November 19, 2023 – By Hana Ikramuddin, Staff writer
Nir Shani pauses as he talks about his son, Amit, who was kidnapped out of his home by Hamas on October 7, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 in Houston. Nir Shani lived in Houston for a few months.Elizabeth Conley/Staff Photographer
Nir Shani felt a strange sense of relief when he learned that Hamas militants had kidnapped his son and held him hostage.
More than 1,200 had died during the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, which left Shani fighting for his life, but knowing that his son, Amit Shani, was taken meant he might still be alive.
Nir Shani talks about his son, Amit, who was kidnapped out of his home by Hamas on October 7, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 in Houston. Nir Shani lived in Houston for a few months.
Shani and his family have not heard from Amit since he became one of about 240 Israeli and foreign hostages from towns near the Gaza Strip. The Israel-Hamas war has prompted global protests while U.S. Congress debates sending more aid to Israel.
Shani, meanwhile, is focused on his son, a quiet kid with a messy room who was abducted from Be’eri Kibbutz. Amit turned 16 two weeks after the attacks, but his father said the family could not celebrate.
“I don’t even think that he could celebrate it by himself because (we think) he is held underground. He hasn’t seen the daylight for more than a month,” Shani said.
Ella Shani talks about the day Hamas attacked her kibbutz on October 7 in Israel while visiting Houston with the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 in Houston. Shani’s father was killed and her cousin, Amit, was taken hostage.
Shani, along with Amit’s cousin Ella Shani, 14, visited Houston after the attack to spread awareness about the hostages who remain in Gaza. The Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest coordinated the visit.
Shani, 47, lived in Houston for six months in the 1990s, working in an ice cream truck and exploring the city, but has spent most of his life in the Be’eri Kibbutz as a physiotherapist. A kibbutz is a planned community in Israel based on farming and communal living, typically associated with left-wing politics.
A safe room door, designed to protect against bombs, was Shani’s only defense against Hamas militants, who were trying to enter as he fought to keep the door closed the morning of Oct. 7, he said. He said he could hear the footsteps of militants on his roof. Soon, his house became engulfed in flames.
Shani said his son was kidnapped from his ex-wife’s house. Militants accessed the safe room where his three children and ex-wife were hiding nearby and took Amit hostage, he said.
He said his phone’s flashlight illuminated smoke pouring into the safe room from the vents above him. He survived for 10 hours in the house, breathing through a pillowcase and covering gaps along the door with a towel to keep out the smoke, even as the house lit on fire a second time. Shani eventually went to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Ella said she found out Hamas took Amit hostage that night. She had fled to Tel Aviv to escape the violence after being rescued. She “broke down” on the bus, worrying about her father, who died in the attack.
“It felt like I lost connection with all of my family, and I started thinking that the worst has happened,” Ella said. “When we were told that Amit was kidnapped, we didn’t hear ‘Amit is kidnapped.’ We heard ‘Amit is alive.’”
As of Thursday, Hamas and Israeli leaders were considering a proposal to release 50 women and children held by Hamas in exchange for a brief pause in fighting, release of women and children held in Israeli prisons and additional humanitarian aid to Gaza, according to the Washington Post.
Daniel Lifshitz visited Houston to talk about his experience after the attacks. He spent most of his childhood in Nir Oz Kibbutz, where militants killed a quarter of its people and took others hostage. Lifshitz said Hamas took his grandparents hostage but released his grandmother. He said he has not heard from his grandfather since then.
Hamas held his grandmother in tunnels for 15 days after taking her from her home on Oct. 7 and separating her from Lifshitz’s grandfather. Lifshitz said he believed she was released because she got sick. She was left to navigate her way out of the tunnels alone.
“What happened in the kibbutz was (more than) six and a half or seven hours — the army wasn’t there, nobody came there,” Lifshitz said. “They left before the army came.”
The Guardian reports an eight-hour gap between when Hamas militants arrived and when Israeli soldiers came.
He said he hoped that the Israeli government would do “everything, from releasing all the prisoners, to do any cease-fire, to do anything that’s possible” to obtain the release of the hostages.
The Palestinian Youth Movement and the Houston Democratic Socialists of America planned a rally for Friday at U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher’s office to demand a cease-fire. The Palestinian Youth Movement was not available for comment.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict since Oct. 7, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which stopped publishing updates after Shifa Hospital in Gaza City lost electricity. Israeli airstrikes have damaged hospitals, more than half of which are inoperable as fuel runs out. Israeli military forces on Wednesday entered Shifa Hospital, the Gaza Strip’s largest medical facility, where officials say they are targeting Hamas militants, according to the Washington Post.
The death toll represents 0.5 percent of all people in Gaza, and most of those killed have been women or children, according to the World Health Organization. More than two-thirds of the Gaza Strip population of 2.3 million have been displaced. Gaza entered its fourth blackout Thursday, cutting off Palestinians from communicating with one another or the outside world.
Ella recounted seeing mutilated bodies as she fled in her slippers. She recounted this scene while looking at a picture of Amit at the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest on Wednesday.
“Why isn’t he home? It doesn’t make any sense because he should be home, and he’s 16. Why does a 16-year-old boy need to be away from his home for over a month?” Ella said. “It shouldn’t be acceptable in any way, and we’ve got to do something to spread the message.”