Grief and anger in southern Israel as fight against militants continues

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BE’ERI, Israel — Columns of tanks and artillery rolled down highways in southern Israel on Sunday, past dead bodies and the charred wreckage of burned vehicles. In dusty fields and orchards, other forces fanned out to search for militants on foot.

One unit patrolling a dirt road near Re’im stopped two young men at a distance, yelling for them to strip down and show they weren’t carrying weapons or explosives.

The men stood still in the clearing, their hands above their heads. A group of Israel soldiers approached, searching them one by one and zip-tying their hands behind their back.

“There’s movement in the trees!” Another soldier called out from a nearby ridge line before releasing a bust of gunfire. “Clear!”

Nearly two full days after Palestinian militants marauded through communities in southern Israel, residents here and the troops deployed to protect them remain on edge. Clashes between militants and Israeli forces continued into the night Sunday, even as authorities sought to reassure the public that the worst of the danger had passed. With more than 700 confirmed dead, Israel is a nation in shock, even as it masses forces along the border with Gaza and prepares for war.

The scale of the attacks has left many families desperately seeking information about their loved ones. Distraught relatives of the missing are gathering outside community centers, beside checkpoints and near the entrances to towns still under attack, hoping to speak to a soldier or an official — anyone who might know something.

Neora Swid last saw her husband when he left to help defend a neighboring village along the border with Gaza after it was breached by militants. He was receiving voice messages from people screaming “come on we’re injured,” she said. “I gave him a peck on the cheek and told him to text me when he got there.”

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She knew what he was doing was dangerous, she said, but she had no idea what he was walking into. A few hours later, he stopped replying to her messages.

Like others, she has been calling around to hospitals, only to be told the facilities are overwhelmed with unidentified bodies.

“It’s really unlike Israel,” she said. “Usually they are on top of everything. Now it’s like chaos.”

A man named Zhaki was searching for his missing niece in the town of Be’eri. He had called people he knows in the military “to check against the lists they have of the kidnapped and the dead, but her name isn’t on any of them,” he said, sitting with other relatives on the outskirts of the town as civilians were escorted out.

“So many people are in the same position,” he said, only giving his first name to protect his family’s privacy.

Aharon Sabag, 26, was at trance music festival when it was attacked by Hamas gunmen early Saturday. He hasn’t been able to find three of his friends who were there with him. His group was separated when the shooting began; he walked for hours through the desert to get to safety.

He had started to leave the party when he heard the volley of rocket fire, he recalled, but he wasn’t scared at that point.

“It’s normal for us in this area,” he said, “I thought we have the Iron Dome, they are just rockets, everything will be fine.” But as he walked up to his car, a woman ran toward him screaming. Terrorists were attacking partygoers, she said.

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“I said ‘What terrorists? There’s a fence that cost billions of dollars, there are cameras, there’s no way terrorists got in here,’” he told her. He thought she was crazy, he said. Then, as he began to drive away, he heard the shots. Up ahead, gunmen were blocking the road, firing into the lines of cars trying to leave the camp site.

“I don’t even remember seeing anything after that,” Sabag said. “I just ran.”

In the town of Sderot, armored bulldozers cleared debris from the front of a destroyed police station that had been the scene of a fierce battle the day before.

After militants took control of the building, Israeli troops fired rockets into the complex, according to residents who watched the fight from nearby apartment blocks.

“It was like a video game, like Grand Theft Auto,” said Shimon Dadiya, who was at home when the attack began. “No one can believe how this happened.”

Dadiya said he expects anger over the government response will grow as the shock wears off. He blames intelligence lapses for allowing the complex plot to moving forward.

“They had to have so much information before the attack,” he said of Israel’s security forces. He simply couldn’t understand, he said, how no one saw it coming.

In the town of Ashkelon, a group of men at a sandwich shop watched the news on television and shook their heads.

“I’m angry at the government, the government should have taken care of Hamas the last time we were in Gaza,” Solino Sabann said. As he spoke, sirens began to wail, warning of more incoming rockets.

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“This time in Gaza, we won’t stop attacking until it’s finished,” he said.

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