Partygoers at a rave in the desert near the border with Gaza have told how the first hint of the horror raging towards them in the early hours of Saturday was a barrage of rockets roaring through the morning sky, as it emerged more than 260 people had died in the attack.
It was 6am. Most of the attendees, including a British and a German citizen, had not been to bed and were dancing to trance music under multicoloured tents set up for the Supernova festival.
The music stopped briefly and they dropped to the floor – a well-rehearsed drill for Israelis in the south of the country used to frequent cross-border exchange of fire with the Hamas militant group.
But this was so much worse than usual.
“For five minutes there wasn’t a second’s break without a rocket,” says bartender Peleg Oren, 26, one of those who escaped safely. The barrage was so relentless that his friend started to have a panic attack, and begged him to help her leave.
“I had my own car, I tried to convince friends to leave with me but some had already arranged taxis and wanted to stick together so they wouldn’t listen,” he told The Independent.
The main problem was many of the festivalgoers arrived on buses and had no transport. Minutes later, Hamas operatives who had blown through the border fence into Israel burst into the campus with grenades and assault rifles.
They shot and killed and kidnapped dozens of people, according to eyewitnesses and friends. They hunted down partygoers – many dressed in just swimsuits and shorts – as they tried to hide in the wooded area surrounding the encampment.
Parents and friends received panicked messages, seen by The Independent, desperately asking for help and for the army to deploy, saying they were wounded and had no way out.
One girl named by Israeli media as Karin had a pre-existing broken leg, her brace preventing her from being able to run.
“She had no way to escape,” her mother Inbal told the Israeli news network Mako. Those who escaped the initial onslaught were then filmed running through dusty fields against the backdrop of machine-gun fire with some dropping to the ground.
Then videos from Gaza started appearing online, including one showing a young woman Noa Argamani being abducted by Hamas militants as she rode with her boyfriend on a motorcycle.
“We last heard from Noa around 10am and then the next thing we see is her on a Hamas propaganda video,” says Yad Gorjalstan 27, a childhood friend.
“You can hear her screaming, “No, no, no, I am innocent!’” he added breaking down. Yad shared the last screenshots of Noa’s messages moments before she was captured where she says she was hiding with a group, while assailants were lynching people.
She repeatedly called for help, asking for soldiers to come and help them. “She was saying there are terrorists going crazy killing and kidnapping people,” Yad added, audibly shaken.
Among those believed to have been taken hostage in Gaza is a British man – named locally as Jake Marlowe – who had been doing security at the event according to Daniel Aboudy, a friend who spoke to The Independent.
He sent a last voice note saying he was watching militants “round up people from the party… in front of our eyes”. “We are telling everyone to get the f*** outta there,” he said in the voice note.
“We have spoken to the home front command in Israel and then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but so far, we don’t know anything about what happened after that,” Daniel added.
On Sunday night, Israel’s search and rescue agency said more than 260 dead bodies had been recovered from the music festival. “They haven’t all been collected yet,” added the agency, called Zaka.
The Israeli military had earlier told The Independent they had no firm figures of how many had been abducted to Gaza from the festival – saying “very significant numbers of people” had been killed and taken hostage.
They are beginning the impossible task of trying to locate and retrieve them. “It is unlike anything we have ever seen,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, the international spokesperson for the army.
“There is a deep concern for the wellbeing and lives of the hostages. At this stage, I don’t think anyone can guarantee they will be returned alive. We do not know who is alive and who is dead.”
The hostages were not only taken from the Nova party. In Kibbutz Nirim, just 8km south of the festival, militants raided the town, going from house to house trying to abduct people.
One resident who asked not to be named said she knew of a family of three who had been kidnapped: “No one knows what happened to them.
“Terrorists broke into their house and took them hostage. It took the army almost eight hours to get here,” she told The Independent. “We have been hiding in our shelter all day.”
As for Peleg, the bartender, he only survived because he left the Nova festival just in time. He described manically driving through farmlands trying to find safety past bombed-out cars full of shot-up Israeli civilians who had been killed trying to flee.
“There was no army or any help there at all. We used [navigation app] Waze to navigate through the fields, we saw a car returning that had been near us, the passenger circling his hand saying go back go back.
“There was a car full of holes and dead bodies inside. So we drove back into the fields.”
There was so much gun and missile fire that he parked by the side of the road and hid until help finally came.
“My friend Ori is still missing, as are the other bar staff,” he added.
Family members of the missing put out desperate pleas for help. The mother of Shani Louk, a tattoo artist whose body was filmed being driven around Gaza, released a video in German begging for her body to be returned.
Yad, Noa’s friend, says the family is devastated.
“My heart is broken as it’s Noa’s birthday coming up very soon and knowing she will be in Gaza is killing me.
“I was with Noa’s dad and family yesterday – to see him crying for help because his only child has been taken, he is broken, you can not imagine what this feels like.”
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