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ASHKELON, Israel — Near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, terror and confusion reign.
As POLITICO arrives at the cataclysmic scene, parents hunt desperately for their missing children and demand retribution against the Hamas terrorists who perpetrated a bloodbath of monstrous proportions.
Israel has been in a state of emergency since Iranian-backed Hamas militants stormed out of the Gaza Strip at dawn on Saturday and unleashed a lethal assault on civilians, leaving more than 700 Israelis confirmed dead and 2,150 wounded.
It was the “largest civilian massacre” in Israeli history, army spokesman Doron Spielman tells POLITICO.
Sunday morning, we fly aboard a Ryanair jet from Berlin into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on one of the few commercial flights to Israel that has not been canceled. Typically vibrant and bustling, the city — which has come under fire from Palestinian rocket attacks — has been turned into a ghost town.
Driving south from Tel Aviv toward the hot zone attacked by Hamas, we pass cars crawling in the oppressive near-30-degree heat in the opposite direction away from Gaza.
Vehicles heading north are jammed for more than a dozen kilometers at a police checkpoint.
Beside the southbound lane, 25 Israeli battle tanks and several armored vehicles are stationed menacingly.
We eventually arrive in the seaside city of Ashkelon, near the northern border with the Gaza Strip. Wounded people are still pouring into the emergency entrance of Barzilai Hospital at noon on Sunday.
A father, Yomtov, searches for his son, Ben, who was partying with more than 4,000 other people at the Tribe of Nova trance music festival Saturday morning when Hamas terrorists opened fire on the celebrating crowd, killing hundreds.
Ben called his father after the shooting started, the man explains. “I heard only gunshots, screams and Arabic language. My son said nothing.”
Contact broke off, plunging the father into a dark uncertainty as to whether his son was even alive, whether he had been abducted to Gaza like dozens of others, or whether he was about to be brought here injured.
There is also terror here at the hospital, ripping at relatives of still-missing young people. What if, God forbid, our children appear on hostage videos from inside Gaza?
A mother cries out for her missing son. “I’m going crazy! Save our children!” She says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should wipe Gaza off the map. “I want my child back!”
At this point, the death toll’s enormity is not yet public. But later Sunday, the massacre’s catastrophic scale emerges. ZAKA, an Israeli volunteer rescue organization, has so far collected more than 250 dead bodies from the festival site, its spokesperson told Israeli media.
While anxious relatives wait outside the emergency room in Ashkelon, just 10 kilometers away the first Israeli battle tanks are rolling toward the small town of Sderot, right on the Gaza border.
In both Ashkelon and Sderot, cars sit by the side of the road, riddled with bullet holes. A Toyota belonging to one of the terrorists is hauled away, blood splatter providing grisly decoration to the back of the truck.
Sderot was one of the first towns Hamas entered on pickup trucks Saturday morning to fire indiscriminately at civilians. One survivor, who didn’t want to be named, estimates to POLITICO that it took four hours for the first Israeli security forces to arrive on the scene.
The Israeli army finally took back control of the local police station Sunday morning by demolishing the whole building, after the terrorists barricaded themselves inside hours before.
The mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, stands next to pools of dried blood in front of the destroyed building.
When the terrorists came to kill in his city, he wasn’t there at first, but arrived later with the security forces. As we speak, rocket strikes by the Israeli army in Gaza can be heard in the background. “We have to hit them hard,” Davidi demands.
Israeli army spokesman Spielman refused to guarantee that there were no more terrorists in Sderot, only that their forces had regained control of the city.
On Sunday, too, there are repeated rocket alarms in Sderot. We hear the muffled sound of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system, which has just intercepted a missile.
But on Sunday night, Israeli media reports on another suspected terrorist infiltration inside the city.
The army may have regained control, but security has not yet been restored here.