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Seventeen hours of terror: how Hamas invaded one Israeli community

Until last weekend, Be’eri in southern Israel was known for its residents’ relative affluence thanks to their shared ownership of a printing company in the town. Now, it is the scene of an atrocity.

The kibbutz, only 5km from the Gaza border, witnessed some of the most horrific violence carried out by Hamas militants during their incursion into Israel on October 7. 

The Financial Times verified evidence from the town’s surveillance system, mobile phone footage and witness testimony to reveal how armed militants took control of the town early Saturday morning and murdered at least 110 of its 1,200 residents, controlling the town for about 17 hours.

The kibbutz’s security group, volunteers and off-duty soldiers were overwhelmed. Members of the gated community cowered in attics, closets and bomb shelters as dozens of militants armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers roamed their streets largely unchallenged, raising questions about the Israeli military’s preparedness for an attack.

As Hamas militants spread out from Gaza, one Israeli civilian, Tomer Shpirer, 37, from another town, was mountain biking in the rolling hills outside Be’eri with friends. His mother called him at 6.30am, according to his uncle Simon Cifuentes, as mortars were already falling.

“Mum, don’t worry,” Shpirer said. “I’m coming home now, not staying one minute longer.”

Residents in Be’eri also began receiving frantic calls from anxious relatives who had started to hear of the violence near Gaza. Ahal Besorai, 60, who is from the kibbutz but now lives in the Philippines, called his father and sisters there.

6.55am: Gunmen at the gates

A security camera above the main entrance gate to the fenced village shows two gunmen attempting to enter the kibbutz at 6.55am on Saturday October 7 — the middle of the Jewish sabbath on a holiday weekend.

FT analysis and first-hand accounts indicate the time stamps on the CCTV footage are an hour early. The reporting in this story reflects the times at which we believe events took place.

Released by a Telegram channel called “South First Responders” and verified by the FT, the security video shows the heavily armed men struggling to bypass the razor-wire fences and gate of the kibbutz. After trying to squeeze under the barrier, one breaks into an unoccupied guardhouse. When a blue Mazda approaches, the men hide, and the gate begins to open.

The CCTV video then shows the two men ambushing the car and firing multiple shots through the side windows. With its occupants dead, the bullet-riddled vehicle rolls forward and the men enter the kibbutz.

At 7.04am a different camera around 300 metres away shows the two militants walking calmly across a square in the centre of Be’eri. The town appears empty.

The mountain bikers, meanwhile, reach the Be’eri car park, hear shooting and take cover, according to Cifuentes’s account as relayed to him by the survivors. They see a group of people running away from the attack on the Nova music festival that was unfolding nearby. Realising the situation is escalating, the bikers flee in different directions in their cars.

Most residents are still asleep, but on hearing noises of rockets and gunfire their first instinct is to run for their house’s mamad — a reinforced safe room that many Israeli border communities have built into their homes. Some will remain there for the next 24 hours.

According to an internal website maintained by the community, every residence was fitted with a safe room by 2011. These shelters would have offered protection from aerial bombardments, but most were not designed for a ground assault.

Before Hamas’s mass breach of Israel’s high-tech security barrier with Gaza, communities such as Be’eri only contended with occasional “infiltrations” by solitary Palestinians who managed to cross undetected by border surveillance. 

Outside Be’eri, meanwhile, Shpirer is injured by gunfire from militants shooting at his car. He calls a friend, his uncle said, and tells him: “I’m not going to make it. Tell my wife and family that I love them.”

Shpirer’s mother calls him repeatedly. The phone is answered by Hamas gunmen who curse her in Arabic. She says: “Tomer, Tomer, are you OK? Are you OK?” The gunmen respond mockingly in Hebrew: “His name is Tomer. How are you doing Tomer? How are you doing?”

08.06am: Militants roam the community

An hour later, eight additional militants armed with assault weapons approach the blue Mazda and a white Toyota on motorbikes from a road within the kibbutz and inspect the cars.

The gunmen brazenly ride and walk through the streets, returning a few minutes later to pull a dead passenger from the Mazda. They rifle through bags from the back seat. One finds a mobile phone and puts it in his pocket.

At 10.06am, the same camera shows two different militants pulling the remaining two bodies out of the car. They get in the vehicle, turn it round and pull out of the kibbutz.

