How Hamas’s attack unfolded in Israel’s southern border towns

Survivors recount the horrors of Hamas’s attacks that left over 1,200 people dead as Israeli troops are pounding Gaza and preparing for a ground offensive

October 12, 2023 01:23 am | Updated 01:19 pm IST - Sderot

Volunteers of the Zaka Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish emergency response team remove the bodies of killed Palestinian Hamas militants from outside the police station in Sderot.

Volunteers of the Zaka Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish emergency response team remove the bodies of killed Palestinian Hamas militants from outside the police station in Sderot. | Photo Credit: AFP

October 7, Saturday, was the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, or Simhat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah). It is one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, and Rabbi Osher Pizam rose early for the long, festive morning prayers. The night before, he had been singing and dancing with Torah scrolls amid a crowd of 200 strong at the Chabad community synagogue in his hometown of Sderot, located less than 1 km from Beit Hanun. Both are towns of roughly 30,000 on opposing sides of the northeastern border of the Gaza Strip.

A heavy barrage of rockets began a bit before 6:30 a.m., and he remained home. After a while, there was a break in firing, and Rabbi Pizam opened the door to leave, but at the last minute, his phone rang. As an Orthodox Jew, he doesn’t use his phone on the Sabbath. But the phone’s screen showed his brother-in-law’s number, an Orthodox Jew himself. Realising he would only call for an emergency, Rabbi Pizam answered.

“Don’t go out!”, warned his relative.

“But this is Sderot, I’m used to danger”, objected Rabbi Pizam.

“No, this is different. Armed terrorists have arrived on trucks, and they have killed dozens of people in the streets.”

Rabbi Pizam was saved.

A few minutes before 6:30 a.m., a coordinated attack was mounted on the border fence separating the 41-km-long Gaza Strip from Israel. Over 1,000 militants from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) breached the hi-tech fence in 29 locations with tractors and bulldozers and began flowing over the border, armed with automatic weapons, riding motorcycles and trucks.

The bases and command posts along the border were lightly staffed due to the holiday and to a partial redeployment of troops to other locations. The young female soldiers manning the surveillance cameras along the borders watched in disbelief as the armed masses flowed over the border, vastly outnumbering the soldiers on their bases. Top military brass stated time and again the fence was impenetrable and that an attack like this was the stuff of fantasy. The Palestinians overran all the bases, large and small, along the border, along with around 20 Kibbutzim, agricultural villages numbering under 1,000 residents each.

As of Wednesday morning, official reports are slowly coming out about the carnage that ensued. Social media in Hebrew and Arabic offers far greater details. The most widely shared videos were filmed by the attackers and are as graphic as ISIS media productions. Popular Palestinian Telegram channels such as “Gaza Now in Arabic” proudly display the gunfights, executions, mutilation of bodies, captivity of young women, and the events of the massacre at the supernova rave party at Re’im Forest. Some videos are set to joyous music. A post with a picture of the tent housing many of the 260 corpses of the festivalgoers is one of many that received thousands of love and laughing icons, and countless glowing comments.

Israeli posts feature heart-wrenching stories of entire families slaughtered in Kibbutzim, and of young soldiers killing multiple attackers until they collapsed outnumbered. Leading posts include friends and family of those still missing or those who are known to have been taken in captivity to Gaza. Hamas and the PIJ claim to hold over 130 captives.

The full list of captives is still being compiled, but survivors and Palestinian social media inform that they include many young women, mothers, infants, and elderly, soldiers and officers, probably including Maj.-General Nimrod Aloni.

In villages such as Be’eri and Nir Oz, attackers went house to house slaughtering or capturing everyone they found. Houses they could not breach were set ablaze forcing residents to come out into their murderous grasp.

Friends mourn Tamar Kedem of Nir Oz, murdered along with her husband and three daughters. Three generations of the Asher-Katz family were taken captive from Nir Oz, including three and five-year-old girls. Ditza Heiman, 84, is missing, as an the 80-year-old couple, Oded and Yocheved Liefschitz.

