed the key, not knowing if she would ever need it again.

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 28,000 people have been killed in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, including many women and children.

She fled to her mother’s house in Khan Younis, where she was born. Water, milk and food for her family were difficult to obtain. By the time she messaged Heymann, she hadn’t showered in more than two weeks.

Om Ayan kept her communications with him secret.

“It is difficult to explain to the Arabs here that you are talking to an Israeli,” she said. “[They] may think you are betraying your country and sharing security news with him.”

In reality, she asked if he could send her some money so she could afford flour, a tent, and some medicine. And she asked how he was doing, about the health of his mother and children.

When fighting escalated in her hometown, she took her family further south to Rafah, where she and her daughter, husband and his three children from a previous marriage were crammed into one tent. The rain poured down, soaking their nylon walls. Om Ayan told Heymann on December 15 that she was concerned about her health.

(Video: The Washington Post)

He was on his way to a demonstration in Tel Aviv when she messaged him. Thousands of Israelis had gathered to call for the release of hostages and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Heymann was one of the few demonstrators who called for an end to the war.

Bystanders shouted insults them.

(Video: The Washington Post)

On December 30, Om Ayan escaped from Gaza. Her brother had citizenship of another country and applied to get his relatives out. The paperwork arrived after weeks of waiting.

“There is hope, maybe soon you will get out of this nightmare?!?! I pray for you constantly,” Heymann wrote when he found out.

But the departure brought its own suffering for Om Ayan, who asked that her current location not be made public for security reasons. Her husband’s three older children were not allowed to come and had to stay behind with their aunts in Rafah. They were already sick from sleeping outside in the cold. Her husband was crying.

She wrote to Heymann the day she crossed the border.

“I am safe now. I escaped death from the Israeli bombings.”

“Fantastic fantastic!” he cheered in a ballot. “Wow, I’m so glad you’re gone.”

“My sisters and children are still being bombed there,” she said. “😭😭”

“I pray for them, dear,” he replied.

Now, in her own strange apartment, Om Ayan reaches out for her daughter in the middle of the night, as she did during the nights under bombardment. Doctors tell her she has high blood pressure, which could jeopardize her pregnancy. Try to relax, they tell her. But she is glued to the news, terrified for those still trapped in Gaza.

Heymann raised money for her family to help them adjust to their new life. He continues to attend peace meetings and sometimes brings his son along.

When are partner and children left Israel for the winter, he decided to stay.

“It’s my memories and it’s my language and it’s my food,” he said. “I will always fight to make it a better place.”

Om Ayan feels the same pull of home, but her house is destroyed. She doesn’t know if she can ever go back. But she hopes that one day she can meet her Israeli friend.

“Just to look him in the eye,” she said, “would be nice.”

Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

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