Before the weekend, an invitation was sent to a WhatsApp group of a bunch of people from Sderot, Netivot, and the surrounding area [near the border with Gaza): “Good morning, heading out tomorrow morning for a 22-24 km run, leaving from Yad Mordechai”. I liked the message, indicating that I would join the ride. Naomi asked when we should meet, and 6:00AM was set. So, on Saturday, October 7th, 2023, at 05:55, three running buddies meet at the Yad Mordechai gas station.
Usually, we run in larger groups, going out with five or six people, but this time, perhaps due to this being a holiday [Sukkot], only the three of us went. We took our traditional pre-run photo, and hit the road.
After about 20-25 minutes of running, we spotted a missile launch. It was before the sirens sounded, and I told Kobi, the third runner in our group, that it was the IDF just practicing as they did last week, shooting towards the sea. He said “Practice? Look at how many missiles there are!” Indeed, we see a massive cluster of missiles ascending into the sky. We dove on to the ground beneath a somewhat isolated tree. Naomi starts saying “I’m scared, I’m scared”, and we tell her, “Of course, we’re all scared. Once the missile attack is over we’ll run back to the car. Not now, not under fire”.
We lie under the tree for a few minutes, and the missiles don’t stop. At the same time, we start hearing the Red Alert siren and alarms from the nearby towns and kibbutzim. After a few minutes, an armored IDF vehicle passed by, asking us what we’re doing here, and we said that we were out for a run. We asked the driver to take us to the road, and he said he couldn’t because he needed to get to the fence. He asked us to seek shelter. I ask if terrorists crossed the fence since the attack was very unusual. He said “No, no, no – it’s only the missiles, get yourselves into a shelter”. On this understanding, we know that about 200 meters to the west, on our familiar route, near the intersection of the trail and the road, there are large concrete blocks. Since we were in an open area, we preferred to reach the blocks to avoid being in a place without cover. We sprinted to the blocks on Route 4 at the junction between Yad Mordechai and Route 10. We hunkered down low under the concrete blocks and waited for the missile barrage to end.
At this point, we were still somewhat amused; we took photos, recorded videos, and sent them to our friends. I also shared our location with a friend from a relevant group who could come to rescue us.
After a few good minutes, the barrage still hadn’t stopped. We began to hear the sounds of shooting. It was not very close yet, but we could tell it was in the vicinity – the clinking of weapons, machine-guns and small arms. Then I said “Clearly the missiles were a decoy. There’s a terrorist ground attack, and we’re in a really bad spot – we’re completely exposed, with no place to take cover. The area is wide open…” I don’t even finish the sentence, and we hear screams from someone coming really close, followed by gunfire. We realize that it’s very close, just behind us, tens of meters, maybe one hundred or two, coming from the south, from the direction of Kibbutz Mefalsim.
I tell my friends, “We’re too high and too exposed; let’s get on the ground!” There was a protruding irrigation pipe. I told Naomi, “crawl under it, I’ll cling to you; throw some leaves on us for cover”. I hadn’t finished saying that when I saw a terrorist running between the culverts, right above us! My friend [Kobi] started running towards the west; the terrorist chased after him and fired a burst.
We could see the camouflaged uniform, the Kalashnikov, the flak jacket… a soldier in every way. The distance between the terrorist and our friend was only about 4-5 meters. When the terrorist passed between the culverts, he was at point-blank range above us: only about 3 meters separated us. He was almost stepping on us. But his attention was focused on our friend, as he ran after him.
While the terrorist was running and shooting, I was lying on my back and saw a vehicle approaching on Highway 4 from the direction of Erez Checkpoint. The vehicle turned left to the west on this access road, with many terrorists, about 8-10 of them, all armed. They were yelling to him, “Yusouf, Ta’al” – hop on in Arabic. He said “one moment” but they insisted, “Ta’al! Ta’al!” He responded, “There’s another one here”, and they say, “hop on anyway”. He didn’t get in and turned back to us. He passed over us again, at point-blank range, but didn’t see us! He continued walking.
