Mia Leimberg emerged from nearly two months’ captivity in Gaza with Bella, her Shih Tzu, in her arms, one of the most astonishing moments of a week-long ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that ended last Friday.
“When we were there we had to feed her our leftovers – yeah I’m talking about you Bella,” said Mia, 17, looking down at the small white dog in her arms. “And we had to make sure that she doesn’t run wild where we were. We had to keep her so that she doesn’t go exploring and annoy anybody there.”
Mia and her mother Gabriela were visiting family in Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak when they were taken hostage by Hamas during its Oct. 7 killing spree through southern Israel, sparking the war with the Palestinian Islamist group in Gaza.
The mother, daughter, aunt and dog were set free as part of a swap for Palestinian prisoners, but her uncle and her aunt’s partner remain in captivity.
“It was difficult. I held her (Bella) all the way there. It was an extra four kilos. And I’m just lucky enough that I managed to keep her through that whole situation and bring her back,” Mia said from her home in Jerusalem in her first media interview.
Descriptions of Hamas captivity have started to emerge with the return home of some of the Israeli hostages. Some have described ‘suffocating’ quarters, with no access to medication and dwindling food. Children have recounted being ordered always to keep quiet.
“Luckily for me Bella is unlike all the other small dogs that I personally know, she is rather quiet, unless when she is playing or mad,” she said. “If they would have seen her as a bother I think they would not have let me keep her, in all honesty.”
‘SHE WAS A HUGE HELP TO ME’
Many pets were killed or went missing during Hamas’ rampage.
Mia’s father Moshe said they searched for Bella during the weeks of his family’s captivity. The day of their release, he was surprised to hear she came out holding the dog.
He described in more detail what his daughter went through to keep Bella. “She was worried that something would happen to the dog if she left her behind,” he said.
Mia hid the dog under her pyjamas as they were loaded into a vehicle that drove out of the kibbutz.
“Then they took them to tunnels … she had the dog with her the whole time,” he said. “When they came out of the tunnel they had to climb up a ladder, that’s when the Hamas people noticed that this was not a doll, it was a living, breathing dog.”
“A bit of an argument ensued, and it was decided to let her keep the dog instead of leave it behind.”
The captives cleaned up after the dog to prevent bad smells.
“She was very determined to bring the dog back, and one of the expressions that she has now, about the dog, is ‘I love you to Gaza and back’.”
More than 100 hostages were freed in the truce that ended on Friday. Since then fighting has resumed with Israel pursuing its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
Mia described how captivity was a tough experience that “will take quite the while to, like, sink in.” But having Bella helped. “She was a huge help to me. She kept me busy. She was moral support.”
She said they will fight for the freedom of the other hostages, including her uncle and aunt’s partner.
“We miss them every day and it feels wrong being here without them,” she said. “As much as I am happy to be back, we’re still not done.”