At daybreak, Hila Fakliro looked up to the sky from the vodka and Red Bull cocktails she was mixing: “Oh, my God,” she said. “Look! There are fireworks!”
A fitness instructor, aged 26, she was drawn to trance music festivals as a means, she said, “to disconnect your mind from all the tension in Israel.” The Tribe of Nova gathering, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot amid groves of eucalyptus trees only three miles from Gaza, seemed particularly well organized, so the fireworks struck her as no more than an extravagant flourish.
Her fellow bartender, whom she had met just hours before, turned to her: “I don’t think those are fireworks.”
They were, in fact, the white flashes of Hamas rockets from Gaza, the fire at dawn signaling an attack that would turn fields full of young Israelis dancing to psychedelic music into a slaughterhouse. In this massacre of its youth, Israel’s 75-year-old quest for some carefree normalcy met the murderous fury of those long-oppressed Palestinians who deny the state’s right to exist.
If some sinister choreographer had sought a consummate staging of the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reach beyond hatred and war, this savage meeting of two adjacent but distant worlds in idyllic undulating countryside came close, leaving at least 260 partygoers dead.
The funeral of Noa Englander, who was killed at the Tribe of Nova festival.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times
They were rounded up and shot like animals within hours of losing themselves, and the pressures of Israeli life, in thumping soundtracks of mystical peace and love. “There were these crazy maniacs with guns and people falling one by one,” Ms. Fakliro said. “It was like a shooting range.”
Initially, she froze. The music stopped; the cancellation of the festival was announced. She lay down between refrigerators at the bar. Carefree dancers in galaxy leggings, even a reveler looping rhythmically on a Segway, turned in an instant to a terrified, stunned human mass. All of the psychedelics and other drugs used at trance parties redoubled panic attacks and the accompanying screams.
“Just run,” her colleague said. “JUST RUN!”
But where? Into the trees, where some people grabbed their tents and hammocks as they fled, or into open fields? Toward her car, where traffic was already piled up, or away from that mayhem?
One Israeli police officer, his pistol a pitiful riposte to the automatic weapons of Hamas terrorists, screamed at her to go east, away from Gaza.
This, for many hours after the Hamas attack began through multiple breaches in the supposedly impregnable multimillion-dollar Israeli fence around Gaza, was the sum of the state’s presence in the area: some 30 police officers recruited by the festival organizers to provide security. Hamas was able to kill more than 1,300 people before the Israel Defense Forces awoke.
Israel — lulled and distracted by growing acceptance in the Middle East, by lacerating internal divisions, by settlement projects in the occupied West Bank, and by the increasing marginalization of the Palestinian issue on the global stage — had switched off to the central threat against it.
Yet, just over the Gaza fence, about two million Palestinians lived in a seething enclave blockaded by Israel, a desperate place that incubated extremism in what is often referred to as “an open-air prison.”
Hamas was there, governing and inculcating hatred through the education system. It never disavowed its covenant that urges the slaughter of Jews “smitten with vileness wherever they are found” and the obliteration of the state of Israel.
“Hamas strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine,” the covenant says, as it casts familiar slurs on Jews as the moneyed manipulators of the world. If, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel believed, the organization could be used to undercut the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and so bury any possibility of a Palestinian state, that tactic came at a price.
“The government was sleeping standing up,” said Elad Malka, who served in the Israeli military in Gaza in the early 2000s and was injured by a Palestinian suicide bomber. “Its smart fence was a mirage.”
Ms. Fakliro said she had not been worried about security when she decided to offer her services as a bartender. She did her compulsory military service between 2016 and 2018 in an area near the festival site.
She had also attended plenty of trance parties, which are popular in Israel for some of the same reasons that many young Israelis go to India or South America after military service: to forget everything and decompress.
“I love the left speaker,” she said. “I close my eyes, feel the music and drift away.”
But, as for everyone at the rave, including the many teenagers who had managed to skirt a minimum age of 23 regulation, her awakening was brutal.
She lay in a ditch, trying to hide, messaging her brother and former friends from army days, imploring them to help. She received a message from Liron Barda, 26, the bar manager, asking for assistance. Hamas gunmen killed Ms. Barda soon after.
Ms. Fakliro started running in a large group without knowing where she was going, wondering if perhaps she was running toward her would-be killers.
Eventually, with the sound of gunfire fading at last, desperately thirsty after hours of flight, she reached Moshav Patish, a small agricultural community. She was able to drink; she was able to breathe. But five of her friends, two of them hostages in Gaza and three of them dead, were less fortunate.
