Zamir Shatz-Stewart grew up in Horowhenua. But he moved to his father’s homeland of Israel as a young adult. He spoke to Aaron Smale about waking on October 7th to another chapter in the nation’s violent history.
The sound was both familiar, but strange. Zamir Shatz-Stewart awoke to the distant whine of sirens. He started to scan the skies above his apartment in Tel Aviv, unsure what was happening and what the sirens signified. Over the coming days he and the rest of the nation of Israel – and the Palestinian people – would be faced with one of the most significant crises of its crisis-littered history.
“I originally heard sirens. It was about 6am. But it wasn’t sirens in our specific area. I heard them from a distance. You can be in one city and the sirens will be in different parts of the city, depending on where the missile might fall.”
“As soon as you hear a siren, you got straight to the shelter. I heard the sirens and I was like wait, is that a.. Is that a siren?”
“And I’m like, am I dreaming, what’s going on? And then I pop my head out the bathroom window and I’m trying to listen and hear the sirens, don’t see anything. I don’t hear any booms. Okay, this is weird. Go back to my room. I turn on the TV. My girlfriend’s like, what are you doing? I’m just like, ‘No, it’s all good. Just keep sleeping’. Turn on the TV. Nothing on the TV yet. Check the news, nothing on the news.”
“It must have been around seven or 7.30 when the huge rocket barrage began. And that’s when we all had to go to the shelter.
“Then we turned the TV on, my roommates came down, we sat down on the couch. Okay, what’s going on? More and more and more sirens. Then someone sends a video on a family WhatsApp group and we see a truck, in the video there’s a truck of terrorists with RPGs and, you know, machine guns on the back of a pickup like a Hilux, and there’s about six of them. And none of us really understand what we’re seeing, we’ve never seen something like this before. A couple minutes after, it’s on the news. We’re just like, excuse my language, but what the fuck is going on? This doesn’t seem real. And then we get more and more, more and more videos. More and more people talking about sightings of terrorists and shootouts beginning.”
The lack of information on the first day causes chaos and uncertainty, but eventually fragments of stories started filtering through as his friends tried to contact family near the border with Gaza.
“The first, even 36 hours are chaotic. Nobody knows. Nobody knows what’s going on. But it’s particularly the first 12 hours we’re all like, ‘Okay, what is going on?’ No one understood, we’re glued to the news, just in utter shock because there’s never been such a case like this. And then the whole day we’re just hearing news of of Hamas terrorists that are entering homes and shooting down people.”
Many of those in his apartment and his close friends had family in the towns and communities that were being attacked.
“My roommates and my roommate’s mate who was also staying at my apartment at the time, they’re all from the border towns around Gaza. So they have loads of friends and family there. And obviously they’re trying to get in contact with all of their friends all, of their families, some are answering some are not. There’s just this chaotic kind of chase to get in contact with everyone possible. Some we managed, some we didn’t. Other ones that we did, we lost contact with an hour, two hours later.”
The whole event has distorted his sense of time and the sequence of events, which are pock-marked with videos that started springing up on social media.
“I don’t know if it’s been a week or if it’s been months. Like there’s no real context for time. But basically like the first 24 hours, it’s just shock and chaos. I joined the telegram groups where they like post the videos before they go on to the news. And we just start seeing absolutely horrific shit.”
Shatz-Stewart says the worst images and videos coming through were actually filmed and uploaded by Hamas militants themselves.
“The biggest mistake that Hamas did is that they recorded everything. They recorded the people that they murdered, they recorded the people that they raped, they recorded the people that they hacked to pieces and kidnapped and then they uploaded it to Telegram. And then the whole world saw it.”
Despite this, there is still massive uncertainty about people who are unaccounted for.
“My mate that was staying over, his brother was at the festival where they massacred hundreds of people and kidnapped, I don’t know, dozens. To this day, he still hasn’t been found. Hasn’t been found dead, he hasn’t been reported kidnapped, we just don’t know where he is.
“I have a good mate who’s also from that area, his sister, brother-in-law, newborn niece, three of his best friend’s cousins, all wiped out, killed in their own homes, massacred in their own homes. We just kept hearing more and more stories like that.”
“There’s also a lot of heroic stories of people who defended their homes, who saved lives. Grandmas that save lives and children that save lives just through being you know, ingenious. And a lot of heroic stories of people who also lost their lives defending other people.”
