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Israelis shelter in Athens as war rages on

But since the 2010s, Greece has moved closer to Israel and is drawing a growing number of Israeli visitors
— Athens (AFP)

Hours after the traumatic October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Michael and his wife knew they had to abandon their Tel Aviv home and flee to the nearest destination, Athens, for the sake of their family.

"We left Israel to protect our children, so that they are (as little) traumatised as possible," the social scientist, who declined to give his surname for security reasons, told AFP.

"It's not normal for a child to hear alarms and hide in a safe room for a whole day," said the academic, who has lost family members and students in the October 7 attack that left 1,200 dead, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

In response, Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas and has unleashed an air and ground campaign that the Hamas government says has killed nearly 15,000 people, also mostly civilians.

Michael and his family, including a newborn, had never been to Athens before.

But many European airlines had suspended their connections to Israel, and the only available flight was to the Greek capital.

Like most of the Israelis AFP contacted in Athens, the forty-year-old wished to remain anonymous for fear of possible attacks.

- Anti-Semitic acts -

The Central Council of Jewish Communities in Greece has expressed "concern" after anti-Semitic acts in the wake of the war, including damage inflicted to a Greek Jewish store, and the vandalism of a Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki.

Some exiles here also fear being accused by fellow Israelis of having left the country during one of the worst crises in its history.

The exact number of Israelis arriving in Greece is difficult to estimate.

Most protests on the Israel-Hamas war in Greece since October 7 have been pro-Palestinian

But the Israeli embassy in Athens has asked the Greek government to extend tourist visas from 90 to 180 days to facilitate their stay.

Greece, which today has a small Jewish community of 5,000, is historically close to the Arab world and its population is largely committed to the Palestinian cause.

Most protests on the Israel-Hamas war in Greece since October 7 have been pro-Palestinian.

In 1990, Greece was the last EU country to officially recognise the existence of Israel.

But since the 2010s, it has moved closer to Israel and is drawing a growing number of Israeli visitors.

With 722,549 tourists last year, Israelis ranked in the top five nationalities to visit the country.

Most head to Thessaloniki, the northern Greek metropolis that was for centuries known as the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans', before the Nazis annihilated its prosperous Jewish community during World War II.

According to the Israeli community centre Mazi, ('together' in Greek) that was launched in 2021, around a hundred families have asked for help since October 7.

The association has set up an emergency telephone line to support new arrivals, particularly to help find housing, which is in short supply in the Greek capital.

The mood in the community of exiles is gloomy.

"Our lives are now on hold. We live day by day. We don't know when we will go back home, what will happen," said Tamar, a writer in her 30s who initially stayed with friends.

- Panic attacks -

Roy Danino, who coordinates a psychological aid program within Israeli Community Europe (ICE), says some in the community suffer from anxiety problems and panic attacks, and there are cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Tamar dreamed of opening a newspaper in Tel Aviv. But the heavy atmosphere in her city, deserted and cordoned off by the police, pushed her to come to Athens where she quickly offered to create a daycare for Israeli children.

"I was immediately overwhelmed with calls!" she said.

Thessaloniki was for centuries known as the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans', before the Nazis annihilated its prosperous Jewish community during World War II

Talia, an art therapist who has been in Athens with her two children for over a month, is still haunted by images of the Hamas attacks.

"I feel alone in a foreign country and the other people cannot understand my sadness," said the 47-year-old single mother.

"We are not on vacation here! My kids saw 30 rockets flying on top of their head. My uncle was murdered on the 7th of October," she said.

But despite her sadness, and difficulty in paying over 1,500 euros ($1,640) a month for her Airbnb rental, Talia remains hopeful.

"When I go back to my nation I want to take care of the women there and reach out to the Palestinian women. No one wants (their) kids dead. We need to teach our kids to love each other," she said.