People at a dance party flee during a surprise attack launched by Hamas, near Reim, on October 7, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. Image Credit: Reuters

Jerusalem: The first rockets were fired just before dawn, arcing through the sky over thousands of revellers who had been dancing through the night at a trance music festival - billed as an event celebrating “friends, love and infinite freedom.”

Initially, some of the ravers didn’t notice the sound of the explosions over the thumping music. Others, used to rockets from Gaza, shrugged them off.

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“We heard sirens and rockets, tonnes of rockets,” said Millet Ben Haim, 27, who attended the festival with a group of friends, posing with one of them just minutes before the attack and sticking her tongue out for the camera.

Then the music stopped.

A voice boomed from the loudspeakers over the tented stages and the chill-out area that organisers described as a “playground for adults.”

“Guys, we have red alert,” the voice warned. “Red alert.”

Videos verified by The Washington Post show people leaving hurriedly, a few jogging, many glancing back to look at the white rocket flashes in the lightening sky. They appear confused but not panicked.

A person dressed in black with a yellow safety vest was directing crowds away from the stages.

Then the gunfire started.

“We started running; we didn’t know where to go,” Ben Haim said. “Nobody knew what to do.”

Roads blocked, cars ambushed

The Tribe of Nova trance music festival, near Kibbutz Reim, was one of the first targets for Hamas militants as they launched their unprecedented attack on Israel in the early hours of Saturday morning, overrunning the concert area, shooting into the crowd and grabbing as many hostages as they could. Festivalgoers described how the gunmen blocked roads, ambushed escaping cars and scoured the area looking for people to capture.

It remains unclear how many of them were taken from the festival. Survivors have been inundated with messages from people who are still looking for their loved ones.

The festival’s organisers have not responded to requests for comment but posted a message on Instagram saying they were “stunned” and “share the grief of the missing and murdered families.”

“We hope and pray that good news will reach us and you soon,” the post said.

At the site of the rave on Sunday, Israeli soldiers put bodies in the back of a large refrigerated truck parked next to hundreds of abandoned cars. In one clearing, the shells of burned vehicles sat beside discarded tents, camping mats and coolers.

More than 1,000 at event

Relatives searching for the missing at a nearby intersection said more than a thousand people were at the event when the militants attacked. Some festivalgoers estimated the true figure was closer to 3,000 or 4,000.

The attendees had not been given the exact location of the festival until a few hours before it began at 10pm Friday. “The event will take place in a powerful natural location full of trees, stunning in its beauty and organised for your convenience, about an hour and a quarter south of Tel Aviv,” ticket buyers were told in the lead-up.

Image Credit: Reuters

The festival was held just three miles from the fence that divides Israel from the Gaza Strip and its around two million inhabitants. The ravers were told not to bring firearms or sharp objects onto the festival grounds. They were tired and defenseless when the attack began, trapped in a wide-open area that offered few hiding places.

Ben Haim saw the militants in the distance, closing in on foot. “I took the car keys from a friend of mine that was really wasted and got as many people in the car as possible and started driving like crazy,” she said. “The people who stayed, most of them got captured or murdered.”

Cars were being shot at on the roads and there were gunmen everywhere, she said.

31-year-old Gal Raz also tried to drive away with his friends when he realised the area was overrun.

“We heard shots. There were cars with corpses on top of them that blocked the road,” he said. “We couldn’t get out.”

They got in another friend’s car but were quickly ambushed.

“There were about seven to eight terrorists, and they started to shoot at us in our car,” he said.

They drove on for a few hundred meters and then abandoned the car, running past another with several dead bodies next to it. As he hid, Raz thought about his girlfriend, who he is planning to marry, and about his family.

“It’s clear that there was a failure here,” he said. “Now we need to get these people back who are missing. And to tell these people’s stories.”

Running through fields

Ben Haim and her friends had also jumped out of their car and were running through the fields.

“Every direction we ran we had more people shooting at us; we were running for two hours trying to escape. We started crawling in bushes. Eventually I realized I couldn’t run anymore.”

She and two friends and a stranger lay down in a bush and covered themselves with leaves.

“We stayed silent and tried to reach the police. The police said they can’t help us because too many people were captured.”

After seven hours, with her phone battery at 2 per cent, Ben Haim was picked up by a local resident who was driving around trying to rescue people. Raz was eventually picked up by the military.

Help didn’t arrive in time for Noa Argamani, 25, who was hiding in the bushes with her boyfriend, Avinatan Or. Or messaged Argamani’s father around 10am to let him know they were safe.

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People at a dance party react during a surprise attack launched by Hamas, near Reim, Israel October 7, 2023 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. Image Credit: Reuters

The couple were trying to reassure him, said Shlomit Marciano, 25, a childhood friend of Argamani’s. It was the last message the family received.

On Saturday, they saw the couple in a video circulating on Palestinian social media. It shows Argamani screaming as she is separated from her boyfriend and driven off on a motorcycle. Or appears to have his hands bound and is pushed along by several young men.

“You can absolutely see it was her,” said Marciano, who is staying with Argamani’s parents. “I think I haven’t fully accepted it yet; I slept in her bed last night. It’s crazy.”

Argamani had debated not going to the festival, but not because of security concerns. “If she knew it was tense right now, then I think she wouldn’t have gone, but we knew nothing,” Marciano said. “She wasn’t sure because it was far and expensive. I told her, ‘Go; you’re young.’ I regret that.”

A later video appears to show Argamani being held captive, sitting on cushions in a room with a tiled floor, sipping from a bottle of water. “At least we know she’s alive,” Marciano said.

Others don’t have that assurance.

Tali Atias believes that her 23-year-old daughter, Dorin, who she last heard from shortly before 7am Saturday, might be among the hostages. Dorin told her mother the area was under attack and she was looking for shelter.

Atias has posted on social media and called her daughter’s friends to try to find out what happened to her, to no avail. “We don’t know what’s going on” or “what to do,” she said.

The family of Shani Louk feel similarly helpless. The 22-year-old posed for a mirror selfie just before parting for the rave, her long dreadlocks partially covered by a headscarf, looking coyly to the side, eyelids flecked with eyeliner.

“She loved to party,” said her cousin Tom Weintraub Louk, 30. Family members desperately tried reaching Louk and her Mexican boyfriend when the news broke.

Then they saw the video posted online.

“We recognised her by the tattoos, and she has long dreadlocks,” Louk said.

In the video, the woman is facedown in the bed of the truck with four militants, apparently being paraded through Gaza. One holds her hair while another raises a gun in the air and shouts, “Allahu akbar!” A crowd follows the truck cheering. A boy spits in her hair.

While her cousin appears lifeless, the family is still holding out for news. “We have some kind of hope,” Louk said.