‘There Were Terrorists Inside’: How Hamas’s Attack on Israel Unfolded

The thousands of young Israelis had spent the night dancing at an outdoor rave, many clad in tie-dye T-shirts and crop tops.

They ended the night in a massacre.

Just after dawn on Saturday, hundreds of Palestinian militants bulldozed their way through the barricades between Gaza and Israel, drove into scores of Israeli towns along the border and sped through the farmland where the rave was reaching its sunrise climax.

The militants gunned down more than 100 ravers and abducted others, according to two senior Israeli officials, as they sprinted through the open fields. Video verified by The New York Times showed militants driving off on a motorcycle with an Israeli woman squeezed between them, screaming as her boyfriend was marched off on foot, his arm wrenched behind his back.

Those who survived often did so by hiding in nearby bushes, some of them for hours.

Bullets whistled overhead and shots resounded all around, said Andrey Peairie, 35, one of the survivors. He described crawling up to the top of a nearby hill to get a better sense of what was happening.

“Smoke and flames and gunfire,” said Mr. Peairie, a tech worker. “I have a military background, but I never was in a situation like this.”

Israeli soldiers search for remaining Hamas gunmen from Gaza in a residential neighborhood in Sderot, near where gunmen had taken over a police station.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

So began one of the bloodiest weekends in Israeli and Palestinian history, the full details of which started to emerge on Sunday as survivors recounted the most complex and brazen attack on their nation since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

About 700 Israelis were killed and at least 150 taken hostage by Palestinian militants, according to a preliminary assessment shared by a senior Israeli military official. Videos circulated of children and grandparents abducted from their homes in Israel and roadsides strewn with dead bodies.

The assault, staggering in its scale, prompted a fierce counterattack from Israel that has killed at least 413 Gazans in missile strikes and gun battles, according to Gazan health officials.

The violence began familiarly enough — with rocket fire from Gaza, just after dawn.

Amir Tibon and his neighbors in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a village that stands a few hundred yards from Gaza, have become accustomed to frequent rocket fire from militants.

Tali Touito was overwhelmed with emotion at her home in Sderot on Sunday as she described how Hamas gunmen attacked and took over the police station on her street and the gunfight that followed.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Bomb shelters are installed in every home in the kibbutz, and residents are used to rushing inside them every few weeks.

But soon after Mr. Tibon, 35, took shelter on Saturday with his wife and two young daughters, he knew that there was something very different about this attack.

The sound of gunfire.

Then came a morbid realization.

“There were terrorists inside the kibbutz, inside our neighborhood and — at some point — outside our window,” Mr. Tibon recalled. “We could hear them talk. We could hear them run. We could hear them shooting their guns at our house, at our windows.”

On the village WhatsApp group, neighbors were posting frantic messages. “People were saying, ‘They are in my house, they are trying to break into the safe room!’” recalled Mr. Tibon, a journalist for Haaretz, one of the country’s most prominent news outlets.

Messages from fellow reporters revealed even more terrifying news. They said that Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, had infiltrated scores of Israeli border towns, and that it would take time for the Israeli Army to reach the village.

Not long afterward, Mr. Tibon’s cell reception started to break up.

Thirteen miles to the east, deep inside Israeli territory, Meitav Hadad and her brother Itamar had no idea that Israel had been invaded.

The siblings had switched their phones off for the Jewish Sabbath.

Suddenly, shots rang out in their neighborhood of Ofakim, a small city of 33,000 residents in southern Israel.

Gabriel Trigun, taking cover as a rockets launched from Gaza were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system in Sderot, on Sunday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Mr. Hadad, 22, an off-duty soldier, grabbed his rifle and rushed into the street. Ms. Hadad, 18, a student at a religious seminary, followed him.

They expected perhaps a single shooter, the kind of lone-wolf attacker that frequently targets Israeli civilians, Ms. Hadad said.

But what they found was far more shocking: A squad of Palestinian militants, armed with rifles and a shoulder-born rocket launcher, had infiltrated their quiet neighborhood, miles from the border with Gaza.

“We didn’t understand what was happening,” Ms. Hadad said.

Terrified, she hid in a playground.

But her brother pressed on, joining forces with two other armed residents, cellphone video showed. He began firing on the militants, hitting two, before his gun jammed, forcing him to take cover, he said.

As he retreated, the militants shot him three times — once in the liver, once in the leg and the third time in the back.

He was losing blood fast, with nowhere to hide.

Desperate for shelter, he began hobbling from house to house, trying to persuade residents to take him inside, Mr. Hadad said. No one dared to open up, fearing he was himself a Palestinian fighter.

Israeli tanks, on their way to the border with Gaza on Sunday, passed through an area in Sderot that had been attacked by Hamas gunmen.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

To make himself seem less menacing, he stashed his gun in a fuse box. Finally, a couple opened their door and hurried him inside. The three of them stemmed his wounds by tearing up his jeans and using them as a tourniquet, his sister said.

As Israeli security forces began to retake control of the town, two police officers arrived to take Mr. Hadad to hospital. They heaved him back to the street, flagging down a passing car.

By coincidence, it was Mr. Hadad’s mother, Tali.

After he had failed to return home, the elder Ms. Hadad had broken her observance of the Sabbath and borrowed a neighbor’s car to search for her son.

Now, she was there to rescue him.

Fifty miles to the north, Mr. Tibon’s parents, Noam and Gali Tibon, also set out to rescue their family — leaving their home in Tel Aviv, jumping into their jeep and heading south.

Destination: Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

The couple had just a single pistol to protect them, Noam Tibon said. But they were not going to stand by while their family was in danger.

“We understood that if we will not go and get them, nobody will,” said Noam Tibon, a retired general. “If there are so many terrorists inside Nahal Oz, something has collapsed.”

As they drove south, the couple began to encounter police roadblocks, where officers ordered them to turn around.

“We said, ‘Listen, we have kids and grandkids in danger,’” Noam Tibon said. “And we just pushed forward.”

As they neared the Gaza border, they began to encounter revelers fleeing the rave, sprinting down the road, blood staining their clothes. The couple gave them a lift to a nearby city. The roadside and nearby farmland were strewn with dead bodies, Noam Tibon said.

An infant sleeping in a dining room in Kibbutz Mishmar HaNegev on Sunday after being rescued with a family that was hiding in a house in Kibbutz Kfar.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

A few miles from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Noam left Ms. Tibon at a less dangerous location before traveling onward with a wounded soldier they had encountered on the road.

But before they reached the village, they ran into a gunfight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. The two men jumped out and joined the fray.

Mr. Tibon said he then ferried two wounded Israelis to safety, handing them and his jeep over to his wife, a historian, who drove them north to the hospital.

Mr. Tibon headed south again, given a lift by a friend, another former general, whom he said he had run into by chance.

On the outskirts of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, he said, they joined forces with an Israeli commando unit that was about to try to retake the village.

After heading inside, they found the streets strewn with bodies, some Palestinian and some Israeli, Noam Tibon said.

Then they began clearing the village of militants, house by house.

Inside their safe room, Amir Tibon and his family could hear them coming.

An hour later, there was a bang on the wall of their bomb shelter, Amir Tibon said.

“And we heard my father say, ‘I’m here.’”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem; Hiba Yazbek from Nazareth, Israel; and Ronen Bergman from Ramat Hasharon, Israel.

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