Privately, stories are emerging of young women at the music festival raped next to the corpses of their friends and then murdered or dragged into captivity. The horrors will continue to be uncovered for many months to come.

In Sderot, the attackers stormed the police station, murdered the few policemen inside and looted the armoury. As medics and firefighters emerged, they were killed too. Some attackers remained inside the fortified police station until the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos arrived.

A fierce battle ensued, as soldiers employed the IDF’s Pressure Cooker protocol, firing heavy barrages of missiles in an attempt to either force the attackers out or collapse the building on them. The fortifications proved too strong, and as casualties mounted among the special forces, a tank was brought in to topple the building. The tank shells set the building on fire.

Gun battles raged on for 36 hours in the streets of Sderot until noon on Sunday. By then, most of Sderot’s 30,000 residents had cleared out. The burnt police station was demolished on Monday morning, amid a deathly silence on the empty streets.

By Monday evening, IDF soldiers reclaimed all Israeli territory and eliminated the last of Palestinian fighters. Mounds of corpses are still being found. The official death count from Saturday’s events is over 1,200 and rising, with over 3,000 injured, by far the deadliest day in Israel’s history.

Over 300,000 reserve troops have been called up in the largest draft in Israeli history. Tens of thousands are currently along the Gaza border awaiting the H-Hour. Others are guarding the north. Hezbollah has begun testing the waters with small-scale infiltration, seeking the right moment to join its fellow Iranian proxy, Hamas, in creating a multi-front battle.

What comes next

As this report is written from Sderot, black smoke is rising from Beit Hanun and Gaza City. They are pounded by round after round of munitions delivered by Israel Air Force and Navy. Shaati and Jebaliyya Refugee camps were also targeted. Hamas’s dearest assets remain intact underground, including the central command centre underneath Shifa Hospital.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has imposed a full siege on Gaza: no electricity, water, gas, or food will enter from Israel till further notice. The last of three water conduits was turned off Monday night. Gaza’s small power plant will run out of fuel by Thursday.

All this is but a promo for the ground war soon to begin. As of Wednesday, Hamas has reported 1,055 casualties in Gaza. IDF Spokesman counted “1500 dead terrorists” in Israeli territory. A full-scale invasion will see the death of many more armed Palestinian combatants, even before counting civilians.

The objective of the ground war remains to be seen. A full conquest of the Gaza Strip, toppling the Hamas rule, and installing Israeli governance of any form could be an objective, but one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done all in his power to avoid. He still seems intent on avoiding it, even as members of his Likud Party call for it. Others mention objectives such as “removing Hamas military capabilities”, are less clear-cut.

What can be said for certain is that that the Israeli public is in a state of shock, mourning, and mounting rage and there is a broad public consensus that Hamas deserves mercy no more.

Netanyahu’s responsibility

There is also much anger against the Netanyahu government. That will play out when the war is over, and an investigation will commence into the failure of the military intelligence and the Israeli leadership that allowed this calamity to befall Israel.

Sderot is a long-time Likud stronghold, and even here, there is anger towards the leadership. Zohara, a 75-year-old woman who lives with her blind son, did not open up immediately to questions. But as this writer sat in her living room on Sunday evening, she recalled the horrors of the previous night when she boarded up all her windows and listened helplessly for hours as attackers ran around her block shooting and attempting to break into houses.

Speaking softly, Zohara talked about her grandson who lived in Nir Oz. The young man hid in a locker all night texting frantically for help, and watching through a crack as Hamas rounded up his friends and decapitated them. The IDF came in the morning, and after a battle, took back the kibbutz. He then got into a car and drove to relatives in central Israel, deeply traumatised.

“They have all let us down: The Army, the government, all of them. They must pay for their incompetence. They have destroyed so many lives,” said Zohara.

(Yeshaya Rosenman is the head of the South Asia Project at Sharaka NGO, Tel Aviv)

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