By Wendell Steavenson
The red alert sounded through loudspeakers at 6.30am on Saturday October 7th. This was not an unusual event in Nir Am, a kibbutz of 700 people located two kilometres from the fence separating Israel and Gaza. But that morning the alarms kept sounding, again and again. The electricity went off and phone reception suddenly became patchy.
In one of the kibbutz’s orchards, a farmworker called Nabil Barawi looked up at the sky and saw rockets arcing overhead. Barawi, 53, was from Gaza, but had worked for 40 years in the fields of Nir Am. He supervised a group of ten Gazans who grew pomelos, a large, sweet citrus fruit. His brother Hashem managed another group that tended Nir Am’s banana fields.
The sheer quantity of rockets made Barawi think something unusual was happening. “When the mess started”, he told me later, “I said to my workers, ten other Gazans, ‘Let’s go’.”
Roughly 18,000 Gazans have permits to work in Israel, mostly in agriculture and construction. Israeli regulations stipulate they must return every night to their homes in Gaza, but the security checks and long queues at the single crossing point mean that a daily commute is almost impossible. Many labourers stay in dormitories in Israel during the working week, a practice to which the authorities seem to turn a blind eye. The men who worked at Nir Am slept in a town called Rahat, about a half-hour drive from the kibbutz.
Barawi and his team left the orchard and got into their van. The driver, who was Israeli, took them onto the main road that runs north to south, parallel to the Gazan border. “Very soon, after no more than 300 metres, we saw bodies of civilians on the road,” Barawi told me. “We had gone no more than 150 metres when we saw a white car and heard a rat-a-tat-tat” – he made a sweeping movement with his hands to illustrate a burst of sustained gunfire. The driver stopped the car and they all crouched down. In the fusillade, three of the Gazans were grazed with bullets: one in the glute, one in the leg, one in the temple. When there was a pause in the gunfire, they slid open the door of the van and ran back to the orchard.
There, sheltering under the trees, Barawi decided to call Ofer Liberman, the head of agriculture in Nir Am. He had known Liberman since the 1980s, when Barawi followed his brother, Hashem, to work on the kibbutz. “Ofer told me to stay where I was and not to move until he called back,” he recalled. Shortly afterwards Liberman phoned again and said that the situation was dangerous: there was fighting in the nearby town of Sderot, ambulances wouldn’t be able to come. Barawi and his team should stay where they were and keep their heads down.
In the kibbutz Adam Peled, an army veteran who spent ten years in the Israeli special forces, heard gunfire. He grabbed his Glock pistol and jogged towards his ex-wife’s house where his children were sleeping. On the way he saw Inbal Liberman, one of Ofer Liberman’s four daughters, and the head of the kitat konenut, the volunteer defence force made up of a dozen or so kibbutz residents. Inbal, too, had been alarmed by the gunfire. She had called the army, who had told her to put the volunteers on standby. Ofer Liberman told me his daughter believed this was an insufficient precaution (Inbal Liberman, who has since been lauded as the hero of the hour, has refused to speak to the press). Peled said he told her to open the armoury. He returned to his house to pick up his personal body armour and a pack of cigarettes. Then made his way back to the armoury to begin loading M16 rifles and distributing them.
Inbal Liberman called the maintenance manager of the kibbutz and told him not to turn the electricity back on so that the heavy metal electric gates to the kibbutz couldn’t be opened. “I think this was the second important decision she made that stopped the terrorists,” her father told me, “because we knew already there was a pickup of terrorists who had driven up to the main gate, seen it closed, then done a U-turn and driven off towards Sderot.”
The kitat konenut defending Nir Am that day numbered around ten or so people (recollections of the precise number differ). They deployed in pairs at strategic points on the perimeter fence. Peled was posted with Eli Mittman, a civil engineer, near the rear gate, known as the orchard gate, beside a newly constructed house. From the roof of the house you could see the chicken hatchery, a large hangar about 250 metres away across the avocado fields. Around 15 minutes later, Peled heard shots coming from the hatchery. It sounded to him like a gun battle involving a handful of people. Soon it became apparent that a platoon of Israeli soldiers was battling a group of Hamas fighters.
Peled struggled to work out what was happening elsewhere in the kibbutz. Walkie-talkies had not yet been distributed, so members of the kitat konenut were communicating on their phones. He hadn’t been included in the WhatsApp group, as he wasn’t a regular volunteer.
“Suddenly Eli pointed to a figure a 100 metres away running towards the back gate. I couldn’t tell if he was a soldier or a terrorist. He was wearing a greenish uniform and greenish vest. It looked like he could be one of ours. I ran towards the fence shouting, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ I raised my gun and had him in my sights. I didn’t know what to do. And then he ran off into the avocado field.”
Peled looked down at his phone and saw that he had finally been added to the WhatsApp group. There was a stream of messages: several Hamas gunmen had approached the front gate and the kitat konenut members there had shot them, killing one or two. “If I had known about that, I would have understood the figure was a terrorist and I would have killed him.”
