Outside Ofakim, anguished parents seek signs of life from kids stranded in battle zone

Many young partygoers attending outdoor raves wound up in areas overrun by Hamas; some managed to send messages to parents, who rushed south laden with heavy hopes and fears

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rachel and Boaz Sadeh study their phones as they wait for a sign of life from their son, Ziv, on October 7, 2023, near Ofakim. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Rachel and Boaz Sadeh study their phones as they wait for a sign of life from their son, Ziv, on October 7, 2023, near Ofakim. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Standing in the sun at a roadblock outside the southern town of Ofakim, Rachel and Boaz Sadeh stared intently at the screen of a cellphone displaying a red dot on a map.

The dot represented the last known location of the couple’s 22-year-old son, Ziv, who on Saturday was among the thousands of Israelis who suddenly found themselves trapped behind enemy lines in their own country, following an unprecedented cross-border raid by Hamas terrorists.

The large-scale attack saw dozens of Hamas gunmen infiltrate several communities and fire thousands of rockets in a surprise attack Saturday morning, killing and maiming scores of civilians while taking more hostage, plunging the region into all-out war.

Ziv Sadeh, who was among several hundred young Israelis who had come to the northern Negev area to attend an all-night nature rave, shared his location with his parents while he was hiding in a basement in Ofakim, one of at least three cities that Hamas terrorists penetrated Saturday.

“I’m in a state of managed panic right now, because of this red dot,” said Rachel Sadeh. “That’s an improvement over the unmanaged panic of two hours ago.”

Ziv communicated with his parents first in a hush-voiced audio message and then via text messages so as not to expose his whereabouts to terrorists, who patrolled the streets of Ofakim as the Israel Defense Forces scrambled to secure the area, some 20 kilometers (15 miles) from the suddenly restive Gaza frontier.

As police cordoned off roads leading to the battle zones, families and friends rushed to roadblocks to be as near as possible to their loved ones, grasping for any bit of information about their whereabouts or wellbeing.

Palestinian terrorists transport an abducted Israeli civilian from Kibbutz Kfar Aza into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Wearing pajamas and slippers — what she had on when she got the news and jumped in the car with her husband to reach Ofakim — Rachel Sadeh veered between hope and fear as she awaited word from Ziv.

“They say that time is working in our favor now,” she said of her son’s chances of leaving Ofakim unscathed.

“But I just don’t know anymore. Maybe the opposite is true,” added the mother of three, envisaging a second attack. “We’ve been left alone, no one is guarding us. There’s nobody at the wheel.”

As new messages from Ziv came in, she gradually became less fearful that he would join the dozens of Israelis that Hamas troops apparently abducted and took into the Gaza Strip.

There were about 20 parents camped out at HaNassi Junction near Ofakim, though unlike the Sadehs, many were unable to communicate with their children at all.

Eyal Gordani had been waiting for hours without any sign of life from his son, Sharon Gordani, another partygoer, who he believes was killed. Asked by a police officer what he’s waiting for, he replied: “A miracle.”

Israeli soldiers deploy in Sderot, on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

IDF troops conducted multiple search and rescue missions along the roads in the battle zone. But many survivors were not extracted for hours, and as of Saturday night, many areas remained unsafe. Hiding from gun-toting terrorists, civilians called family and friends, who frantically searched for people with access to the battle zone who could help extract their loved ones. Some made whispered calls to TV stations, hoping their calls for help would be answered.

“Every half an hour I get a text from my daughter telling me ‘dad, come get me, they’re going to kill me,’ or, alternatively, ‘dad, I love you if I don’t see you again,'” one father told The Times of Israel at the roadblock. “I just feel like I can’t do anything to save her.”

His daughter, who had also been in the area for an all-night outdoor rave, was now holed up at a shelter in Kibbutz Re’im.

Smadar Bentov holds her dog as she waits for two of her children on October 7, 2023, near Ofakim. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Standing across the road from the Sadehs, Smadar and Israel Bentov waited patiently for two of their children, Moran and Meitav, who had also attended a nature rave in the area. Smadar Bentov held the family dog, who shivered with fear with each rocket thud, and as gunship helicopters chopped the air overhead en route to Ofakim and Gaza.

“I just want to see them,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. Her son, Moran, had been called up to his reserves unit, the Givati infantry brigade. But he was hiding with his sister inside a pillbox at a kibbutz near the nature party they attended, his mother said.

“I know that getting them home is only the beginning of my fears,” she said. Amid talk of an IDF ground incursion into Gaza, her son would be “wearing his uniform and heading back south within hours,” she said.

The early-morning attack caught partygoers exposed in open fields and other areas between small towns and kibbutzim where their all-night raves had taken place. Many fled for what they thought were safe havens, only to discover that they had been overrun by Hamas, said Aviad Solinsky, 23. He and two of his buddies ran to Kibbutz Be’eri, until they realized that Hamas gunmen were already in control there.

“We just hunkered down in the citrus groves and started asking people to extract us,” he said.

Eventually, an army detachment found Solinsky and another friend and brought them to HaNassi Junction, he said.

Multiple partygoers died at the hands of Hamas terrorists, according to witnesses quoted in Hebrew-language media.

“We drove off from the open area when we started hearing rockets,” one surviving raver told the Walla news site. “When we arrived at Alumim Junction we encountered an ambush of terrorists. They signaled us to pull over. They were armed. We realized something was off, they weren’t soldiers. We backed up and drove off as fast as possible.”

The terrorist opened fire on the reversing car, wounding two of the passengers lightly.

Israeli rescue teams evacuate a wounded person near the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023, after the Palestinian terror group Hamas launched a large-scale surprise attack on Israel, firing a barrage of rockets from Gaza and sending ground units to kill or abduct Israelis. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Yair Golan, a lawmaker for the left-wing Meretz party and a former deputy chief of staff of the IDF, was also at the roadblock. He had been shuttling between the battle area and junctions, bringing back stranded Israelis, mostly partygoers.

“Some people I know asked me if I can use the fact that I have access to help get out their loved ones,” Golan told The Times of Israel. He had made six trips in his car, encountering no terrorists.

Golan, a sharp-worded critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Israeli right wing, called the incursion, in which hundreds of Hamas fighters were able to stream into Israel and reach civilian populations, “a huge security failure,” and “the worst terror attack in the history of the State of Israel.” But he believes that the army and Israeli society have sufficient “muscle” to fight back effectively despite the divisions that the past year has exposed, he said.

“What we’re witnessing is proof of the miserable way in which we’ve been handling the Gaza conflict for decades,” Golan said.

But even the dovish ex-general noted that now was not the time to talk peace. “Once such an attack has happened, there is simply no escape from launching a massive campaign, which will go on for a while, until the military wing of Hamas is crushed.”

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