Ariel Ein-Gal expected to find safety in America after narrowly escaping Hamas’ bullets on Oct. 7, so the news that a Pro-Israel protestor died at a Thousand Oaks rally rattled the already shell-shocked survivor.
One week after Paul Kessler suffered a fatal wound at the corner of Thousand Oaks Blvd. and Westlake Blvd, Ein-Gal visited the site to share his personal story of survival, honor a friend who was killed in Israel, and express a plea for unity.
“The reason that I am here is to help the Jewish community be more united and give them strength by telling them what I’ve been through,” said Ein-Gal, 26. “I hope to give them courage to not be afraid, to not hide their Stars of David or take down their mezuzah and to just be themselves.”
A shadow of fear has cloaked the local Jewish community since Kessler died on Nov. 5 following a confrontation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Authorities said he fell backwards and stuck his head on the ground. An investigation is ongoing and while a suspect has been identified, no arrests have been made.
“What happened to Paul Kessler is a tragedy and it may indeed end up being a crime,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, who joined Ein-Gal at the memorial on Sunday.
“Everyone’s still very anxious about what’s going to happen, but in the meantime we want to project a message of unity, peace and have a rejection of violence in our town, in our state and in our county,” he said. “Let’s not let Hamas spread those seeds of hate deeper into our backyard.”
Ein-Gal emphasized the importance of bravery and illuminated the key role courage played in enabling him to be among the lucky survivors on Oct. 7. He also expressed sincere thanks to two of his Bedouin Muslim friends, who live in the South of Israel, and played a pivotal role in their group’s escape.
For Ein-Gal, like thousands of other Israeli citizens and residents, the attack came entirely out of the blue.
He had been camping with several friends on Zikim Beach, less than two miles from the Gaza border. Most of them worked at a bar in his hometown of Be’er Sheva, about 50 miles from Zikim, and had come to the beach to celebrate the end of the season and the Jewish New Year.
Ein-Gal recalled how he was suddenly jolted awake at 6 a.m. by loud banging and sirens. Hundreds of rockets were coming in their direction, he said.
He and his friends frantically tried to find a shelter, but the wide-open beach left them dangerously exposed. Then they saw the terrifying sight of Hamas militant boats approaching from seemingly every direction, he said.
“They killed everyone that was on shore, they killed fathers and sons, they killed lovers, they killed soldiers, fishermen who had come to this beach for 40 years,” he said. “They killed everyone.”
He and his friends managed to flee to a nearby military base where they sheltered from the rockets and gunfire for a few hours.
The girls in the group were horrified and crying, he said. But for Ein-Gal, who had completed his mandatory military service in 2018, there was no room for terror and he immediately jumped into defense mode and began planning an escape.
As the sound of gun fire came closer and closer, the group decided to make a break for their cars and flee deeper into Israel. They drove as fast as they could until they encountered a police car with a dead body of an officer.
“When we got closer to it the police officer suddenly woke up with an AK 47 and started firing us,” he said. “We discovered he was a Hamas terrorist. We had gotten into an ambush and his friends started shooting at us, too.”
The group managed to drive away with two friends sustaining non-fatal bullet wounds. Along the route, they discovered the bullet-riddled car of a friend who was not so lucky.
Mor Gabbay had left the party just before the attack started to drive home to her mother. She never made it.
Ein-Gal credits his group’s survival, in part, to their two Bedouin Muslim friends who urged them not to stop at the sight of the police car and drive fast as the bullets started flying at them.
“This is the proof that Hamas doesn’t care if you’re Jewish, if you’re Muslim, if you’re Israeli, they just want to kill everyone and that day they killed at least 15 other Muslims in Zakim,” he said. “The two Bedouins, they saved my life.”
“I would not be here without them.”
His story riveted the crowd of listeners and provoking shudders of horror and tears of grief.
On the street corner, over one hundred Pro-Israel community members continued to chant, pray and wave flags by Kessler’s memorial. A symbolic children’s dinner table was established next to the memorial with an empty seat or high chair for each of the children and babies taken hostage by Hamas.
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Lisa Siboni, an Israeli-American resident of Agoura Hills who lost several friends on Oct. 7, said she and her friends organized the table and publicized the rally. She was honored to have Ein-Gal in attendance on Sunday and have him share his first-person account of Hamas’ attack with the public.
“It’s so important to tell the story of October 7,” she said. “We hope the world is going wake up and to stop saying that we are lying. We are not lying.”
Stern said spreading accurate information about the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza, while working to combat antisemitism at home, is of the utmost importance.
His late father was a Holocaust survivor and fought for Israel in the Yom Kippur War after losing his entire family in Europe. Growing up Stern was always taught the importance of “zachor,” meaning to remember, and specifically the importance of remembering the hate and horrors Jews faced in the past.
“What’s so strange about Oct. 7 and everything that has happened since is we don’t need to make this a history lesson or remember this; hate is here now,” he said. “I’m getting a car swerving at me on the road, yelling epithets at me when I’m walking with a kippah on a Saturday with my 2-year-old daughter.”
These everyday instances of harassment that Jews are now facing combined with tragedies like Kessler’s death make it all the more important to focus on educating the public and unifying communities against hate, Stern said. Local Arab and Muslim communities also are reporting incidents of bullying and harassment, particularly on college campuses and in schools.
“I think it makes some people scared,” said Stern, referring to antisemitism, “but for me, now I keep the kippah on and it’s made me feel purposeful in trying to win this battle for truth.”