Zamir says the event has dark echoes of Jewish history stretching back thousands of years, which has created a particular psyche in the nation of Israel.
“From the moment that Israel was officially declared a state we’ve basically been in a state of war.
“Israelis can have such a hard shell, like a hard outer shell. They’ve learned to kind of protect themselves because Jews have a history of being persecuted for 1000s of years, most recently, the Holocaust, and the expulsion from the Arab countries, from the Arab states. From the beginning of the State of Israel, there’s been wars for their existence, in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Constantly in the state of fighting for their existence, basically. So it does create a lot of tension, for sure. It is something that is a part of our DNA but I think a lot of people also don’t want to live like this.”
Zamir’s family share that history – one branch of his father’s family fled Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and on another branch they fled from Yemen in the 1950s when Jews were expelled. His mother is a New Zealander and also Ngati Tahu and he describes himself as a proud Kiwi and Israeli. Over the Zoom call he was wearing an All Blacks jersey on the morning of the quarterfinal with Ireland. He moved to Israel nearly 10 years ago at the age of 18 and now works in the tech sector for an NGO.
His Jewish grandfather was involved in some of the defining conflicts of the Middle East.
“My grandfather fought in the 1967 war so that’s the six day war, he fought in the Yom Kippur war. He was an officer in the paratroopers. He fought mostly in the north in the Golan. And he was also in the Secret Service. So he had a very rich history and he was a beautiful, beautiful human being.”
“But the thing is, everybody here has a grandfather that fought in a war or a father that fought in a war or an uncle that fell in a war here. It’s unfortunately a part of our life.”
He says the latest events are part of a tragic and violent history that looks set to continue, and although the majority on both sides want peace, the complex and violent history is unravelling again. He says the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians just want to live their lives in peace.
“We all just want to live in peace. The thing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that each side is 100 percent sure that they’re right. And while I’m inclined to say that the Israeli side is right, there are truths to every side. And it’s not black and white, the situation, the history is not black and white. The history of it is much more complex.
“People have chosen sides and it’s hard to get them to move to the middle.
“Ideally, there would be two states that could live side by side. Arabs as a people, Muslims as a people I have no problem. I want to live in peace. I have Arab friends, Muslim friends.
“How realistic is it? How far gone are we? I don’t know when we’re going to get out of this and how we’re going to get out of this. The trauma that has been caused is so, so deep that I don’t know if and when it would be possible.”
He says Hamas is a terrorist organisation that has committed these atrocities. But he says Israel was exposed by internal conflicts within Israeli society before the latest attack which many Israelis, including himself, blamed on Benyamin Netanyahu. There were protests at Netanyahu’s attempts to change the structure of the courts which led to major protests and divisions, even within the army. For now those divisions have been put aside.
“There was basically a real tear within society. There were fears of civil war. And now that we’re faced with this almost existential threat, those who were fighting with each other two months ago and yelling at each other two months ago, are fighting hand in hand.
“There’s going to be massive soul searching. Bibi, who was longest serving Prime Minister, he’s the reason for the recent protests. He’s done. After this war, he’s done. It’s such an utter and complete failure on the side of the military, on the side of the government.
“There’s gonna be some real soul searching, we’ve been probably sleeping at the wheel. Israel is a powerhouse, in terms of economy, in terms of high tech, in terms of military. And we missed this one. We missed this one.”
He says that failure is now going to lead to a costly ground war that will hurt both Israelis and Palestinians.
“A ground invasion is for sure. It’s almost certain that it’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when. There’s hundreds of hostages, including a lot of foreign nationals. It’s gonna be costly for both sides.
“It’s gonna take a long time because the ground invasion of Gaza is very complicated. It’s not like a field war, this is inside an urbanised setting.”
He said the trauma people are going through is beyond comprehension.
“Two of my best friends are from these villages on the border and they have dozens of people if not hundreds of people that were murdered. They can barely talk to me. They’re just shadows of what they used to be. You can’t talk to them, it’s like talking to a wall, they’re absolutely and utterly devastated.”
Despite this he has a desire, even a faint hope, that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace.
“I have to have hope. I have at least a desire to still live with them in peace. I want their children to go be doctors and musicians and farmers and just go to the beach and live their life.”