BITZARON, Israel: When young Israeli Irene Shavit spoke to her mother after her first date with Netta Epstein, she said she was “already in love” but feared it could “end badly”.
Shavit, 22, imagined that the romance, like so many others, might end in heartbreak.
Instead, it ended on October 7, when Epstein dived onto a Hamas grenade to save her life.
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He was among the 1,400 people killed in the shock Hamas attack and its aftermath, according to Israeli authorities, most of them civilians who died on the first day.
“He died so I could live, so I must live,” said Shavit about her fiance, who was also 22.
But starting life again poses a wrenching dilemma for her.
“If I don’t do it, it’s a betrayal. But if I do it, I also feel like I’m betraying him,” she said, crying.
“I miss his kisses, his embrace, his love.”
The pair had been due to marry in April and Shavit had already bought the wedding dress.
She was speaking as the deadliest ever Gaza war raged on, now staying at her parents’ home in the town of Bitzaron south of Tel Aviv.
In response to the Hamas attack, Israel has launched a withering air, ground and sea attack on Gaza to destroy Hamas, which has so far claimed over 10,000 lives, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, in almost a month of gruelling conflict.
‘Paradise’ on red alert
Shavit and Epstein met at a bar in April 2022 and shared an “immediate attraction”, she remembered.
They finished their mandatory army service — she in military intelligence, he as a parachute regiment officer — before moving in together in the Kfar Aza kibbutz.
From the edge of the commune, described by Shavit as a “paradise of trees and flowers”, they could see the buildings of Gaza City, the biggest urban centre in the long blockaded territory.
On Saturday October 7, the younger residents of the kibbutz were planning a group breakfast before a kite festival with a political take on the long-running dispute.
“We wanted to fly them with messages of peace towards the Gaza border,” Shavit said.
But at 6:30am they were awoken by the words “red alert” blaring over the kibbutz loudspeakers.
The alarm was routine in the border town, which has often been targeted by rocket fire from the Palestinian territory.
The couple took a selfie and sent it to their families to reassure them.
Then they went back to sleep in each other’s arms, thinking they were safe in a bedroom nested in a missile-proof cocoon.
But at 8am they received a mass text message: “Enter lockdown, suspicion of infiltration, hide.”
The message sent a shockwave of fear through the kibbutz, where everyone was used to leaving their doors unlocked.
They turned off the light and stayed still.
The first shots sounded “in the distance” and quickly the news of the first victims arrived via a text message.
First Epstein’s grandmother was killed and then a cousin.
In the darkness of the shelter, the couple muffled their sobs, holding tight to their phones, their only means of contact with the world outside.
Savit recalled the terror and uncertainty they felt at the time: “No one understands what is going on outside. The shots are getting closer.”
At 11:30am they heard glass break in the living room.
The couple pressed their backs up against the bedroom wall, hoping not to be seen. Shavit remembered the “indescribable fear”.
Their bedroom door opened and, as Shavit recoiled, Epstein stepped forward.
Two grenades were tossed and a Hamas militant shouted in Hebrew “Leave! Where are you?”
As a third grenade was thrown into the room, Shavit saw her fiance throw himself on it.
“It’s what he learned in the army,” she said. “If there’s a grenade in an enclosed space you jump on it to protect others.”
After the blast, the gunman fired a burst of bullets to finish Epstein off, before setting the room on fire and leaving.
Shavit, resigned to death, pulled her pyjamas over her mouth to block out the fumes.
But when she heard the attackers withdraw, she crept out to the bathroom and put out the fire.
She then slid under the bed, hidden by a backpack and Netta’s body.
At 4pm, Shavit heard Israeli troops shouting in Hebrew if there were any survivors.
She hesitated before answering. When she did, the soldiers extracted her while a battle to retake the kibbutz still raged.
Shavit is left with “lots of what-ifs, lots of guilt, and lots of solitude”, she said.
At Epstein’s funeral there were “thousands” paying homage, she said.
But Shavit has few memories of the day of the burial. She was grieving a lifetime of companionship lost.
“I told myself, what am I doing here?” she said. “Wasn’t this supposed to happen 70 years from now?”