Some 260 people were mowed down by Hamas gunmen who invaded an outdoor music festival in southern Israel during their deadly assault on the country over the weekend, an emergency group said Sunday, as the country struggled to absorb the extent of the carnage unleashed by the terror group a day earlier that marked the deadliest single day in the nation’s history.
The announcement by ZAKA, a volunteer group that handles human remains after terror attacks and other disasters, amplified fears for many parents and friends amid frantic searches for their loved ones who have gone missing since the unprecedented Hamas assault. While many of the missing are among the dead, many of whom have not yet been identified, others are thought to have been kidnapped and spirited into Gaza, where terror groups are holding over 100 people.
The attack on the Nova festival, an all-night rave that drew some 3,000 mostly young Israelis, was captured in chaotic scenes that showed terrified partygoers racing across vast open fields and taking cover in orchards.
Participants have described a nightmarish massacre, with terrorists — who had apparently known in advance of the event and directed significant forces there — surrounding the participants and cutting down dozens of them with rifle fire, then moving through the area and hunting people in hiding to execute or capture.
A spokesperson for ZAKA said some 260 bodies had been collected at the site, near Kibbutz Re’im.
At least 700 people were killed in the brazen Saturday morning attack, which saw Hamas terrorists overrun at least 22 locations including sleepy farming communities and a town some 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the frontier, killing people in the streets and in their homes in a ferocious surprise attack unlike anything seen in the country before.
Gunbattles between military forces and holed-up gunmen raged throughout Saturday, with the army slowly recovering from its shock and killing and capturing numerous terrorists, after long hours in which the gunmen ravaged towns under their control. By Sunday night there were few such battles, but the army said there were still pockets of terrorists in the area, and efforts to completely secure the communities were ongoing.
Israel vowed to take the fight back to Hamas; Israeli jets and helicopter gunships hit over 800 sites in Gaza throughout Sunday as reserves troops girded for a wide offensive against Gaza-based terrorists. An American aircraft carrier, accompanied by fighter jets and gunboats, steamed toward the region in a show of support for Israel’s war effort as the United States offered unwavering support.
The dead included at least 57 soldiers, including top officers, and 34 police officers.
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer said he understood the actual death toll to be significantly higher. “There will probably be more hundreds, several hundred more,” he said.
As remains of the dead were recovered and taken for identification, desperate parents were among those who lined up at a missing person’s center that was set up near Ben Gurion Airport on Saturday evening. Relatives were told to bring items such as toothbrushes that could contain DNA.
The number of wounded also continued to tick upward throughout the day. The Health Ministry said late Sunday that 2,315 people were treated at hospitals, including 23 people in critical condition and hundreds more also fighting for their lives.
Alongside the invasion, carried out by terrorists in convoys of pickup trucks and motorbikes as well as speedboats and motorized gliders, Gazan terrorists fired thousands of rockets at Israel, hitting homes in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Sunday saw the rocket fire largely subside, with sporadic barrages targeting areas closer to the Gaza Strip throughout the day. Moments before midnight, however, a large bombardment targeted areas as far north as Rishon Lezion and Rehovot, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Gaza. While many rockets were downed by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, direct hits were recorded on homes and in populated areas including in Netivot, Ashkelon and Sderot.
Some 40 hours after the onslaught began, troops were still sweeping southern communities and battling pockets of terrorists remaining in Israeli territory, the Israel Defense Forces said. Hostage situations in a number of locations were only brought to a close early Sunday morning.
The army released little information about which communities remained under threat.
In Sderot, the largest town in the area, parts of the city remained strewn with rubble from intense fighting the day before, including a standoff at a police station overtaken by Hamas terrorists and eventually destroyed by Israeli forces. Roads throughout the south were strewn with bullet-ridden and burnt vehicles, pools of blood still staining sidewalks and streets, evidence of the deadly butchery wreaked by the invaders a day earlier.
The ongoing fighting and informational fog compounded tough questions about the various failures that had allowed Gazan terrorists to carry out the onslaught seemingly unimpeded.
