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A Time to Fight

March 3, 2013 | by Andrew Friedman

When an Arab terrorist tried to kill Yael Mitzafon, she had three choices: fight, flight or freeze. She fought.

At first Yael Mitzafon, 36, thought the mysterious footsteps walking across the living room must be her husband, Doron Re'em, a career IDF officer. Hours earlier, he had called from his base in the center of the country to say he'd be sleeping there, rather than making the hour-and-a-half drive home to Sde Avraham, a small moshav located just a few kilometers from the tri-regional border between Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. There was nothing out of the ordinary about that – Doron regularly stayed on base once a week, and it was a routine that the family was well adjusted to.

But she quickly realized that it wasn't her husband creeping towards her bedroom. It wasn't like Doron to surprise her after saying he wouldn't be home, especially at 3:40 am. Even more telling, the rhythm of the footsteps just didn't sound like her husband. Frozen with fear, the mother of four listened as the intruder make his way across the house, push open her bedroom door and flip on the light. At the door stood an Arab man in his 20s, holding a sawed off steel pipe.

"What do you want?” Mitzafaon asked the man, but she saw he did not understand Hebrew. In Arabic, he told her to get out of bed (the Hebrew and Arabic commands for “get up” are similar enough to understand). She protested that she wasn't dressed, but she quickly realized she had no choice. She got out of bed and complied with the man's demand to cover up her lower half.

Without thinking, she threw an arm to block his attempt to slash her throat.

He pushed her onto the bed, climbed on top of her, dropped the steel pipe onto the floor and brandished a previously-concealed knife.

Without thinking, she threw an arm to block his attempt to slash her throat, deflecting the knife away from her esophagus. The blade sliced her cheek and shoulder but the wounds were not life threatening. As the knife penetrated her shoulder, Mitzafon used the release of physical pain to dig deep inside her soul to locate a primal burst of energy to shove the man off of her and to get back to her feet.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why he started talking to me when he pushed open the bedroom door, but it allowed me to stall for time,” Mitzafon told when recalling the attack. “My two younger kids had crawled into bed with me earlier in the night, as they often do when Doron doesn't come home. So I think the critical element here is that the terrorist got flustered because he didn't encounter what he expected. When he flipped on the light in our room, he expected to see a sleeping couple, not a wide-awake single woman with two kids in bed with her. Then, when he told me to cover up my lower half – apparently, he had no qualms killing me, but if he’d see a woman in her underwear he’d be damned to hell – it gave me even more time to size him up, and to recall a lesson I'd learned in my ninjitzu training years ago: fight, flight or freeze. I decided to fight, and he panicked.

“In hindsight, I don't even want to think what would have happened if he would have attacked me straight away when I was still a bit blurry.”

Dripping with blood and having shoved the would-be killer off the bed, Mitzafon rolled off the bed and grabbed the steel pipe off the floor. The terrorist escaped into the en suite bathroom a few meters away; Yael closed the bathroom door, grabbed the by now wide-awake children and physically threw them out of her bedroom and into the adjacent bedroom where her eight-year-old daughter had somehow remained asleep.

She closed the door to her bedroom, ran across the single-story house to grab the cordless phone to call her husband and the community security officers, and began ringing an enormous ranch-style bell to alert the neighbors. Then, she returned to her bedroom to continue to fight the Arab intruder who by now must have realized that he was not actually locked in the bathroom.

“I really don't want to come away from all this looking like a hero.”

"Look, I really don't want to come away from all this looking like a hero,” Mitzafon told “I can't really say that I used the techniques I learned in martial arts. More than anything, I was home alone, with four kids, and I managed to keep a clear enough head to make a decision not to let this guy do another mass family slaughter if there was anything I could do about it. I was also lucky that I happen to be physically strong.

“I think the other factor that worked in my favor was that the whole event took place just three days after the ceasefire went into effect following Operation Pillar of Defense. I think that's why my two-year-old son, Ben, had been having trouble sleeping. Our sleep had been interrupted by rocket fire from Gaza for many nights over the previous month. So the attacker picked the wrong time to sneak up on me – he caught me at a time when I sort of had my guard up anyway.”

By 3:47 the attack was over. After Mitzafon had freed herself from the terrorist's grasp and gone to call for help, the assailant had escaped out the bathroom window. Looking back, Mitzafon says she does not remember actually speaking to her next-door neighbor, Tomer, the moshav's director of security, but by the time he arrived the house was quiet. Together with a third neighbor, they entered the bedroom and the bathroom to discover that the terrorist had pried open the bathroom window and fled. Within 15 minutes, IDF officers had arrived, and Bedouin trackers had set out to follow the footsteps leading from the scene of the crime. An hour later, word arrived that the terrorist had been killed outside Moshav Dekel, several kilometers from Sde Avraham.

Pioneering spirit

In many ways, Sde Avraham is a far cry from Herut, the mid-sized moshav near the coastal city of Netanya where the Mitzafon-Re'em's moved five years ago. At the time, the couple knew it would be hard for them to buy a home in the center of the country, and that Yael certainly wouldn't be able to realize her dream of owning and operating a horse riding stable. Sitting in her spacious kitchen with light streaming through the door where her attacker entered the house, Mitzafon says the incident has not changed her feeling that the moshav in Israel's southwestern corner is the ideal place for her and her family.

"What happened to me was terrible,” she says with a wan smile, “but you've got to look at the overall lifestyle here: It's the only terror attack here in the 30-year history of the moshav. Even more, you could not imagine safer, more secure for my kids to grow up in: I know that my neighbors are looking out for me, as I do for them. I don't worry if my kids disappear for a few hours on a Shabbat afternoon. Those are the elements of life that make us feel safe and secure. I'm certainly not making light of the attack, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that people's homes get broken into all the time, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and everywhere else. That's what happened here, and luckily I was able to defend myself and my family.”

Following the attack, life returned to normal. For most of the family, the trauma of November 26 quickly receded. Doron has only recently resumed spending one night a week on base, and it took their four-year-old daughter who witnessed the attack two months before she would agree to be in any room in the house alone. Yael continues to maintain a stable with six horses, where she teaches riding lessons, and the girls enjoy the freedom that comes along with growing up on a moshav.

“I've made sure my girls understand that we live in a pretty terrific place, with a terrific community support network,” Yael Mitzafon says. “I wouldn't trade it for any place else.”


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