The boom of Israeli defenses knocking down missiles from Gaza echo in the sky above a sterile glass police building near Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, where terrified people are desperate to find out anything about their missing loved ones. They plead for information about friends and family who disappeared in southern Israel — and fear they have been killed or taken captive in Saturday’s unprecedented attack led by Hamas that has stunned a nation.
Subverting Israel’s vast surveillance system to break through the fence sealing in Gaza in at least 20 locations while firing thousands of rockets into Israel, Hamas took over the fortress like Erez crossing checkpoint and invaded Israeli communities for the first time.
Armed combat between Palestinian fighters from Gaza and Israeli troops is still ongoing in Israeli communities adjacent to Gaza, two days after the Palestinian Islamic Nationalist movement launched a surprise attack. In its bloody assault, at least 700 Israeli civilians and soldiers have been killed — three quarters of casualties Israel experienced during the five years of the Second Intifada — in just the past two days, and nearly 2,400 people have been wounded.
Despite being caught up in continuous fighting inside Israel, the Israeli military has retaliated with a wide and punishing aerial assault on Gaza. Knocking out the power and plunging one of the world’s most populated places into darkness; towers, apartments blocks, and neighborhoods are being reduced to rubble from the sky. With nowhere to flee and no shelters to run to, the Gaza health ministry says that Israeli bombardment has killed 493 and wounded 2,751 people so far.
Of Israel’s dead, 260 are young people killed by Palestinian fighters while partying at an outdoor rave near Kibbutz Reim by the Gaza border. Their bodies were discovered on the dusty coastal flatlands on Sunday, and dozens more are missing and believed to be hostages in Gaza. An estimated 130 civilians and soldiers have been taken captive — a turn of events previously believed to be unthinkable.
While the Israeli government and military promise a long and devastating war, relatives of the missing are just desperate to find or free their loved ones and outraged at the government and security establishment for not seeing and preventing this.
“How could we be so weak and play like we are so good,” says Dima Markachenko, 31, with anger and despair. Standing outside the police station dedicated to finding the missing, Markachenko came from his home in northern Israel to find out anything he could about his brother Steve, 34, and his brother’s girlfriend, Alicia Lavin, 25, who were at the rave. He says they were last in contact with Lavin’s brother at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday, just prior to the attack. Tracking their car, he believes they tried to escape but has no idea what happened after their phones went off and says no one has been able to reach their car.
Along a stretch of highway between farmers’ fields and next to Gaza, abandoned cars and motorbikes are scattered while Israeli army units scour the area hunting for remaining pockets of Gaza fighters. Cars riddled with bullet holes and open doors with clothes strewn around tell a grim story of fear and death. Many of those killed were initially left in their cars until Israeli forces regained some control the next day.
Markachenko holds Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government he heads responsible for not preventing the carnage — despite its technological ability to see, listen, and attack any part of the coastal strip it besieged from air, land, and sea since 2007. A former soldier in Israel’s conscript military and veteran of the 2008 and 2012 Gaza wars, he feels cheated, neglected, and paying the price for a government that led him to believe that technological and military dominance of Gaza could prevent this. For him the only solution is a devastating retaking of Gaza, an increasingly popular Israeli opinion.
“Now we are in battle rhythm,” Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht said during a press briefing to avoid answering questions about intelligence failures.
It’s not a position that phases Hamas representative Basem Naim, who believes the attack will transform the Palestinian struggle and make Israel realize there is a cost to its unending rule over Palestinians. He acknowledges the massive cost that Palestinians will pay in response to its ongoing assault and emphasizes Israeli military casualties while minimizing civilian casualties. However, he points to the 16 years of unending blockade of Gaza unchecked, an intensifying military occupation that feels like West Bank annexation and most right wing government in Israeli history promoting settlement expansion. He cites Israeli cabinet ministers who support further Palestinian dispossession and have been defending widespread settler attacks on Palestinians while the international community fails to contain or pressure Israel. “You could say we have nothing left to lose,” he said.
Neither Israel’s government nor its military is keen to discuss the intelligence failure that has left the country feeling blindsided by its deadliest attack. Visiting the site of a grizzly attack in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim on Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with residents and security forces that retook a neighborhood from fighters who went door to door and shot residents in the street. A question was shouted at Gallant, about whether the attack hours earlier was the result of an intelligence failure. He stopped, turned around, and walked in the opposite direction.