“Are you somehow ok??????” he wrote at 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 28.
One check mark. No response.
They had met online in 2019, after Heymann donated to a fund that helped Om Ayan’s father get cancer treatment in the West Bank, and stayed in touch over the years. They knew the names of each other’s parents and children, had shared photos of their homes and hobbies. It was only a friendship, both said, never romantic. But it was Heymann’s only window into Gaza and Om Ayan’s only contact with an Israeli.
The horrors of Oct. 7 and the conflict in Gaza brought them closer, each finding in the other a refuge from sadness and isolation. Heymann, a peace activist who felt increasingly lonely in wartime Israel, knew someone in Gaza understood him. Om Ayan, under siege and bombardment, knew someone in Israel was thinking of her.
Om Ayan, 28, shared her story on the condition that she be identified by a nickname, fearing for her family’s safety.
It was strange, Heymann said, to feel so connected to her. Yet here he was, wondering again if she was still breathing.
“My dear? are you there??????? please please send me sign of life please,” he had written two days before. They always texted in English.
“Im alive dont worry,” she had responded then. “We are not ok.”
Heymann, 48, had already lost people in Israel. Would he have to mourn her too?
On Oct. 7, it was Om Ayan who texted first.
Before the war, they had messaged sporadically, when their busy lives allowed — sending family updates, photos, well wishes.
“I hope that it will be the beginning of a beautiful new year for you,” she wrote on Jan. 1, 2023.
In May, her husband got a permit to work in Israel. Her daughter Aylin had just been born.
“Send me his # and i will call him,” Heymann wrote. “Also — I will give him children’s clothes.”
“On the most basic level, we are both parents of young children,” he said, sitting in his airy Jaffa loft on a clear, warm December day.
“We both shared this sense of a lack of humanity around us,” Heymann said. “So I think we find comfort in each other.”
It was a friendship he rarely talked about in conversation with other Israelis. After Hamas militants and allied fighters streamed into southern Israel on Oct. 7 — killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages into Gaza — he was even more hesitant to mention it.
Heymann had a high school classmate who was shot in front of her children. The father of a close friend was taken hostage by Hamas.
Many Israelis, shocked and traumatized, felt no one from Gaza could be trusted. There were calls on social media for revenge, for killing everyone in Gaza. He worried about Om Ayan: “It was the first thing I thought about.”
The vitriol was no surprise. It was a familiar hatred. “If you grow up in Israel, they put in your blood, they put in your veins ever since you are zero years old that everybody is against you,” Heymann said. “Most of all Arabs.”
But there were those who resisted, and he had found a sense of community among them. Now, some activists he had protested with, fought for peace with, were turning their backs on the movement.
“There are so many great reasons for Israeli Jewish people to be afraid for their lives now, and to be full of hate, and rage and the sensation of revenge,” he said. “It’s natural.”
“To ask or to wish or to demand people in such a condition also to have compassion and mercy for the Palestinian people in Gaza … is unfortunately quite a big thing to ask,” he said. “And I will keep fighting to change their minds.”
Heymann has Palestinian flags tucked away in his home, which he used to take out for peace marches; he would take pictures of the demonstrations and send them to Om Ayan.
His children attend an Israeli-Palestinian bilingual school. He already hopes that his 9-year-old son will refuse mandatory military service, even if it means going to prison. There are stickers on his bathroom tiles with the same message in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “Democracy and occupation cannot coexist.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 16, Heymann’s friends called him, worried. He had posted on Facebook that while nothing could justify Hamas’s attack, Israel bore some responsibility for blockading Gaza and denying Palestinians basic human rights.
His name, photo and home address were being posted on right-wing Telegram channels, people told him. It took him two weeks to tell his partner, who was out of the country with their children.
But he told Om Ayan the same day.
He moved out of his home and stayed in a friend’s apartment, where he lay awake that October night, praying for a response from her.
More than 24 hours later, his phone dinged.
“They cut off the internet from the Gaza Strip for two days. It just came back, but we don’t have phone charging,” her message read.
Shortly after Oct. 7, as airstrikes hammered northern Gaza, Om Ayan wrapped up her 7-month-old daughter, hushing her cries, and packed a milk bottle and a lollipop, vaccination papers and medical records. She was two months pregnant with her second child.
Before walking out of her Gaza City apartment, she reached for the key — not knowing if she would ever need it again.
Israel’s war against Hamas has killed more than 28,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, many of them women and children.
She fled to her mother’s house in Khan Younis, where she was born. Water, milk and food for her family were hard to come by. By the time she messaged Heymann, she had not showered in more than two weeks.
Om Ayan kept her communications with him a secret.
“It is difficult to explain to the Arabs here that you are talking to an Israeli,” she said. “[They] may think that you are betraying your country and sharing security news with him.”
In reality, she was asking if he could send her some money, so she could afford flour, a tent, some medications. And she asked how he was doing, about the health of his mother and children.
As fighting escalated in her hometown, she took her family farther south, to Rafah, where she and her daughter, husband and his three children from a previous marriage crammed into a single tent. Rain poured down, soaking their nylon walls. Om Ayan told Heymann on Dec. 15 that she was worried for her health.
He was on the way to a demonstration in Tel Aviv when she messaged him. Thousands of Israelis had gathered to call for the release of hostages and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Heymann was one of only a handful of protesters to call for an end to the war.
Onlookers shouted curses at them.
On Dec. 30, Om Ayan escaped Gaza. Her brother had citizenship in another country and applied to get his family members out. The paperwork came through after weeks of waiting.
“There is hope that’s maybe maybe you will be out of this nightmare soon?!?! I pray for you all the time,” Heymann wrote when he found out.
But leaving brought its own agony for Om Ayan, who asked that her current location not be disclosed for security reasons. Her husband’s three older children weren’t allowed to come with them and had to stay behind with their aunts in Rafah. They were already sick from sleeping outside in the cold. Her husband wept.
She wrote to Heymann the day she crossed the border.
“I am now safe. I have escaped the death of Israeli bombing.”
“Amazing, amazing!” he cheered in a voice note. “Wow I am so happy that you left.”
“My sisters and children are still under bombardment there” she said. “😭😭”
“I pray for them dearest,” he replied.
Now, in a strange apartment of her own, Om Ayan reaches for her daughter in the middle of the night, as she did during the nights under bombardment. Doctors tell her she has high blood pressure that could put her pregnancy in danger. Try to relax, they tell her. But she is glued to the news, terrified for those still trapped in Gaza.
Heymann raised money for her family to help them adjust to their new lives. He continues to attend peace rallies, sometimes bringing his son along.
When his partner and kids left Israel for the winter, he decided to stay.
“It’s my memories and it’s my language and it’s my food,” he said. “I will always fight in order to make it a better place.”
Om Ayan feels the same pull of home, but her house has been destroyed. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to go back. But she hopes one day she can meet her Israeli friend.
“Just to look him in the eyes,” she said, “would be nice.”
Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.