JERUSALEM (AP) — The night was a getaway. Thousands of young men and women gathered in a huge field in southern Israel near the Gaza border to dance carefree. Friends old and new jumped up and down, enjoying the swirl of the bass-heavy beats.
Maya Alper stood at the back of the bar with teams of environmentally conscious volunteers, picking up trash and handing out free vodka shots to partygoers who reused their cups. Shortly after 6 a.m., as the bright blue dawn broke and the headlining DJ took the stage, air raid sirens cut through the ethereal trap music. Rockets shot over us.
Alper, 25, jumped into her car and ran to the main street. But at the intersection she encountered a crowd of desperate festival-goers shouting at drivers to turn around. Then a noise. Firecrackers? Panicked, men and women stumbled down the street directly in front of her, falling to the ground in pools of blood. Shots.
Saturday’s attack on the Tribe of Nova open-air music festival is considered the worst massacre of civilians in Israel’s history, with at least 260 people dead and an as yet undetermined number of hostages taken. Dozens of Hamas fighters who had breached Israel’s heavily fortified separation fence and entered the country from Gaza, opened fire on about 3,500 young Israelis who had gathered for a joyous night of electronic music to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Some participants were drunk or under the influence of drugs, which added to their confusion and horror.
The Associated Press reviewed more than a dozen videos taken during the massacre and interviewed survivors to reconstruct the sequence of the deadly attack. The party took place in a dusty field outside Kibbutz Re’im, about 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) from the wall that separates Gaza from southern Israel.
“We hid and ran, hid and ran, in an open field – the worst place you can be in this situation,” said Arik Nani from Tel Aviv, who went to the party to celebrate his 26th birthday celebrate. “For a country where everyone in these circles knows everyone else, this is a trauma the likes of which I could never have imagined.”
As rockets rained down, revelers said, militants gathered at the festival site, while others waited near bomb shelters and gunned down people seeking refuge. Many of the militants, who arrived in trucks and on motorcycles, wore body armor and brandished AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Videos compiled by Israeli first responders and posted on the social media site Telegram show gunmen rushing into the panicked crowd and mowing down fleeing revelers with automatic fire. Many victims were shot in the back while running.
Israeli communities on both sides of the festival site were also attacked. In Saturday’s unprecedented surprise attack, Hamas gunmen kidnapped dozens of men, women and children – including the elderly and disabled – and killed scores more.
The harrowing impact of the festival became clear on Monday when Israel’s Zaka rescue service said paramedics had recovered at least 260 bodies. Festival organizers said they would help Israeli security forces locate participants who were still missing. The death toll could rise as teams continue to clear the area.
As the carnage unfolded before her, Alper pulled a few disoriented-looking revelers from the street into her car and accelerated in the opposite direction. One of them said he lost his wife in the chaos and Alper had to stop him from getting out of the car to find her. Another said she had just seen Hamas gunmen shoot her best friend. Another rocked in his seat and muttered over and over again: “We are going to die.” Alper watched in the rearview mirror as the dance floor where she had spent the last ecstatic hours turned into a huge cloud of black smoke.
Festival-goers who managed to reach the street and parking lot where their vehicles were parked were caught in a traffic jam where militants chased the cars and fired shots at those inside. Drone footage of the scene taken after the attack and reviewed by the AP shows chaotic lines of cars that drivers had tried to flee. Some burned-out vehicles were thrown on their sides, while others had bullet holes visible in broken windows.
Nowhere is safe, said Alper. The roar of explosions, hysterical screams, and automatic gunfire grew closer to her the further she drove. When a man just a few feet away shouted, “God is great!”, Alper and her new companions jumped out of the car and sprinted through open fields toward a clump of bushes.
Alper felt a bullet whiz past her left ear. Aware that the gunmen would elude her, she plunged into a tangle of bushes. As she peered through the thorns, she said she saw one of her passengers, the girl who had lost her friend, scream and collapse as a gunman stood grinning over her limp body.
“I can’t even explain what energy they (the militants) had. It was so clear they didn’t see us as people,” she said. “They looked at us with pure hatred.”
Videos show the gunmen executing some of the wounded at close range as they crouched on the ground. Some of the militants even searched their victims’ vehicles and stole handbags and backpacks.
An unknown number of festival-goers were taken hostage. A video posted by militants on social media and reviewed by the AP shows an Israeli couple, Noa Argamani and her partner Avinatan Or, being dragged away by their captors.
Argamani, his face contorted in panic, screams “No, no!” in Hebrew as he is forced onto a motorcycle, sandwiched between two armed men. She reaches for Or, whose hands are tied behind his back, as a group of militants marches him forward.
Her whereabouts are currently unknown. But Hamas claims it is currently holding more than 100 Israelis hostage. On Monday, the group threatened to systematically kill prisoners if the Israeli military bombed Palestinian areas without warning.
For more than six hours, Alper and thousands of other concertgoers hid without help from the Israeli army while Hamas militants fired automatic shots and threw grenades.
Her limbs were so twisted in the bush that she couldn’t move her toes. At various points, she heard militants speaking in Arabic right next to her. Alper, a yoga devotee who practices meditation, said she focused on her breath — “breathing and praying in every way I thought possible.”
“Every time I thought about anger, fear or revenge, I breathed it out,” she said. “I tried to think of what I was grateful for – the bush that hid me so well that even birds landed on it, the birds that were still singing, the sky that was so blue.”
As an Israeli Army tank instructor, Alper knew she was safe when she heard a different type of explosion – the sound of an Israeli Army tank shell. She screamed for help and soon soldiers lifted her out of the bush. The lifeless body of one of her friends lay around her. The girl in her car who had seen her collapse was nowhere to be found; She believes Hamas fighters took her to Gaza.
Alper said the Israeli army was unsure what to do with her on the way to battle Hamas militants in hard-hit Kibbutz Be’eri near the Gaza border.
At that moment, a pickup truck full of Palestinian citizens of Israel pulled up. The men from the Bedouin town of Rahat combed the area to help rescue Israeli survivors. They helped Alper into her car and drove her to the police station, where she fell crying into her father’s arms.
“This is not just war. “This is hell,” Alper said. “But in this hell, I still feel like we can somehow choose to act out of love and not just fear.”
Biesecker reported from Washington.