By Liel Katz

They knew they were in trouble when the rocket fire hadn’t stopped after 10 minutes. Would the Iron Dome have the capacity to continue warding off rockets? There was no sign that the attack was letting up. For Keith and Brett Isaacson, and the rest of the Gaza envelope communities, this was unchartered territory. They knew that something was different about this attack on the morning of 7 October.

Keith and his younger brother Brett made Aliyah from South Africa in February 1975 as nine and five-year-old boys, along with their strongly Zionistic parents and one-year-old baby sister. After a stint in ulpan, they moved on to Moshav Sde Nitzan, where they have lived ever since.  Sde Nitzan was started in 1973, just two years before the Isaacson family arrived there as new Olim. This 120-family community is situated just 7.2 kilometres from the Gaza border, close to Keren Hashalom, and is ensconced among a nest of seven similarly sized moshavim.

Despite having spent much of their lives living in the South of Israel, the Joburg accent has never left the brothers, and it is hard to believe that I am not just talking to two people in a Rosebank restaurant. That is until their story about 7 October unfolds.

The brothers speak with a calm stoicism that could not be more Israeli in spirit and attitude, relaying their actions on that terrifying day as if they were things anyone could have done – would have done – if fate had made it their duty instead. And while there is some truth in this, it is clear as they describe the events of that day that their selflessness and immutable sense of duty spared thousands of Israelis that same test on what should have been a beautiful Simchat Torah morning.

The Isaacsons, pictured L-R: Joe, Idan, Keith, Maish & Brett (Maish is not a relative of the Isaacsons from Sde Nitzan. He met with the family in his capacity as Chairman of Telfed on a visit to South African Olim in the Eshkol Region).

Brett’s Story: The Stand At Mivtahim Junction

As the rockets started falling unthwarted by the Iron Dome, Brett received a call from his friend from the nearby Moshav Mivtahim. He needed help. An unknown number of terrorists were bearing down on the Mivtahim Junction, the main access point to the close-knit group of moshavim, a mere 850 metres from the first settlement, Moshav Yesha. He was fending them off with the help of just one other person, and he needed to get back to his moshav which he feared may already be under attack. Brett made his way straight there with what little arms and ammunition they had available on his own moshav.

Desperate Circumstances

He arrived at the junction at about 7:20am, tapping out his friend who then headed back to Mivtahim. He was met with the noise and smoke of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), launched by terrorists he couldn’t see, hidden in the brush and landscape ahead of him. With only a few rifles, limited ammunition, and no idea of how many attackers he was facing, Brett, along with one other person, was faced with the task of holding off whoever was determined to access the seven moshavim that lay beyond the junction. The two of them were the final stand, the only defence that remained between the unrelenting attack and hundreds of people, including Brett’s wife, children, and parents.

Brett knew he needed to make the ammunition last – he had no way of knowing when IDF forces would be arriving to relieve him. Behind him, from the direction of the moshavim, he could hear the sound of gunfire and he understood that some attackers had made their way in from a back road. His calls to his friend went unanswered and unreturned. Ahead, on the main road, lay the bodies of 14 youngsters and two adults, gunned down in their cars while trying to flee the Nova music festival. He was alone, without the prospect of any further assistance, and he had to make every shot count.

Sitting on the road, he would wait for the heavy silence to be broken by the explosion of an RPG being fired, and then following the smoke trail to its point of origin, he would return fire. After several volleys of gun and rocket fire, Brett was able to pinpoint and neutralise one terrorist. Then silence fell, and for the moment they were safe.

Their work was far from over. Brett knew they had to protect the bodies of the Nova victims, and he wasn’t certain when more terrorists would come along. He tried desperately to get hold of the municipality, the police – anyone who could come and help. But listening to the voices on the police walkie-talkie they had with them, he realised that help would not be coming anytime soon. A scan of the horizon revealed massive fires in the neighbouring kibbutzim, and gunfire in the distance made it clear the IDF was fighting along the border with Gaza. He knew they had to hold things together themselves, and so they did – protecting the small stretch of bloodied road that lay between them and their community.

Help Arrives

It was 11:40am before the IDF was able to reach Brett and the now two other men who were defending Mivtahim Junction. Their arrival could not have happened at a better time – more terrorists on motorcycles were bearing down on them, and with the help of the special forces they were able to neutralise all of them.

Over four hours had passed between the time he had relieved his friend and the special forces from Eilat arrived, four hours during which he had held his ground and prevented the penetration of the unprotected communities. We need not imagine what would have happened if Brett had not risen to duty that morning – we have the images of Be’eri, Nir Oz, and Kfar Aza to tell us.

