Bushey councillor Seamus Quilty has shared his story of being in Israel on October 7, as Hamas’ attack on the country escalated the longstanding conflict.
“It all started by being successful in a charity auction that supports underprivileged children in Israel. So, at the beginning of October, I set out on a trip to Israel looking forward to visiting all the historic sites I had learnt about since my childhood.
Words are hard to explain what unfolded and I will share with you some of my experiences. I visited many holy places and shared the fantastic warmth and hospitality of the people of Israel.
“I was nearly at the end of my trip and packing my bags for my flight home when all hell broke out. It was early on Saturday morning, and I was looking forward to my last sightseeing trip to visit to the Dead Sea and Masada in the desert. At 6.30am on October 7, 2023, I first heard a distant siren across Tel Aviv. My local coffee stall owner told me not to worry as it was more than likely a practice, but how wrong he was!
“Leaving at 7am, my tour guide was confident that going to the desert was safe, so off I went and had a great day. After being dropped back in Tel Aviv at the end of the trip and walking back to my hotel, it was clear something wrong. The streets of Tel Aviv were empty, and the shops and restaurants were closed. When I got to my hotel, I was told there had been a horrendous attack on a music festival near Gaza.
“There was a feeling of shock and numbness in the local community, and I was told to stay off the streets. My room was on the sixth floor with a large patio where I stayed and watched the sunset; it was there I first experienced the unbelievable defence system called the ‘Iron Dome’ in action.
“Suddenly, the noise of the sirens started. I was told earlier that if this happens, I’d have 90 seconds to get to the basement and safety.
“Just before I ran to the basement, I looked out from the patio and across the city’s skyline I saw rockets flying in. I saw vapour trails of the defence system targeting the rockets and the flash and smoke of the explosion as they did their job.
“As I sheltered in the safe room, along with other guests, we were told that the ‘Iron Dome’ knocks out 90 per cent of the rockets. That night, I felt for humanity as attacks kept coming.
“We all sat in shock wondering if our hotel would be hit. One of the staff shared with us an app for our phones which was called Tzofar, which gave real-time information of where the rockets were targeting and landing.
“That long night, I felt for the people of Israel who have experienced so much and the terrible barbarism of Hamas. We shared stories of the kindness and warmth of the residents whilst listening to the explosions outside.
“I am sure Israel did not sleep that night; I could not. The horrible news that followed in the morning from Gaza [was of] the murder of young people, mothers fathers and innocent babies by Hamas.
“On Sunday morning, there was a stillness as the sun rose across the lovely city which was now in lockdown, with everyone searching for news.
“Receiving notification that my flight was cancelled triggered the search for a way home. I spent most of Sunday trying to find a flight home or to anywhere but without success.
“You can imagine filling in all the flight information on a computer then at the last minute being bounced out. That happened time and time again and by the evening I started to search for other means of getting out.
“Speaking to locals, I identified a route, running north along the sea towards Haifa then turning inland and heading for the Sheikh Hussein bridge and a crossing into Jordan. This appeared, at that time, the best land route and I decided to risk it the next day Monday. With the help of my new local friends, I found a driver who knew the route and off we went. Unfortunately, he was Russian and had no English.
“I admit I had butterflies and, as we drove north, the people carrier had wifi so we were in contact with family back home in Bushey. They were also frightened and watching live on a map as I was sharing my position.
“A scary two hours later, we arrived at the Jordan River and crossed over with other travellers through the chaotic Jordanian customs, meeting a new driver who took me to Amman. A further two-and-a-half hours drive, and we arrived at a hotel where we waited for a flight home.
“On the four-and-a-half-hour flight home, the flight was diverted from Luton to Bristol due to a fire in a car park and we arrived at 2am looking for taxis back to Bushey.”
Asked whether he would return to Israel, cllr Quilty said: “Yes. One cannot give in to terrorism.”
Photo credit: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock.com