AISH: Mother of Slain Hostage Is Spreading Love Amidst Grief (Video)

Posted on 05/13/24 | News Source: AISH

After her son’s heroic escape and death by Israeli forces, Iris Haim’s message of love is giving Israel hope.

Today, one of Israel’s greatest heroes is a middle-aged mother whose son was held hostage in Gaza and accidentally killed by Israeli forces after escaping with two other hostages. Since the death of Yotam, her son, Iris Haim has been spreading a message of love and support that’s buoyed the entire nation.

Yotam was one of over 240 Israelis kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, 2023. After 65 days in captivity, he managed to escape, along with two other Israelis, Alon Shamriz and Samer Talaka. Five days later they were mistakenly thought to be terrorists by Israeli troops who shot them. Instead of blaming the soldiers or seeking revenge for her son’s death, Iris is dedicating herself to fostering a sense of love and unity inside Israel and around the world.

In a recent interview, Iris explained how she is able to live without bitterness and shared a message for all of us today.

A Home Filled with Music and Love

The Haim family lived on Moshav Sde Nitzan, a farming community in the Negev. Iris and her husband Raviv created a home filled with music and love for their two sons, Yotam and Tuval, and their daughter Noya. Both sons even became professional drummers. Yotam played drums in a band called Persephore; Tuval is the drummer for Israeli Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai.

“Yotam was a very funny person,” explains Iris, recalling his dry, dark humor. “He was very athletic. He played basketball, did crossfit.” Intensely clever, he lived in his own apartment on Kfar Aza and pursued music in his spare time. Yotam’s father Raviv is a manager in a local agricultural company which grows wheat, potatoes, peanuts, carrots, and other crops. For the past few years Yotam worked alongside his dad, driving tractors and helping tend the fields.

Yotam’s life was both idyllic and also “very complicated,” Iris explains. He was born with spondylitis, a type of progressive arthritis which causes joint pain, and digestive problems. In addition to suffering physically, Yotam endured emotional struggles, battling depression and anxiety. “He was a very sensitive soul,” Iris recalls. “He thought the world was a very bad place and had to frequently make the conscious choice to live.”

Captured by Hamas

On October 7, 2023, the early morning peace of Shabbat and the holiday of Simchat Torah was shattered when Hamas began lobbying thousands of rockets into Israel. 3,000 Hamas fighters invaded Israel on foot, in vehicles, and in paragliders, attacking dozens of towns and military bases near the Gaza border. Hamas terrorists massacred, tortured, raped, and murdered over 1,200 people. Over 350 of the dead were killed at the site of a large music festival that was dedicated, ironically, to peace.

Approximately 254 Israelis, including young children and the elderly, were kidnapped and forced into Gaza. Yotam was taken from his safe room in Kfar Aza and held in a dark, damp tunnel with three other hostages: Wichian Temthong, 38, a temporary worker from Thailand who’d arrived in Israel just weeks earlier; Alon Shamriz, 26, a computer science student who also lived on Kibbutz Aza; and Samar Fouad Talaka, 24, an Israeli Arab who was working a weekend shift at kibbutz Nir Am’s farms nearby.

Wichian was the only member of that group to survive, released 51 days later in a prisoner exchange along with all the other Thai workers Hamas abducted. His description of his time with Yotam in captivity gave Iris hope. “Wichian told us that Yotam was very strong. He was laughing a lot and was also crying in captivity. He drummed on the floor and sang to help keep his fellow prisoners’ spirits up. He was helping others who were with him.”

Yotam, Alon, Samar, and Wichian were fed just once a day, often just a piece of bread and a single dried date. “We were always hungry,” Wichian described. “We could only sip our water. A large bottle had to last four to five days, a smaller bottle for two days.” While their Hamas captors treated Wichian fairly well, they used to beat Yotam and the other Israelis with electric cables. At night, their captors forbade them from sleeping. Despite these horrific conditions, Wichian recalls Yotam and the other Israelis “would shake hands and do fist bumps. They would cheer me up by hugging me and clapping my shoulder.”

Iris is convinced that during those long weeks of captivity, Yotam’s strength and resilience helped him and his friends survive. She was determined to stay positive and hope for the best. She disconnected herself from Israeli media, which she felt focused on the negative and disunity, downplaying the nation’s sense of strong unity and confidence.

Fateful Moment

In mid-December, Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood where Yotam was being held saw vicious fighting between Hamas forces and the IDF. On October 10, Israeli soldiers sent a dog equipped with a GoPro camera into the building where Yotam and the other captives were. Hamas fighters killed the dog and began a gun battle. The Hamas fighters were killed, and Yotam, Alon and Samir managed to escape.

They eluded capture for five days, hiding in an abandoned building in Gaza City. Using food scraps, they wrote “help three hostages” in Hebrew on a cloth and “SOS” on another scrap and hung them from the building. An Israeli drone picked up the signs but in a tragic error, soldiers considered the marked building a trap laid by Hams to lure them in. On December 13, Hamas fighters ambushed a group of Israeli soldiers in Shejaiya and killed nine; after that, the IDF became even more cautious about being fooled by Hamas fighters and booby trapped buildings.

On December 15, Yotam, Alon and Samar emerged from their building, waved a white cloth, and approached Israeli troops. An Israeli sniper, thinking they were Hamas suicide bombers, shot them. Alon and Samir died and Yotam was wounded; Yotam managed to flee inside a building and yelled for help in Hebrew. The Israeli battalion commander ordered his troops not to shoot. Yet when Yotam eventually emerged from the building one of the Israeli soldiers shot him; he later said he hadn’t understood his commander’s order to hold fire.

