Before Hamas’s largest-ever incursion into Israeli territory, Kibbutz Be’eri near Ofakim was known mostly for its thriving print factory, manicured landscaping and budding cultural scene.
But following Saturday’s surprise attack on Israel by hundreds of terrorists who crossed in from the nearby Gaza Strip, Be’eri has become a symbol of the tragedy that caused the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and drew a declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel was at war with the Hamas terror group.
To many Israelis, the events in Be’eri exposed a military weakness whose extent few anticipated, and which to some is reminiscent of some of the Jewish state’s most uncertain times.
Early on Saturday, dozens of terrorists entered the kibbutz, which was established in 1946 as part of a strategic plan to help the future state withstand an invasion from Egypt.
Hamas troops then appeared to gradually gain control of the entire kibbutz, whose 1,200 residents make it the largest of the 25 villages that make up the Eshkol Regional Council. An as-yet-undisclosed number of kibbutz members were killed; several are believed to have been abducted and taken to the Gaza Strip.
“They walked around Be’eri like they owned the place,” Haim Jelin, a survivor from the kibbutz and a former lawmaker and ex-head of the Eshkol Regional Council, told Army Radio Sunday.
“They shot indiscriminately, abducted whoever they could, burned down people’s homes so they’d have to escape through the window, where the terrorists would wait,” added Jelin, who called what happened in Be’eri a “massacre.” He said he had no precise tally of fatalities, survivors, abductees or missing persons from Be’eri.
It was part of an unprecedented raid by hundreds of armed Hamas troops who appeared to traverse the restive border area with ease, penetrating at least three cities – Ofakim, Sderot and Netivot – and multiple villages.
In Be’eri, the invasion featured an element that few Israelis could have imagined: A man wearing civilian clothes explained what was unfolding in Arabic to a cameraman, as an embedded journalist would, as armed Hamas fighters were seen running down the concrete paths that are a feature in many of Israel’s kibbutzim.
It was an unprecedented image of victory by Hamas, whose terrorists went on a door-to-door roundup of kibbutz members, killing people and rounding up at least 50 others and holding them captive.
About 17 hours after terrorists took control of the kibbutz, security forces said they had freed all the hostages – dozens of whom were kept in the dining hall – but were still sweeping the place for hostiles. The Israel Defense Forces killed dozens of terrorists on Israeli soil and hundreds more in strikes in Gaza, according to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
Netanyahu has said that Israel will win what he called a war with Hamas, warning it will “crush” its capabilities.
But those reassurances did little to calm some of the existential fears that had receded into the background of the Israeli psyche as the country grew stronger, but which have resurfaced following Hamas’s major military achievement on Saturday.
“It was a shocking moment because it felt like it was a scene from 1948,” said Einat Barzilai, a writer and lecturer on Israeli culture.
The kibbutz’s occupation by terrorists from Gaza for most of Saturday, she said, transported her to the Jewish state’s most perilous moment, when even many of its residents doubted its — and their — short-term viability.
The Gaza incursion happened a day after the 50th anniversary of the surprise invasion into Israel by the armies of Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War, a traumatic event that shook many Israelis’ confidence in the vigilance of the country’s military and political leadership.
“But the Yom Kippur War happened on the front. The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, when your own home is under attack — that’s more reminiscent of the War of Independence” of 1948, said Barzilai, who lives in Jerusalem.
The events in Be’eri made Shimon Riklin, a right-wing commentator on Israel’s hawkish television station Channel 14, reverse his bellicose tone on Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, which many fear may join the fighting.
“When you see what happened in Be’eri, you get a sense that it’s better to focus on liberating all areas held by terrorists inside Israel. Let’s do that and then start assessing whether we’re still in shape to take on Hezbollah, which is a much tougher fighting force than Hamas,” Riklin said on air Saturday during a panel show called The Patriots.
“We’ve been left alone, no one is guarding us. There’s nobody at the wheel,” said Rachel Sadeh, a mother of three in her fifties who immigrated to Israel many years ago from the former Soviet Union. On Saturday, she waited for her son, Ziv, to be extracted from a hideout that he’d found after escaping terrorists near Be’eri. Ziv Sadeh was one of dozens of young men and women who ended an all-night rave party in nature by escaping the advancing Hamas terrorists.
The army initiated a massive call-up of reserves soldiers in preparation for a land invasion into Gaza, which Netanyahu said will experience a retaliation on a scale Hamas had never before known. The terrorist group has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, including on Tel Aviv, which have killed multiple individuals.
‘Everything amounts to nothing’
Some of the testimonies from Hamas-held Be’eri suggested not only a failure by security forces to regain control of the kibbutz, but their long and total absence from the scene for hours after some of the worst of the hostilities had occurred.
Amit Man, a 22-year-old paramedic, was holed up at the Be’eri clinic for six hours with people wounded in the attack. Her sister, Haviva, on Saturday posted to Facebook screenshots of the sisters’ hours-long correspondence with each other.
In the last sign of life from the paramedic, who had frequently asked her sister for updates on when the army would retake Be’eri, Amit Man wrote of the terrorists around 2 p.m.: “They are here. I don’t think I’ll make it out of here. Please be strong if something happens to me.”
Haviva Man wrote on Facebook: “Despite all the progress, the military advancements and technology, it feels like everything amounts to nothing.”
Amit Man’s fate was unknown as of Sunday morning.
In a statement late on Saturday, Netanyahu said that Israel was “embarking on a long and difficult war” that was “forced upon us by a murderous attack.”
The war’s initial phase includes “destroying most of the enemy forces” that entered Israeli territory, he said. An offensive into Gaza was underway, Netanyahu said, “and it will continue without hesitation and without respite – until the goals are achieved.” He added: “We will restore security to the citizens of Israel and we will win.”
Back in Jerusalem, Barzilai, not normally a fan of some of the liberal values characteristic of Israel’s largely secular kibbutzim, drew encouragement from the throwback to Israel’s first war.
“When you see the danger, you gain an appreciation for the resoluteness and sacrifice of these modern-day pioneers in the kibbutzim — but also in cities like Ofakim and Sderot – who live under this level of threat day in, day out,” she said.
So whereas the conflict triggered some fears from 1948 – when about one percent of the Jewish population of pre-state Israel died in hostilities — “It’s also a reminder that the spirit of those pioneers ultimately won that war, and will win the next ones,” Barzilai said.
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