The fight at the chicken hatchery continued for several hours. The soldiers and the Hamas fighters would run to and fro, from the chicken hatchery to the surrounding avocado fields. The Israeli soldiers appeared young. “I felt almost some pity for them, but I couldn’t leave the kibbutz to help them,” said Peled.
Several times, a Hamas gunman would run from cover. Peled would dart forward to the fence to shoot at him. He doesn’t know how many he killed: it may have been one or two or perhaps more.
“I thought the army would come, but it didn’t happen,” Peled said. After a few hours a tank turned up. He saw Hamas fighters fire a rocket-propelled grenade at it. “A tank”, he said wryly, “was not particularly useful in this combat situation.”
Barawi and his wounded workers were still cowering in the pomelo orchard nearby. He was in touch with Liberman every half hour by phone, but the more information he had, the clearer it became that it would be impossible for anyone from the kibbutz to rescue them. Liberman told Barawi to keep hidden – he was worried the soldiers would mistake him and his team for Hamas fighters.
In the middle of the morning, Barawi’s parents called him from Gaza to tell him they couldn’t get through to his brother Hashem. Barawi phoned Hashem’s son, who also worked nearby. He said he had managed to drive away just as the gunfire began, and had talked to Hashem soon after. Since then, he hadn’t been able to reach his father.
In the early afternoon, three or four Hamas vehicles – pickups and trucks mounted with machineguns, each carrying around ten gunmen – drove up to the chicken hatchery.
“They massacred our soldiers,” said Peled.
All the volunteers of the kitat konenut understood that they were in peril. Everyone was desperately calling anyone they knew in the army – generals, retired officers, the special forces, regional command – pleading for help. Nir Am will fall, they said, if you don’t send reinforcements.
Peled reckoned that there were between 40 and 50 Hamas gunmen massing. He told the members of kitat konenut, “Listen up. They have slaughtered our soldiers and they’re on their way to the back gate. No one gets inside Nir Am.” He repeated the order: “No one gets inside Nir Am.”
Eight volunteers, including Peled, moved towards the rear gate where Hamas were approaching. “We were eight guys with M16s – luckily mine worked,” recalled Peled. “We all stood near the fence. I kept saying again and again, ‘No one gets inside Nir Am.’ They replied, ‘We are here. We understand.’ All eight of us understood that if they got past us they would slaughter our families.”
Peled almost smiled in the retelling. “They built me to fight, I was in the special forces for ten years. This was not my first fight and I don’t think it will be my last. But to see Eli, an engineer in his sandals, with his little bit of a belly, standing next to me – I saw a fighter standing next to me. All of us stayed.”
Then one of the volunteers “did the simplest thing”, said Peled, that none of them had thought of until that point – he called the police. “And you know what? The police sent a tactical response unit. Three cars, five motorbikes, three vans. They changed the fight.” The reinforcements turned the tide of battle. The Hamas fighters were beaten back. A number were killed. None of them managed to penetrate Nir Am’s defences. Hardly any other communities in the area were as lucky.
Over the next hour or so, Israeli soldiers and armed police filled the fields around the kibbutz. All day, Ofer Liberman had kept in touch with Barawi hiding in the pomelo orchard. “Ofer helped us a lot, we love him,” Barawi told me. “He didn’t leave us in the orchard when all we could hear was gunfire all around.”
At around 5pm Liberman called Barawi and said that Israeli soldiers would come and get him in a few minutes. Barawi asked Liberman to accompany them, because he was afraid. Liberman checked with the Israeli officers if that was permitted and they agreed. When they found the group Liberman told the Gazan workers to come out with their hands up. Ten men emerged, three of them bleeding, from under the pomelo trees.
The military team escorted them to the kibbutz. Once there Barawi called a friend from Rahat who came and collected the three wounded men and took them to hospital. Liberman asked one of the kibbutz members to drive the rest of the workers home to Rahat.
When Barawi reached his apartment in Rahat in the early evening, his relatives in Gaza sent him a video they had seen on social media, one of dozens being shared during the attacks. It had clearly been filmed earlier that day. The camera panned over a scene of carnage: several cars lay at angles in the middle of the road, doors opened, windows smashed. There were bodies all around, across the kerbs, lying prone and bent on the tarmac. The camera then panned to a grey Volkswagen van, the doors flung open. Inside was a knot of several bodies, bloodied, slumped and crammed between the driver’s door and the footwell. Barawi recognised one of them as his brother Hashem.
On the video you can hear the man filming the scene describe it in Hebrew. As the camera turned to the grey van he said, “And there is a terrorist car.” He pointed the camera at one body, tumbled from the passenger seat. “And here is another terrorist finished. That’s the situation right now.”
There is a second video that appears to have been taken a little while later. This video shows a broadcast by an Arab-speaking reporter from I24 news, a 24-hour Israeli news channel. He stands at the scene in a blue press flak-jacket. By this time, the bodies have been taken away and the wrecked cars and the grey Volkswagen van moved to the side of the road. The reporter picks up a five-litre water bottle from the open boot of the van, and says: “Here is the car with the armed people from Hamas. They came here and we can see they were equipped with water.”
