‘Why him?’ sisters ask of beloved cousin’s murder
When Ma’ayan Jowell and Sigalit Levin were growing up in Port Elizabeth, their Israeli cousin, Avi Zakuto, came to stay with them for a few months. “Avi moved in with us when I was 15 and become our ‘big brother’. My friends all thought he was so good-looking,” remembers Jowell, who now also lives in Modi’in, Israel. He was her eldest cousin, and she saw him as someone larger than life, “with the hugest heart” who “gives the best hugs, sweeping me off my feet”.
But coming out of Shabbat and Simchat Torah on the evening of 7 October, Jowell was told that Zakuto, aged 53 and a father of two, hadn’t been in contact with anyone for many hours. Only three weeks earlier, he had moved from Be’er Sheva, where he grew up after coming to Israel from Turkey as a toddler, to Ofakim, a city in southern Israel. “He moved so he could be closer to his work as a manager of large Shufersal store,” says Jowell. “When we were searching for him, lots of people recognised his picture as they knew him from the store.”
Like many other Israelis searching for loved ones after Hamas unleashed a massacre on the citizens of southern Israel, Jowell pleaded for answers on Facebook. “If anyone is in Ofakim and has seen my cousin, Avi Zakuto, please let us know,” she wrote. “We haven’t heard from him since this morning. He’s my first cousin, and means the world to me. We need confirmation that he’s safe.”
However, her worst fears were confirmed when she found out that “tragically, he was murdered during the terrorist raid of Ofakim. No-one is 100% sure what happened, but we do know he was killed in his home, unarmed, as an innocent civilian.” The army broke the news to his heartbroken parents. “And my safta [grandmother], who is 95 and also lives in Israel, now has to endure this heartbreak – the murder of her eldest grandchild,” says Jowell.
“We haven’t been able to get his body or have a funeral yet, but at least we will have some closure,” she says, noting that this closure has been so cruelly taken from so many Israelis who have no idea of the fate of their loved ones. One of Zakuto’s grown children is studying medicine, and the other is in the army. They will now live the rest of their lives without their warm and loveable father.
Hearing the news from her home in Australia, Levin says she felt “devastated, shocked, and angry”. “Why you?” she asked rhetorically. “The most wonderful father, son, grandson, brother, nephew, and our first cousin, Avi was the most selfless human and always made his family a priority. Continents apart, I’m so grateful for our WhatsApp video calls or voice notes. You gave the biggest hugs, and you meant it! We’ll treasure the times spent together as a family with you in Israel. We’re absolutely heartbroken.”