Choosing life

How did David Hatuel overcome losing his entire family in a terror attack?

david hatuel 224.63 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
david hatuel 224.63 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sometimes when David Hatuel wakes up at night to feed his one-year-old daughter, Tehiya, he has to shake himself to remember which of his children he is holding in his arms. While mixing up your children's identities in the darkness of night is most likely a common occurrence for many parents, for Hatuel - who lost his first wife Tali and their four daughters, Hila (10), Hadar (eight), Roni (six) and Meirav (two); in a brutal terrorist attack four years ago - the experience is chilling. "I have to stop myself and ask who I'm preparing this [bottle] for," says Hatuel, trying not to let his voice crack and break into tears. "[Holding Tehiya] for the first time was obviously a very happy moment but it was also very difficult. She really reminds me of Hadar, and the first time she said daddy, or when we held her first birthday, were all moments that made me think of my other girls. I don't think I will ever be able to get away from that." Not that Hatuel, who married Tehiya's mother Limor two years ago, wants to forget his first family with whom he spent 12 happy years in the Gaza Strip settlement of Moshav Katif. "What I loved about Limor when I first met her was that she not only understood me but that she was also very accepting of what had happened before I met her," says the soft-spoken 38-year-old. "When we got married, I simply said 'I am building a new home but in no way am I willing to erase what has happened in the past. I am merely building a second floor on the foundations of the old building.' "Limor is very accepting of that and even though she never met them, she knows everything about them. We talk about them all the time and she sits with me when I look at photos of them. Tali's mother and sisters have even welcomed her as part of the family." Hatuel and I are sitting together in the airy conference room of the non-profit terror victims association One Family Fund, located in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood. While up until this point he has refused to be interviewed by the media, Hatuel, who was appointed president of the non-profit organization last September, talks very openly about the tragedy that he has gone through and is philosophical about how he managed pull himself together and rebuild his life. "It is still sometimes difficult for me to get up in the morning because I miss them all so much," he admits. "Sometimes when I'm out in the street and see a girl from behind with a bag on her back, I think it might be one of my girls. And, of course, I do question why this happened to me. I have many questions but I am a believer and this is what happened, it was decided and that's it. I have managed to move on and start a new family. I chose life after what happened and made decisions that would help me achieve that." FOR THE Hatuel family, the day of the terrorist attack started much like any other in Moshav Katif. "I was the principal of an elementary school in Ashkelon and it was the day of the Likud Party referendum on the disengagement from Gaza," Hatuel recalls. "Our community had decided that all families should demonstrate at the polling booths with signs telling the members to vote against the pullout." The evening before, Hatuel told his wife that he would take the bus to school and that she should join him later in the day with the girls to protest at the polling station in Ashkelon. "Tali was nine months pregnant and also had a routine ultrasound scheduled for that day in Ashkelon, so it seemed like the perfect plan," he says. "She was going to pick up Hila, Hadar, Roni and Meirav from their school and take them with her to the checkup and then come to meet me." However, the day did not go as planned. As Tali and the girls drove along the main Gaza thoroughfare near Kissufim, Palestinian terrorists opened fire on the car, fatally wounding the mother and causing the car to stop. Witnesses said that the terrorists then approached the car and shot each one of the four girls at close range while they were still strapped into their car seats. Two soldiers who tried to stop the terrorists were also wounded, as was another civilian. "I was in a managers meeting at school," remembers Hatuel, who has clearly gone over the scenario many times since that day. "Suddenly someone ran in and said there had been a terror attack near Kissufim but that they did not have any details. I tried to call Tali on her cellphone but there was no answer, so Tali's father and I jumped in the car and started driving toward the scene." Hatuel's car, however, was intercepted on the way and the two men were informed of what had happened. "I couldn't take it all in at first," he says. "I just kept asking 'What do you mean everyone? Who was hurt? Someone must have been saved.' I could not get my head around that it was 'everyone,' my entire family, but slowly I started to realize the scope of the disaster." Hatuel says that even at the shiva, when thousands of people, including government ministers, Knesset members, religious and secular Jews from here and abroad came to pay their respects, most could not provide the grieving husband and father with any truly comforting words. "Usually people say, 'Stay strong' to the person who has been left alive, but in my case