Like so many victims of October 7, Danielle Aloni was visiting family in the south with her six-year-old daughter Emilia. She was visiting Nir Oz, a kibbutz that I have been to twice in the past few weeks. Of the 400 residents, 100 were either killed or taken into the terrifying Hamas tunnels as hostages.
The surviving residents have been living in hotels in Eilat and have just recently been moved to their more permanent temporary dwellings. They will live in six apartment buildings in Kiryat Gat, south-central Israel. In a moving gesture, hundreds of local residents lined the streets to welcome them into their community. Kibbutz life is different than anything you could understand. Every decision is by vote. They move as a unit. When you join a kibbutz, there is a long testing process, and you must be accepted into the community. Keeping them together was a state priority.
Danielle Aloni, however, is not a “kibbutznik” but was enjoying the holiday with her sister and her family. However, what was supposed to be a joyful last day of Sukkot was marred by the worst terror attack in Israel’s history in the early hours of October 7. After a barrage of rocket fire, terrorists broke into the kibbutz.
She and Emilia (her daughter) took cover in the mamad (safe room) with her sister, Sharon, brother-in-law David, and their twin daughters. They received a WhatsApp message from the kibbutz group about the danger and assumed (like all of us watching the news) that it was only a few terrorists. Sharon was sure the Kibbutz’s security team would deal with it. But the kibbutz was overrun with Hamas operatives.
Danielle took her daughter and held her, rocking back and forth, saying, “God, save us. God, save us.”
“The main question,” said Aloni, “was, ‘Where’s the army? Where’s the army?’” This is a question that Israelis are still trying to figure out. We know that on this particular kibbutz, the more well-trained terrorists blocked the roads into the kibbutz for hours.
“They broke in like animals yelling, ‘Allah hu Akbar.’” She said they began to tear the house apart, with only a door between them and Hamas. They were absolutely terrified, but then suddenly, the noise dissipated. A few minutes went by before they realized the house was now on fire.
David was able to escape with one of the twins. As smoke filled the room, she hugged her daughter and said, “I am sorry. We are going to die.” This was six hours after they entered the safe room. She hugged her sister and told her to send their parents a farewell message. I can’t even imagine—to know you are about to die. But they didn’t!
Danielle herself wrote a message at 11 AM on October 7 to her family:
“They’re burning our house down. The terrorists have broken in. They tried shooting at us and Sharon. Sharon and David tried shutting the door, and they are setting the house on fire. We’re burning up inside. We’re burning up. If we come out—they shoot us. If we stay inside, we burn. The smoke is getting inside the room. This is it. There’s shooting outside. We are going to die either way. This is it; we are going to die.”
Sharon wrote: "Guys, I'm sorry, they're burning down our hallway, all the smoke is getting into our safe room, we probably won't get out of this, we love you."
Smoke filled the room, and her daughter said, “Mommy, I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
They decided it was a quicker death to be shot by the terrorists than to die from smoke inhalation or to be burned to death. “I had to choose our deaths, which death would be easier, quicker.” They opened the window expecting to be shot. “I waited for the barrage.” But they weren’t shot. Instead, terrorists pulled them out. Half a dozen of them stood outside, aiming their guns at them. They would find out later that Sharon’s husband, David, and the other twin were abducted as well.
Danielle noticed very quickly that her sister Sharon was gone. They separated them very quickly and she was still with Sharon’s other twin. They put them on a golf cart that they had stolen from the kibbutz and started driving. As they went to the Orchard, she realized what was happening, “I’m being kidnapped into Gaza, along with two little girls.”
As she was taken to Gaza, she couldn’t believe how many civilians from Gaza were going in and out of Israel. The video shows them elated, screaming Allah hu Akbar. Inside the truck was a soldier who was dying. Blood was dripping onto the girls’ legs. Danielle covered their eyes. Several men punched her three or four times each. Each time she encountered a male Arab, he would punch her several times in the face.
“There are still no words in Hebrew to describe this horror; new words need to be invented to describe what happened there. I was sure it was a lynching.” She wondered, “Are they going to kill us [or] rape us?” It never entered her mind that she was going to be kidnapped.
They took Sharon’s daughter, Emma, from her, and Danielle shouted in Arabic, “Binti, binti (my daughter, my daughter),” as they did not know it was her niece. The terrorist gestured that she should be quiet, and they were separated from her niece.
“They took us down tunnels,” said Aloni. It was like a prison. She said it was total darkness in the passageways. It was “insanely humid” in the tunnel. They were wet all the time from sweat and could not shower. It was hard to breathe.