“Hamas needs to cease to exist — this terror organization needs to be annihilated,” she said. “After 9/11, who stood with Al Qaeda? But if Hamas kills Jews, and people are partying and celebrating that in Gaza, we hear that you Jews had it coming. And what comes around, goes around.”
We were seated in her parents’ house in Oranit, a small Israeli settlement just inside the West Bank. Cuckoo clocks, masks, wind chimes, garden gnomes and African sculptures adorned every cranny, creating the impression of a collector’s frenzy.
A young man, Amit Parpara, approached. Ms. Fakliro stood up. They hugged and started sobbing.
In Israel these days, almost every meeting involves tears. This round in the endless Israeli-Palestinian gyre has driven people over the edge.
Mr. Parpara did not attend the party, having decided the $100 price tag was too high. But his closest friend, Noa Argamani, did, and was pictured in a video crying out in anguish as she was kidnapped on a motorcycle, with her boyfriend, Avinatan Or, being dragged and manhandled behind her, his hands bound behind his back.
The couple has since disappeared into Gaza. They appear to be among the more than 150 hostages held there.
“At first, I was so angry I just wanted to grab a gun and drive south,” Mr. Parpara said. “Now I am just filled with sadness, and I scream in the night when I hear thunder. The feeling of being here in Israel has changed.”
This is a widely expressed sentiment, a reflection of the sense that suddenly menace lurks everywhere, may not be controllable and may make life unbearable. At the same time, a strong conviction has taken hold that Israelis must come together, whatever their divisions, and, in a commonly used phrase, “finish it,” by which they mean destroy and eliminate Hamas from Gaza.
The two sentiments coexist uneasily, leaving many Israelis with wild mood swings as the shock of vulnerability sinks in.
Mr. Parpara cannot stop trying to imagine where Ms. Argamani is. She is, he said, “the most loving person I have ever known.” He messaged her until her phone died. He is determined to save her. He cannot believe that all that the Israeli authorities could say was, “Run and good luck.”
He studies software programming. “My mind keeps racing,” he said. “I keep thinking of building a time machine. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s where my mind is at the moment.”
A time machine that would undo the nightmare.
‘We Were Abandoned’
Nadav Morag, a software developer and trauma therapist, decided a few days before the festival to accompany his friend Yoni Diller, a filmmaker, to the party. They left Tel Aviv around 3 a.m. on Saturday, arriving at the site around 4:30.
The atmosphere was good, with everything impeccably organized. Mr. Morag put up a tent, sat around with friends, and, at 6 a.m., went to the main stage and started dancing. It was still dark, but a pale orange light at the horizon signaled the approaching dawn.
When the rockets came, Mr. Morag had no hesitation. “We were too close to Gaza to be protected, and I told Yoni we needed to get the hell out of here right now.”
They raced to their car, drove away, and thought momentarily that all was well, until a car came careening toward them from behind. Inside was a young woman with her leg crushed and bleeding, and blood seeping from her shoulder. The sound of gunfire drew closer.
Israel had long viewed Hamas as a ragtag terrorist group that could inflict some pain but was not capable of a large-scale operation.
But this was an organized multipronged attack executed with great sophistication. Hamas blocked the main road out to north and south. It had gunmen dedicated to slaughter, to kidnapping, to killing around the main stage, to killing in the parking area, and to encirclement.
“We had a kind of contemptuous view of them,” said Israel Ziv, a retired Israeli Army general who was one of the first to reach the scene. “The whole system collapsed.”
Mr. Morag and Mr. Diller ran east for their lives.
“I am sorry I brought you here,” Mr. Diller said.
“Wait until we get out of here, and I will thank you,” Mr. Morag shot back.
He feels he has learned a fundamental life lesson: Do not take anything for granted in this one and precious life you have.
They were not alive at the time of the Yom Kippur War, a half-century ago, another debacle at a moment of Israeli inattention, even if the war was ultimately won. The most ready comparison they make is to Sept. 11, 2001, a shattering moment when the United States experienced the slaughter of civilians, the evaporation of any sense of security, and a devouring, disorienting shock.
Mr. Morag’s initial reaction was: “Just eliminate them, eradicate them all, Hamas has to be destroyed. Israelis cannot stay in a place where the Palestinians next door are led by a group using the money they get to spread terror.”
But this has given way after a week to a more nuanced reflection.
“I am aware that in Gaza people are living a life with no hope,” he said. “To do such things, you have to get to a place where you don’t value your life anymore, where you are ready to die. These are monstrous acts that come from hatred and despair and brainwashing, but I would like to separate Hamas, an inhuman organization, from the Palestinian people.”
That, given the pitch of retaliatory fury in Israel, and a bombardment of Gaza that has already killed more than 1,900 people, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, is likely to be very difficult. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has urged Israel “to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians,” but has also made clear that Israel has the United States’ full and unequivocal support.