no one could say anything like that," he says. Hatuel's tragic loss made national and international headlines. Very few Israelis can forget the image of him weeping in front of five freshly dug graves or the harrowing photo of Tali with her four daughters on a recent family outing. "I felt like a tree that had lost all its leaves and branches. All that remained of me was the trunk," confesses Hatuel, almost choking at the memory. "I could have really given up at that point, but along with all the politicians who came to visit me during the shiva were others who had gone through terror attacks. It was hearing those people's stories that really gave me the strength to carry on." On the third day of the shiva, Hatuel says he took some of his good friends aside and told them that he had decided to live, that he was determined to get over this tragedy but that he would need their help. "I told them that I was not willing to let go but that they had to help me find the strength and never leave me alone," he says, emphasizing that at first he felt as though he was climbing up a slippery wall and every few meters was sliding back down again. "There were so many difficult dates that reminded me of all of them - birthdays and other anniversaries - but I had already set myself an aim and had decided that I was going to get over this." While Hatuel credits several factors in helping him stay strong, it is the power of his close-knit Moshav Katif community that first springs to his mind when asked how a human being can bounce back from such an overwhelming loss. "I don't know if I would have succeeded without all of them," says Hatuel of the 60 or so Moshav Katif families, who managed to remain a community even after the pullout from Gaza. They now live on Moshav Amatzia in the Lachish region near Beit Guvrin, and are awaiting government permission to build new homes. "If I had lived in an apartment building in Tel Aviv, I doubt that it would have been so pivotal," he says. "For at least the first four months I was never on my own. I had two escorts with me at all times and the community made me a list of where I would be hosted every night, every Shabbat and every festival. They organized my schedule, fought off the media for me and arranged for me to meet with politicians who wanted to express their sorrow at my loss. Their diligence really gave me a lot of strength." Hatuel also says it was his decision - despite the advice of many people - to return to his job right after the shiva. "Many people said it was too soon for me to go back to work, that being around young children would be far too difficult for me, but I wanted to get straight back into my daily routine," he says, admitting, however, that the initial months back at school were extremely emotional. "When I first returned many of the students came running up to me, saying that they had heard about what happened to my family and that they had drawn me a picture. It was very hard," says Hatuel. "However, if I'd just sat at home and not gone back to my previous life that would have been even worse." ASIDE FROM his supportive community and a school full of adoring young children, Hatuel also compliments the work of the One Family Fund for providing him with the practical means to move beyond the tragedy. "In the initial period after the disaster, many people came forward to help me," he says. "But One Family was there in a practical way. [The organization's founders] Chantal and Marc Belzberg were an attentive ear for me to talk to, and after such a terrible thing, all I really needed to do was rest. I could not relax in Israel because wherever I went the media was following me." One Family arranged for the exhausted Hatuel to take an extended vacation, so "I could find a place to relax," he says. "I went to Canada, South Africa and New York. That trip really gave me the strength to carry on." In the four years since the terrorist attack, Hatuel has grown more and more connected to One Family and its activities, until last year he was approached to become its president. "I decided to take a break from work for a year," explains Hatuel, who not only dedicates his time to One Family, but also volunteers for the non-profit social welfare and educational program Bereshit and has started a charity in the name of Tali and his daughters to help infertile couples conceive. "When I see all the work they are doing at One Family, it makes me very happy. We are talking about many families that simply can't move on from the trauma they have experienced. One Family really helps them with everything, from providing workshops and getaways to helping those experiencing economic hardships and breakdowns within the family." Asked whether it is not traumatic for him to be around people whose wounds are still really fresh, Hatuel says: "I don't need [other people's grief] to remind me of my family, Tali and my girls are always on my mind. When I get here, I really feel that I am giving something and that gives me strength. I know that people look at me and say, 'If he can deal with his loss and is still strong, then so can we.' "I think the most important aspect of our work here is to give to victims of terror the feeling that they are not alone, that there is someone who is there for them and that cares for them. Just like in my case, people who have lost their way because of a terror attack need to be helped so that they can return to a 'normal' life, a new life, if that is ever possible."