Relatives of those missing or thought kidnapped or killed said they felt abandoned by authorities, with many saying they had yet to be contacted by officials at all.
The current situation is “unbelievable… it’s impossible to understand. We are demanding this government give us answers. We know they won’t all be happy answers,” Uri David, whose two daughters are missing, said at a press conference called by relatives seeking answers.
באנגלית ובעברית – שכל העולם ידע
אורי דוד, ששתי בנותיו נעדרות, מספר בקול חנוק מבכי על הרגעים בהם דיבר עם בנותיו על רקע ירי המחבלים: "שמעתי שטווחים בהן, עד ששמעתי 4 נשימות. וזהו" pic.twitter.com/KUEnceAKIt
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 8, 2023
That sense of chaotic and lackluster management of the disaster continued widespread sentiment on Saturday, when numerous besieged residents in overrun communities made urgent whispered pleas for help in phone calls to loved ones and authorities, begging for rescue that in many cases did not arrive for long hours, as the army struggled to mount a response.
Some families sought information on social media, which was filled with horrifying videos, filmed by terrorists, of men, women and children being carried into the Strip, many of them appearing to have been abused.
The Israel Defense Forces said it had established a situation room to focus on putting together accurate information regarding the Israeli hostages, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad claiming to hold at least 130 people.
And the government announced Sunday that Gal Hirsch, a reservist brigadier-general who commanded the 91st Division in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, would be its point man on missing and kidnapped citizens.
A number of foreign nationals and dual citizens were among those feared kidnapped or killed, including victims from the US, UK, France, Germany, Thailand, Mexico, Nepal and elsewhere. Many had been at the rave, like Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin.
The 23-year-old was last heard from at 8:11 a.m. on Saturday, when he sent two messages to his parents: “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”
A US official said four Americans had been killed and another seven were missing, though the numbers were likely to change.
A day after announcing that Israel would carry out a broad retaliatory campaign in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was largely silent on Sunday. His office announced Sunday afternoon that ministers had approved formally declaring war the night before, and shortly afterward the IDF announced that it was intensifying strikes on Gaza.
Israel hit more than 800 targets in Gaza so far, its military said, including airstrikes that leveled much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the enclave’s northeast corner.
Warplanes fired tons of explosives on 120 targets, spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters, saying Hamas was using the town as a staging ground for attacks.
“We will continue to strike in this way, with this force, continuously, on all gathering (places) and routes” used by Hamas, Hagari said.
The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said 413 Palestinians had been killed and another 2,300 had been wounded in the Gaza Strip. Israel said it killed at least 400 Palestinian terrorists both in Israel and in strikes in Gaza. Another 11 Palestinians were reported killed in West Bank unrest, though there was little information about those clashes, with efforts mainly concentrated in the south.
Late Sunday, the IDF said an elite naval commando unit had captured the deputy commander of the southern division of the Hamas naval force in Gaza, Muhammad Abu Ghali. The Gazan officer could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a prisoner swap, though as of Sunday, both Israel and Hamas denied that any such talks were taking place, even as Egypt offered to act as a mediator.
In the north, a brief flare-up with the Hezbollah terror group that brought mortar fire on border areas was swiftly extinguished. But it brought with it fears of a wider conflagration, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered that plans be drawn up for a possible evacuation of northern towns should the Iranian proxy group get involved.
In Tehran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi praised the Hamas attack and large posters and rallies celebrated the assault, dubbed “Al-Aqsa Flood” by Hamas, referring to the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Raisi said he had spoken with Hamas and Islamic Jihad Sunday and Hamas and Hezbollah officials told The Wall Street Journal that Iran had played a major role in planning the attack. However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC news that the US had not seen evidence of direct Iranian involvement.
“In this moment, we don’t have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out,” he said, “but that’s something we’re looking at very carefully, and we’ve got to see where the facts lead.”
Agencies contributed to this report.