Four more people disembarked from the jeep, and they also passed one by one between the culverts, right above us. The first one ran while the others followed. We see them at a touching distance, and they simply don’t see us! The first, the second, the third, and the fourth pass and return to the road, disappearing for a few minutes.
Naomi and I were frozen in place, trying to breathe, digest what’s happening, and realizing that we were probably well hidden, although we felt like the most exposed people in the world. We waited. Luckily, my phone, the only one we had, remained silent. I have a [smart] watch, and my phone never rings on loud. I tried to communicate with the group, but there was no reception, and so communication was not continuous. The group became frantic, everyone asking where we were, and I couldn’t answer them because there was no reception.
After a few minutes of relative quiet when I don’t hear people above us, we calmed down a bit. There were no terrorists within close range. Naomi asked, “What do we do?” I said, “The IDF will arrive shortly. They probably need half an hour to get ready, and will then come to rescue us.” Half an hour goes by, and nothing happens. An hour goes by, and still, nothing.
I told Naomi, “We didn’t move earlier, and that’s what saved us. That’s what we should continue doing”. I tried to gather more leaves and thorns for camouflage, because Naomi had bright orange running pants, and I was wearing a white running shirt, which made us stand out. It was hot, and the thorns and the ants were bothering us. I kept telling Naomi, “We shouldn’t move! If someone looks down from above, they’ll see us, and it’s crucial that they don’t”.
Two hours went by, then three… Every fifteen or twenty minutes, a vehicle passed by, and I could see that they’re either jeeps or white vehicles that appeared to be full of terrorists. They drove freely on Highway 4 as if they had complete control of the area. But this time, they cross the road, and at least they don’t walk on the culverts above us (unlike in the previous incident when we were at significant risk, with terrorists passing directly overhead). So, Naomi and I lay on our backs on the ground under some leaves and thorns for about 6 hours.
At around midday I heard a vehicle stopping at the intersection, and I peeked out. It was an Israeli vehicle with M-16 rifles and IDF soldiers. These were not terrorists. I heard some Hebrew, and we understood that they were soldiers. I stood up and shouted “IDF, we’re civilians”. They followed a protocol for apprehending a suspect. I shouted at them, “civilians, civilians, lift your shirts,” to show them that I was unarmed. Suddenly, our friend Kobi got up from the ditch nearby and asked “Are you alive?” We couldn’t believe it; we thought he was dead.
He asked if we saw that he had just rolled into the ditches behind us and hid there. The terrorist thought he had shot him. We thought the terrorist had shot him. So for five hours, we lay mere meters apart, each convinced the other was dead.
We managed to send a message to the group WhatsApp chat that the IDF had arrived: “Send messages to the families” I wrote – I was the only one with a phone. When the soldiers arrived we all felt relieved, thinking it was over; the soldiers had come to rescue us. However, as time would tell, this wasn’t the end of the story.
Six soldiers arrived in two vehicles. The officer explained that it wasn’t possible to leave at that moment. He left four soldiers to secure us while he and one other soldier went to bring reinforcements. We emerged from our hideout and sat between the culverts while the soldiers kept watch.
“It turns out it wasn’t an organized deployment; the soldiers lived nearby and were on vacation. Upon hearing what was happening, they grabbed their weapons and came to help. At this point, we understood that the situation was dire, and the terrorists had control.”
We talked to the soldiers, asked why they didn’t have helmets. It turns out it wasn’t an organized deployment; the soldiers lived nearby and were on vacation. Upon hearing what was happening, they grabbed their weapons and came to help. At this point, we understood that the situation was dire, and the terrorists had control. Erez Checkpoint had been captured, and there were clashes at Yad Mordechai.
Dense smoke slowly approached from the west. I said to my friends, “Listen, this isn’t just smoke; it’s a mask [for the terrorist activities], and that’s where terrorists will come from”. But there wasn’t much we could do with this information. The smoke gradually crept closer. At this point, there were four soldiers; three were among the culverts, and the three of us were behind the bush about a meter behind the soldiers.