This American backing has meant a lot to Bar Matzner, who, along with her husband, Lior Matzner, had left their two young children with their parents to attend the festival. “We just needed to get away from the stress of work, the stress around security, to experience a moment of freedom,” she said.
Instead, they found themselves in a field buried under dead leaves for hours, trying not to make a sound as the Hamas terrorists did their work. “My jaw was locked down,” she said, “even my teeth.”
Mr. Matzner, 32, looked at his wife, 35, with tears in his eyes. “You lie down with your wife in a field, and you only know you must survive somehow to be with your kids,” he said.
Now they are considering leaving Israel. “Right now, the country does not deserve that I and my children live here,” Ms. Matzer said. “We were abandoned, and we feel abandoned. I can’t smile. I can’t do anything.”
A speech by President Biden on Tuesday condemning the attack, with its emphatic expression of support for Israel, its empathy and its resolve, has been an inspiration to them, in the relative silence of Mr. Netanyahu. They are considering moving to the United States.
“After Biden’s speech, we can’t even look at Netanyahu,” she said. “He only thought about himself, his job, and putting the wrong people in the wrong ministries. The government has not shown up, not at funerals, not by contacting families. It’s so shocking, our souls are overwhelmed.”
‘We Are Just Hurting’
At the site of the festival, where, on Oct. 7, transporting electronic dance music gave way to the crack of Hamas rifle fire, cars are still scattered helter-skelter, some smashed, some incinerated by missiles, some virtually untouched, with keys and sunglasses resting on the driver’s seat.
Near the stage, beneath eucalyptus trees, a few tents are still standing. The ground is littered with bottles of water, soft drinks and test tubes containing leaf and soil samples used in DNA testing to identify the dead.
It is tantalizingly easy to imagine the revelers in their hammocks and the festive party atmosphere before all turned to horror. One caravan, where a family was murdered, still harbors the stench of death.
Here, where perhaps someday a memorial will stand, the old dispensation died. Israel, in the opinion of almost all Israelis, cannot and will not go back to living next to Hamas. Jews, after the millenniums of persecution in the diaspora, did not make a homeland to feel unsafe.
Here, too, Inbar Heiman, 27, lived her last moments of freedom before being dragged, bleeding from the face, into Gaza, her captors chanting, “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, as they hauled their Jewish trophy home. A 38-second video that has not been made public captures the terrible scene that has made her boyfriend, Noam Alon, 24, desperate with pain and longing.
“I am not into politics,” he said. “I just want my love back.”
Mr. Alon prefers a quiet life and so chose not to go to the party. His passion is soccer, Ms. Heiman’s the world of trance. Both are graphic design and art students who met in class in Haifa.
“They are so good together, creative free spirits,” said Mr. Alon’s mother, Nirit Lavie Alon, who teaches environmental education at the Technion university in Haifa. “My son is a different man.”
Ms. Heiman’s kidnapping became notorious this past week when the landlord of her Haifa apartment, Aaron Reiss, demanded of her co-tenant that her $300 rent be paid immediately. When the co-tenant pointed out that she was a hostage in Gaza, he suggested another tenant be found immediately to ensure the contractual bill was paid.
The episode became public, and an outcry ensued. Maccabi Haifa, the soccer club the couple supports, offered to pay Ms. Heiman’s rent for the next year.
In a matter of hours, the intense fractiousness and equally powerful solidarity of a wounded Israeli society were illustrated.
“Living in Israel is not easy,” Ms. Lavie Alon said. “My younger son Chen, who is 21, was in a special elite unit of the army, and served in Jenin almost all the time over the past year. It was hard on us.” A major Israeli military incursion in that West Bank city in July left at least 12 Palestinians dead.
Like many Israelis, she has felt a complete lack of empathy from Mr. Netanyahu since the attack, and has had an overwhelming impression of government incompetence. Anger has spilled over as ministers have been shouted down during rare public appearances. But, she said, the time for commissions of inquiry and a reckoning has not yet come.
“For now, we must do everything we can to bring back the hostages,” she said. “We have to destroy Hamas but try to respect the Palestinian citizens in Gaza. I feel for them — they don’t have people who can teach or guide them.”
Mr. Morag, the software developer, is hoping that eventually there will be a big rave party dedicated to the memory of everyone lost.
“I think the trance and rave community will keep going,” he said. “It shows us that we need to spread love. It is a loving essence, the only thing that can beat hatred.”
He gazed into the distance from his Tel Aviv terrace before adding another thought: “For now, however, we can only use force to respond.”
Gal Koplewitz contributed reporting.