At 10.33am, a white SUV pulls up next to the victims. Two men get out and load one of the bodies into the back of the car. The SUV, which is registered in Gaza, then reverses out of the kibbutz and drives off.

10.30-11am: Residents executed

Around the same time, a mobile phone video shows at least eight armed men leading four hostages along a street on the far side of the kibbutz. 

A subsequent video shows the same four hostages lying dead on the street corner a few metres away, as militants mill around homes and cruise around on motorbikes and in a construction vehicle. The FT has blurred the images of their bodies.

The long wait for help

In all of the videos, militants appear to roam the streets of Be’eri without any confrontation with Israeli forces. An internal community website suggests the kibbutz was usually defended by hired security staff, who were caught off guard, killed or unable to respond. 

The town’s volunteer standby defence group sought to engage the fighters, but were overcome. “Hundreds of terrorists came from many directions into the kibbutz,” said Major General Itai Veruv. “The people of the kibbutz fought by themselves in the first hours; they were very brave.”

The town security would normally rely on police or military support in the wake of a serious security incident. The Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza division is 8km away in Re’im, but that base was also attacked and held by Hamas for hours.

Residents interviewed by Israeli media said that a helicopter arrived at about 9am carrying 20 members of the Shaldag special forces unit, which is based in an air base about 60km away in Palmachim. They said that the unit was quickly overwhelmed, and recounted hearing shouting in Arabic for hours afterwards. Video evidence aligns with the survivors’ experience, showing that Hamas members comfortably controlled Be’eri throughout the morning.

While they held the village, militants went from door to door, killing residents in their homes. Survivors report that attackers set fire to properties, attempting to force occupants from their safe rooms.

Besorai said his younger sister, Yonat, her husband, Dror, her son Noam, 15, and daughter Alma, 13, live in the western part of the kibbutz. The family believe, based on information from a witness, that they were taken hostage.

“They were hiding in the mamad and the door was locked,” Besorai said. “The Hamas terrorists burned the house down and forced them out. Someone saw them being dragged out alive.” 

The Israeli response was stymied by militants outside the village, who took up positions along the road and shot at incoming vehicles, according to the military and relatives of Shpirer, the biker.

“I fought here myself for an hour to get inside the kibbutz,” Veruv said.

A charred vehicle sits next to the main front gate of the Be’eri Kibbutz © South First Responders / Telegram

IDF soldiers finally made it inside on Saturday evening. They said that militants had taken hostages inside homes and community buildings, resulting in stand-offs that lasted for hours once the military arrived. 

Israeli forces reported freeing 50 residents from the kibbutz’s communal dining hall after midnight on Sunday morning — more than 17 hours after the initial attack. Other militants took cover inside homes as IDF soldiers regained control of the town.

“Even after we liberated it, wave after wave of terrorists were hiding in the houses,” Veruv said. “They kept themselves at high readiness, attacking again and again.”

Since Monday, the Israeli military have declared the kibbutz safe and allowed aid workers in. The Orthodox Jewish volunteer organisation Zaka has so far removed more than 110 bodies of residents.

Volunteers from the Orthodox Jewish organisation Zaka remove bodies for burial © Zaka

The pain brought to Be’eri is a microcosm of the suffering that the war will continue to bring to Israeli and Palestinian communities. The surprise attack and occupation of the town by militants was just the start of a conflict that is expected to claim many more lives.

In time the Israeli military will need to answer serious questions about its readiness for a large-scale incursion by Hamas and the delays in responding to the violence in Be’eri and other towns near the Gaza border.

“We will have very difficult questions to ask ourselves,” Veruv said. “But now, we look forward to defending the people, to taking the survivors out, and to switch[ing] ourselves from defensive to offensive operations.”

After the attack, emergency responders found Shpirer’s car and what they believed to be his body, though it has not yet been formally identified. His uncle, who travelled to the area to search for him, saw his bullet-riddled car and concluded that no one could have survived.

Besorai’s father and one of his sisters escaped alive. But he believes his other sister Yonat and her husband, son and daughter, who were seen being dragged away by militants, are being held captive.

“When you have someone missing you go through all these horrors of Hamas postings, in the hope you will get a glimpse of someone in one of these videos,” he said. “It’s very draining . . . to see so many atrocious scenes.” But he added: “Hope is a good storyteller.”

Additional reporting by Chris Campbell, Eade Moon-Hemingway, Mehul Srivastava and Justine Williams

Israel-Hamas war

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