“Not in a lifetime did I think I would be here,” says Elad Levy. “It never crossed my mind.”
But the 49-year-old Israeli found himself united in grief on the foreshore of Bondi Beach on Thursday, surrounded by cardboard cut-outs representing the people who were taken hostage or killed in Hamas’ 7 October attacks.
One of the cut-outs was of his niece, 19-year-old Roni Eshel.
He has travelled to Australia along with a group of fellow Israelis to meet community members in Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra, along with the prime minster, Anthony Albanese, the New South Wales premier, Chris Minns, and the Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan.
“We’ve come here to remind everyone of the hostages we are yet to get back,” he says of the trip which was sponsored by Israel’s ministry of diaspora.
“And the second [priority] is to speak with the public, politicians, and public leaders to make sure everyone understands the situation and to keep the support of the Australian people and the Australian government.
“We think by sharing our stories people understand clearly what happened on 7 October, and what needs to be done.”
That was the last day Levy’s family heard from Eshel, who worked as a non-combative soldier – one that doesn’t carry a weapon – around a kilometre from the border with Gaza. She sent a text to her mother at 9.30am, saying she was OK, not to worry about her, and that she loved her.
At the time, she and 26 other female soldiers were holed up in a safe room after they heard they were under attack.
By Sunday morning, Eshel’s parents had not heard word from her again, so they started checking the hospitals. She wasn’t there.
On the Monday, the family found out seven of the 26 women were taken hostage. Nineteen others, of which Eshel was one, were considered missing.
Five weeks later, they got the news they had dreaded. Levy’s niece and 18 others had died at the site of the safe room which had been set alight. Only one survived.
“Her mother was in physical pain,” he recalls. “It was sheer agony. We are trying to cope with it and starting to deal with the new reality.”
Another member visiting as part of the delegation is a friend of Noa Argamani, who was captured at the Supernova music festival where 260 bodies were recovered. A video of her being driven away on a motorbike by two Hamas fighters was seen around the world.
On Friday, Israel’s military resumed combat operations against Hamas in Gaza after the seven-day truce ended following the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Fourteen Palestinians have been killed since the truce expired on Friday morning, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
Australians marching in support of Palestine reached its seventh consecutive week last Sunday amid escalating actions among Australians calling for the government to back a lasting ceasefire as the Palestinian death toll of about 15,000 mounts.
That tension filtered into the delegation’s visit. On Wednesday night, about 20 people protested in the lobby of the hotel where the delegation was staying waving signs and Palestinian flags. Levy says the delegation had returned to the hotel after a day spent meeting with members of the Victorian parliament and the Jewish community to loud chants from the protesters, and some blocking their entrance to the elevators.
The group sought protection in a Melbourne police station while the protesters were moved on by police.
“It really took us by surprise,” he says. “Nobody panicked, but it was really triggering for us emotionally.”
On Thursday, Albanese condemned protest at the hotel, telling parliament: “I’m appalled by the actions of these protesters and I condemn them.”
While on the foreshore at Bondi Beach, holding a picture of his niece, Levy says the delegation felt their plea to have the remaining hostages returned to Israel was fully supported by Australia.
“There were a lot of Israelis and Jewish people that supported us,” he says.