That’s when we encountered it: gunfire erupted from all directions. Bullets began whizzing in every direction. It all happened terrifyingly fast. I remember a shout of “grenade”, and I heard a grenade fall and explode about a meter behind us. Everyone hit the ground, and then there was another grenade. They kept shouting, and there was constant gunfire. The soldier next to us seemed to be hit by shrapnel; he fell to the ground. One of the terrorists grazed us from the left, from the direction of the bush, so we moved out towards the south, and then a third grenade was thrown. Kobi said “I got hit, I’m bleeding; someone put on a tourniquet”. Naomi had also been hit, but she was conscious. I lay with my face in the dirt, trying to make sense of what I heard.
Kobi attempted to run south, and a burst of gunfire came from above. The terrorist who targeted us spotted Kobi, and shifted his attention in Kobi’s direction. After the burst, I heard Kobi yelling and saw him fall to the ground about four or five meters behind us. Then the terrorist turned back towards us, behind Naomi, the soldier, and me. Another grenade, more bursts of bullets… I felt like I took a bullet in the back. I have no exact idea of what happened except for the overwhelming sensation of a severe pain in my back, and I was convinced I would die in a moment. I was playing dead at that point.
Another burst of bullets was fired directly over my head, and I could feel Naomi, right next to me, her shoulder touching mine. Her convulsions and body movements left no doubt. But they shot her again to make sure she was dead. I lay there motionless, breathless, feeling that I had taken a bullet to the back through my white, bloodstained shirt. I told myself, “Now comes the gunfire to finish me as well”. I heard another burst of gunfire, and the terrorist fell two meters to my left. I assumed that the soldier to Naomi’s right, probably the one who had fired, had hit the terrorist. I heard the terrorist recite “Allahu Akbar”, and then silence.
I continued to stay still, consciously taking shallow breaths to keep my chest from rising and falling. Time passed. My fingers started to feel cold. About another half hour passed, and then close gunshots were heard again. Two or three bursts of gunfire, and in Hebrew: “Check if they’re dead; there’s another one here!” I lifted my head and saw that they were soldiers. I yelled, “Wounded, wounded, I’m wounded”. I saw my friend lying on his back behind me with his face upward in a way that left no doubt he was dead. I saw Naomi and felt her the loss of her beside me.
They lifted me into a civilian car. I heard the newly arrived soldiers asking the one who shot the terrorist if he was in a condition to continue fighting. I didn’t hear the response as I was already in the car. We sped to Yad Mordechai Junction, where several ambulances were waiting, and they transferred me to the hospital.
Throughout the evacuation, I remained conscious and kept asking the paramedic what happened to me. He tried to reassure me, “You’ll be okay”. He cut my clothes, found an entry wound, but no exit wound. My back was swollen and bleeding, but there was no exit wound. They measured my vital signs and administered fluids during the ambulance ride to the hospital. Later, it was revealed that a fragment of the missile or a shrapnel hit the subcutaneous tissue, went up my back, breaking some ribs, causing a wound and a blood flow, but didn’t penetrate further. I came out of the ordeal with broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung but otherwise unharmed.
The hospital was in chaos. I survived. I knew for certain that my two friends were not with us anymore. I told this to the person who managed the MIA and wounded branch in Sderot, who was a member of our team. I asked him to have the professionals inform the families, not me. I saw the messages in the group, and everyone was asking about my two friends. The families came to the hospital to ask about them. I told them that there was a battle, and we all got hurt, and everyone was holding onto the hope that they were missing. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it, I hope the families will forgive me. I just couldn’t.
Dedicated to the memory of our two dear friends: Neomi Shitrit Azulai, 52, wife of Yuval, and mother of 3 children. Kobi Periente, 43, husband of Sivan, father of 4 children.
Ram H., 40, Netivot.
Translated from – https://runpanel.co.il/long-run-in-yad-mordechai/