When the IDF informed Iris and her family of this terrible mistake, they told her that Yotam was a hero who escaped from Hamas’ captivity. She recalls, “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe he was killed. Why did it happen to us? All my beliefs, my faith was crushed. I felt like a very black hole opened up and I wanted to jump into it.”

A Brave Hero

Iris couldn’t imagine going to her son’s funeral shrouded in such darkness, especially after working so hard to focus on the positivity. She and her husband had a psycho-drama therapy session that yielded an life-affirming epiphany. Iris described how they channeled Yotam’s voice into the room where he “described” the events leading up to his death. They realized that Yotam made a series of brave choices and risked his life to attain freedom and to die on his own terms. He was not a victim; he died a free man, as a hero

Embracing their son’s incredible resourcefulness and bravery while he eluded Hamas capture in Gaza City enabled them to face his funeral and rejuvenated her hope and positivity.

“We learned that Yotam was free for five days. He felt freedom. For me to know that he did it was amazing. I understood how strong he was. I was very proud of him.”

Iris thinks of Yotam as a partisan fighter. It’s not always possible to stay alive in a war, she notes, “but the most important thing is to die as a free person,” fighting for a cause. “He chose to go out of this life as a hero in a very special way. It’s made a difference; it’s helped me to be strong.”

Restoring the Morale of the Nation

During the Haim family’s shiva for Yotam, the wife of the soldier who issued the order “don’t shoot” came to pay her respect. She told Iris that the soldiers who’d shot Yotam and the other hostages were devastated and could no longer function. The nation as a whole was in collective shock by the army’s tragic error and a feeling of hopelessness was infecting the entire country. Many Israelis were feeling a sense of fatigue, and the widespread global antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment only added to Israelis’ sense of hopelessness.

“When she told me that the army cannot fight and the army is depressed and broken and couldn’t continue, I was very worried,” Iris explains. “I thought about these soldiers because the army must fight and continue to defend us. The army must do their work.”

With Israel riven by internal differences, Iris wanted to remind her fellow Israelis that Hamas and other terror groups - not each other - are their true enemies, and to send a message of love and hope to the soldiers that would encourage them to continue fighting and defend the nation.

Iris’s letter to one Army brigade spoke to the entire nation of Israel:

I am Yotam’s mother. I wanted to say that I love you very much and I hug you from afar, and I know that everything that happened is not your fault at all, but the fault of Hamas, may their names and their memory be forever below the ground.

I ask that you take care of yourselves and think all the time that you are doing the best thing in the world that can help us as the people of Israel. We all need you safe and sound, and don’t hesitate for a moment. If you see a terrorist, don't think you killed a hostage on purpose: you need to protect yourself because that’s the only way you can protect us.

At the first opportunity, you are welcome to come to us. We want to see you in person, and we want to hug you. It’s hard to say this, but what you did was probably the best thing at that moment. No one is judging you or angry: not me, not my husband, not my daughter, not my late son, not Yotam’s brother. We love you.

The soldiers sent her back a voice note, “We received your message, and since then we have been able to function again. Before that, we had shut down.” The next day, the soldier from the battalion that had made the mistake visited Iris. She continued to repeat the same message: “Do not blame yourself. We love you and need you.”

During shiva she also received a visit from an army officer who many years ago made a mistake that tragically led to the death of a number of soldiers. He told her that this had destroyed his life, turning him into a depressed recluse who would only leave his apartment to go the pharmacy to get his medication. After hearing Iris’s loving message to the soldiers who inadvertently killed her son, he was motivated to embrace life. His first outing was to pay the Haim family a shiva call.

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day

In recognition of the impact she had on the nation, Iris is one of a dozen Israelis who will receive the honor to light a ceremonial torch on Israel’s Independence Day. Iris says, “This year especially, Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) remind us that we have a place, we have a country, we have a home. It’s difficult because we have wars: we are surrounded by people who want to kill us. We continue to fight and are resilient - we are very strong, we are a resilient nation.”

This year, many Israeli families are mourning the losses of relatives and friends. “Every day is hard for us,” Iris notes. The challenge isn’t to remember the dead and wounded, but to keep up hope and remember that what unites us as Israelis and as Jews is always stronger than what divides us.

In the months since Yotam’s death, Iris has spoken to people and groups across Israel and around the world. She feels Yotam’s presence all the time. “Everybody knows about Yotam now,” she says. He always wanted to be a famous drummer; now Yotam is known for something even more important, as a symbol of forgiveness and Jewish unity.

Iris is creating a foundation called Yotam’s Life to help shooters and survivors of people involved in friendly fire mishaps. Yotam’s brother Tuval is raising money to record an album of songs that both he and his brother composed and is also opening a musical school for people in stress and soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress in Yotam’s memory.

Iris wants the world to know that the terror surrounding Israel is threatening the whole free world. “Israel is an amazing place that is flourishing with the best minds in the world. We want to live here peacefully, quietly, to raise our children in happiness. This is our homeland; we do not have any other place to live.”

With antisemitism growing globally, Jewish unity is critical. “Yotam’s death also tore down any barriers I had with religious Jews. I have come to understand that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Hamas doesn’t care about who is religious and who is not. They are attacking Jews, period. We are one nation and need to learn to love one another.”