As it was lives were lost in their group of moshavim that day. A few hours after the arrival of the IDF, Brett made his way with some of the special forces to Moshav Mivtahim. There he found the bodies of his friend and the stand-by security team who had tried to stave off 20 terrorists who had entered through a back road. While they managed to neutralise a significant number of them, they were outnumbered, and all five of them lost their lives that Black Shabbat. Amidst the shock and the grief, Brett had the heartbreaking duty of “changing” for his fallen friend, immediately becoming the RAVSHATZ (a Hebrew acronym for Civilian Security Coordinator) of the moshav.

Brett stayed alone with the bodies of the slain fighters until 1:20am the next morning when the IDF assumed control of the moshav. The residents were all locked in their bomb shelters – traumatised and disbelieving, they would not emerge for anyone or anything. Brett stood vigil in the silent night as he had fought that morning – alone, uncertain of where the enemy was hiding and the nature of the threat he faced, and waiting for the IDF.

Keith’s Story: Taking Control

Keith was already up and about at 6:30am when the first attacks took place. He had left the moshav to fetch some workers who would be helping him out that day when he started hearing missiles. He immediately turned his truck around and headed back home to get dressed and report for duty. Both Keith and Brett served in the Givati Brigade (one of the five infantry brigades of the IDF, and one of two under the Southern Command) as combat soldiers and then reservists. By 6:40am Keith had spoken to his Colonel on the phone and headed out to join his unit at the nearby Re’im army base.

An Escape From Death

Keith is well-versed with conflict in the area, having experienced a number of attacks both when he was a farmer and in his capacity as the head of security for the Eshkol region, a job he has been doing for the past nine years. While he didn’t quite know the full extent of the attack when he left Sde Nitzan that morning, on route to the base Keith decided to make a detour to the Eshkol Municipality offices, where he swapped his truck for an armoured and fully bulletproof white Toyota that had been bought for the region by benefactors in 2001. It was a decision that saved his life.

Back on the road he started receiving information from numerous sources and was beginning to understand that a full-scale attack was underway – although he had yet to grasp what that actually meant. As he neared the base he saw a pack of motorcycles on the road and realised immediately they were terrorists. They were not so quick, however. Keith was driving a white Toyota, the same car as many of the attackers that day, and so they were momentarily confused, unsure of who he was. This gave him a brief window of time to quickly make a U-turn and speed off in the opposite direction. Three minutes later he was being chased by terrorists in cars just like his. They caught up with him and, realising he was Israeli, opened fire on the vehicle. Had he been in any other car that day he would have lost his life in that moment. As it was they were unable to stop him and he managed to get away.  Keith had spoken to his Colonel at 6:40am. By 7:00am he lay dead, murdered during the attack on kibbutz Nirim.

Bringing Order to The Chaos

Having narrowly escaped the terrorists near the army base, Keith made his way to the  Eshkol Municipality offices where he took operational control of the area. Once there, he didn’t leave for another three days. The Eshkol region stretches over 735.52 kmand has a population of over 15,000. By the time the fighting ended at midnight on 7 October, 215 of their number lay dead, 120 had been taken hostage, and 90 were injured. In the days that followed 13,000 residents had to be evacuated, and the remaining terrorists hunted down and arrested. The last terrorist was neutralised on 21 October – two weeks after the attacks began.

Keith could not leave his command for even a moment – aside from playing the critical role of gathering information to get a clear picture of what was happening, he began coordinating with the IDF and their forces, the Ministry of Defense, the Homefront Command, and the police. And all the time that he was fielding queries and requests, trying to get help to where it was needed, and rallying the IDF for assistance, he sat only a few kilometres away from his own children, all on different moshavim in the area, all calling him, terrified and in need of help. But duty demanded that he stay where he was, bringing help to as many people as quickly as possible, and acting for the greater good.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Heroism has many faces. For Brett, it was the face of someone who stood fighting alone, a solitary figure facing an unknown number of blood-thirsty terrorists. It was the face of someone who gave no thought to his own life to prevent what could have been the massacre of hundreds. It was the face of someone standing vigil through the night over his fallen friends, taking over command amidst his own grief. For Keith, it was the face of someone who kept his head amidst great danger, the face of someone able to stand up and take control when chaos, terror, and grief were sweeping through his community. It was the face of immutable duty, putting the needs of the many ahead of his own at a moment of real personal crisis.

The Isaacson brothers wore the face of heroism a thousand times on 7 October and in the days that followed, although I am certain they would think me odd for saying so. To them, they simply did what they had to, what they would do again and again if called upon to do so. I end my conversation with them, overwhelmingly grateful that they are on our team, but without the words to tell them that. All I can do is tell their story.