“I cried,” Barawi told me. “Hashem was my closest brother. We worked at the kibbutz together and spent our whole lives together. He was the spine of the family, the leader, the one everyone relied on. He has many children and 25 grandchildren.”
Barawi had no idea who was responsible for the killing of his brother. “I didn’t see who did it. How can I tell if it was Israelis or Hamas? Truly, I don’t know.” (The circumstances in which Hashem and his fellow workers died remain unclear.)
As the sun began to sink, the kibbutz’s WhatsApp group started to fill with messages from people who wanted to flee. They could see the horror of the attacks across southern Israel on TV and social media. Orna Schwartz, the head of the kibbutz’s emergency committee, told me she tried to explain that leaving was forbidden. There were still Hamas fighters at large and the situation was chaotic. Some communities were still waiting for the army to arrive. “People said, ‘We can decide for ourselves.’” Families packed into their cars and began to drive out. Saar Paz, a member of the kitat konenut, was posted on the front gate. “I told people to be careful on the roads. There are still terrorists in the area. So I told them to put the heads of their children down. The sight was terrible. It was a war zone.”
Just before 2am Schwartz received notice from the authorities of the mandatory evacuation of the kibbutz. She was told they had 15 minutes to get everyone out; buses would be waiting for them. “Where to?” she asked. They told her they didn’t know.
Schwartz put her elderly and infirm parents in her car. As they waited in the dark for the convoy to assemble, the alert sounded again and everyone had to disperse to shelters before regrouping. “Driving out, we saw so many cars overturned and dead bodies on the road that we had to turn the wheel like this and that to drive around them,” she told me.
Liberman drove his wife and other members of his family out that night. Later the following day, he called Barawi to check on the wounded workers. Bahawi told him Hashem had been killed along with seven other Gazan workers and their Israeli driver. Liberman recalls saying to Barawi: “You know now it’s a war. We cannot cry yet for Hashem. We will mourn for him after this is over.”
Liberman had known Hashem for 40 years. “They practically grew up together,” said Barawi. Liberman told me he had met Hashem’s family in 1987, “the last time we could go into Gaza. We went to his house.” Sometimes Liberman would call Hashem. He would say a few words to his wife, who spoke a little English, if she answered the phone. When I asked Liberman if his relationship with the Gazans who worked at the kibbutz had changed as hostilities fluctuated, he said, “It is not between me and Hashem or between me and Nabil. It’s between governments.”
I met Barawi at a petrol station in southern Israel a few days after the attack happened. On the horizon, a puff of black smoke rose from Gaza. His forehead was creased with worry. Gazan day labourers like him are now stranded illegally in Israel. Meanwhile, his family is under siege in Gaza. The village where they live, Beit Lahia, is in the very north of Gaza and the Israelis have told Palestinians living there to move south if they value their lives. Barawi checks in on his family every half an hour if the internet connection allows it.
He was desperate for the Israeli authorities to release the bodies of Hashem and the others so they could be brought back to Gaza and given an Islamic burial. He had received indications that many of the bodies recovered were at an army base and that they wouldn’t be released without a DNA identification. None of those killed has a family member inside Israel who could provide this, except for Hashem.
We sat at a lone picnic table, away from the petrol-station café where soldiers and civilians were drinking coffee. Barawi was in touch with his brother’s family. They were unable to stop crying. “The most important thing for me”, he said to me, “is to say that my brother and the workers who were killed with him are not terrorists as some in the media are saying. They were ordinary workers with legitimate work cards.” He showed me a photograph of his brother’s ID card and gave me a handwritten piece of paper listing the names and Israeli ID numbers of the workers who had been killed. “All we want is to be able to bury them with respect.”
Barawi said people from Nir Am were trying to intercede with the authorities to expedite the process of getting the labourers’ bodies released. Even if this were to succeed, it’s hard to see how Hashem’s wife and children will be able to retrieve his remains: a full-scale war is now going on between Israel and Gaza, and the crossing is closed.
The people of Nir Am and other communities close to Gaza that came under attack have been evacuated to hotels in Tel Aviv. I met several of them at Herods, a hotel on the beach. The lobby was noisy, full of children running around. The adults were still trying to make sense of what had happened, and what it meant.
“We were waiting and the army didn’t come,” Paz told me, still digesting it. “You’re used to relying on the army. You are sure the army will save you. And the army didn’t come.” Schwartz told me that she had nightmares about gunmen coming to the hotel to which they had been evacuated.
Peled was angry. “How did they come and do exactly what they wanted and our military wasn’t there?” he asked. I wondered if he could see himself living in Nir Am again. He said he would. “But my kids won’t be the same. The kibbutz won’t be the same. Nothing will be the same.” ■
Wendell Steavenson has reported on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for 1843 magazine. Additional reporting by Meni Gross and Elise Apap
PHOTOGRAPHS OREN ZIV & ELISE APAP
Frustrated by the government’s response, grassroots organisations are springing up
Muhammad Deif transformed the militant group from a cluster of terror cells into a force capable of invading Israel
He has unorthodox ideas for reviving the economy. But his pugnacity and embrace of the far-right may do further damage to the country