Danielle said as they took the jewelry off of her, they touched and groped her. “And so begins our 49-day ordeal. Emalia and I were all alone.” They walked for hours, barefoot at gunpoint through tunnels. She passed a wounded soldier, young Israelis in handcuffs, and Thai workers in handcuffs. Many people from Thailand find work on Israel's farms. She encountered many other shocked and wounded hostages. They had no medical care. Some of them had already witnessed their family members being murdered.
There were 12-13 of them crammed into a room about five feet wide with other hostages and mattresses next to each other. Her daughter fell asleep. The different hostages asked about their relatives. Danielle thought her sister Sharon might be dead. They also asked the kidnappers for information on their relatives. Eventually, they told her that her sister was being kept in a hospital.
She described the tunnel network of Gaza as an underground city. For 20 years, Hamas has stolen aid money, and instead of building an economy, they built an underground terror network.
After three days, they moved her and her daughter. Each time they would relocate, it was spontaneous and sudden. Her first relocation was to a new hideout apartment in total darkness. There are armed guards walking around them all the time in the apartment. The couch was 6 feet long and stacked with weapons. Within an hour, they began to hear that the Israeli Air Force was bombing Gaza. Underground, they heard nothing. Even though it has been over a month since they were released, Emilia still puts her hands on her head every time she hears a loud noise. “Every noise triggers and annoys what she remembers.” This is something that every Israelis live with. We all mistake the normal sounds of life for sirens, the Iron Dome, interceptions, or Hamas rockets. “To this day [Emilia] asks, ‘Are there bad guys here?’”
Not long after that, they make their way to their next hiding place. Talking was forbidden, they whispered. Permission was needed to do anything, such as going to the bathroom.
She told her daughter, “They took all the most special children and put them in this place to protect them from these booms outside. You see, the booms happen outside, but they don’t happen here.” The booms were the Israeli bombardment. “I trusted the IDF; I knew that we’re being saved—that they’d save us… it’s only a matter of time until we get out of here.”
In tears, Aloni recounts telling Emilia, “‘You’ll see, every day that we’re here gets us closer to being released. For every day we’re here, you get to choose a gift.’ And when she’d forget, I’d remind her, ‘You didn’t choose a gift today.’ I had to convey strength to her.”
“Every day, I would take a moment in the day—Emilia next to me—and I would start praying to God, ‘Listen to the voice of a girl,’ and praying for our return … and I would ask my daughter to repeat every sentence after me.” As they talked among themselves, they thought they might be in captivity anywhere from two months to two years. When one of the elders of the kibbutz said two to three months, she started crying. “In what reality do children stay in captivity?” asked Aloni.
One of the more shocking parts of the interview was that Danielle had no idea what happened on October 7. Only towards the end of captivity did she hear a rumor from one of the guards that 1200 to 1400 people were killed. Before that, she had no idea. She didn’t believe it. How? Certainly not from rocket fire; we have the Iron Dome. It never entered her mind that 3000 terrorists had broken through the border fence and committed mass murder.
Three days before her release, a Hamas official came to her and said that she would be released with her child as soon as there was a cease-fire in effect. As part of their psychological warfare, they told her it would happen the next day. When it did not, she was crushed. She stopped believing it would ever happen. But then, on a Friday, they were released. Her captors came and told her to get up, and they began to move. They came out of the tunnel and were put in a vehicle, blindfolded.
They eventually took the blindfold off, and when they arrived at the meeting point with the Red Cross, they were surrounded by hundreds of Gazans. She was terrified. She thought, despite surviving everything she had survived, now they were going to die. They attacked “the Red Cross vehicles and were shaking vehicles like animals. I was sure the vehicle would turn over. Emilia was getting hysterical, screaming, ‘They’re killing us! They’re killing us!’”
As a mother, she found strength that she did not know she had. She passed the greatest test of her life—she did not give up hope. When asked what kept her going, she didn’t hesitate, “The child, the child—having to look after my child.”
When asked why she was willing to be interviewed now when she wasn’t before, she said that it had been almost 100 days. There are people in really bad shape. She said that they were there 55 days and “left there as broken people.” She laments the conditions in captivity and wonders what kind of food and medical attention those who are still there are receiving. “We can’t! We can’t leave anyone there for even another day because they’ll return as bodies, not as hostages.”
She was asked, “How do you recover from such an ordeal?”
“You choose life every day I knew. You’re enveloped by family and friends. My thankfulness began there, for every day we survived, for every day that my child had something to eat, for every day we didn’t die there.”