Seattle woman fears for kidnapped relatives in Gaza after losing aunt and uncle in Hamas attack
he impact of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 has left Seattle’s Natalie Smith with a range of emotions, from anger and fear to sadness and grief. Not only did Smith lose her uncle and aunt, who were killed during the cross-border attack on their kibbutz in southern Israel, she has seven relatives who remain missing after they were apparently kidnapped by Hamas and taken to Gaza.
“There are all these stages of grief, and I know they’re supposed to come in some kind of sequence,” Smith said. “But I kind of feel them all together.”
Smith relocated to Seattle seven years ago from Israel when her husband got a job offer from Amazon. She is a graduate of the master’s program for cultural studies at the University of Washington in Bothell, and, before moving to Seattle, worked in Israel as a curator in the private sector and at a museum.
When she heard that there was a terrorist attack in the southern part of Israel, her initial thought was that it was another round in the ongoing back and forth between Hamas and Israel. She had grown used to news of such attacks every summer. Hamas would shoot missiles toward Israel, her family members would retreat to their safe room, and then Israel would respond by bombing Gaza.
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But when Smith texted her aunt to make sure they were OK, she realized this was not just another round in the simmering battle between the two sides.
“My aunt texted back, ‘Please don’t call. It’s better to just text,’” Smith said. “She said she hears a lot of gunshots around and they’re very worried, and she is waiting for them to know it’s safe so they can come out.”
At 9:37 a.m., Smith’s uncle texted that there were people who had entered the safe room.
“And that was the last time we all heard from them,” she said.
At first, Smith did not know the fate of her relatives who lived in the kibbutz. After five days, the Israeli Army told her family there was a high probability that her relatives had been kidnapped and taken to Gaza.
Smith was especially worried about her uncle, because he has an autoimmune disease that requires him to have a full-time caretaker and take daily medication.
“We thought he was dying in Gaza and suffering,” she said.
Two days later, her family was informed that the body of her uncle had been identified.
Four hours after receiving the news, Smith and her family were on a 14.5-hour flight to Jerusalem. While she was in Israel for her uncle’s funeral, her aunt’s body was identified. So, Smith and her family remained in Israel for a second funeral. They returned to Seattle not knowing whether their other missing relatives were alive or dead.
“It’s always heartbreaking to leave and say goodbye,” Smith said. “But this time, more than ever, because right now my brother also lives in Seattle. He moved here last year. And then I have another brother who lives in Portugal. So, we kind of left my mom there with no support system. So, that’s kind of heartbreaking and difficult for me.”
Seven members of Smith’s family remain missing. They include her aunt's sister, whose husband was also murdered by Hamas, their 38-year-old daughter, her husband, and their two children — an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old. Also missing and presumed kidnapped are a special needs psychologist and her 12-year-old daughter.
Smith’s uncle who was apparently killed in the attack, Eviatar, was wheelchair bound as a result of his autoimmune disease. Her aunt, Lilach Kipnis, was a social worker who treated children living near the Gaza border. She published a children’s book two years ago to help children who live with the threat of bombs cope with everyday sounds that can trigger panic, such as slamming doors and the sound of thunder.
Smith said she feels deep grief for her aunt and uncle, who were such a big part of her family, as well as fear and helplessness about her seven missing cousins and relatives who she believes are being held somewhere in Gaza.
But Smith's feelings are not limited to her own family, despite all that she’s been through in recent weeks.
“I’m also just so angry about this whole human tragedy,” she said. “Innocent civilians are just the victims of this awful, endless, violent dispute. And I’m just so devastated for all the people who are being bombed and killed in Gaza. I think they’re also victims, and it’s just unbearable, and you also feel so hopeless.”