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Israeli communities near Gaza on front line of Hamas assault

October 9, 2023

Residents of Israel's farming communities near the border with the Gaza Strip were the first victims of Hamas' terror attacks on October 7. Few were prepared for violence on this scale and are now blaming the government.

Armed men in front of a yellow fence
Hamas militants were able to infiltrate the border and attack kibbutzim in southern Israel on SaturdayImage: Hassan Eslaiah/AP/picture alliance

In Be'eri, Kfar Aza and Re'im, the unthinkable happened on Saturday morning as people were murdered, kidnapped and taken hostage in their own homes.

All three kibbutzim are located in the immediate vicinity of the Gaza Strip. Their residents were the first victims of the attacks by the Islamist militant group Hamas, considered a terror organization by the European Union, the United States and many other countries. The group launched an assault on Israel in the early hours of October 7, attacking soldiers and civilians.

"It's a catastrophe, and it's not over," said Micky Drill, a project manager at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Israel who spent 10 years in the kibbutz of Magen just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the border with Gaza, where there were also reports of gun battles on Sunday.

What is a kibbutz?

Kibbutzim began as agricultural communities with a utopian collective lifestyle based on certain principles, such as social justice and mutual support. Many have since been privatized, and today only 4% of Israelis live on a kibbutz. However, the factories and farms remain responsible for 40% of Israel's agricultural output.

Most are located in Israel's rural southern part, on the border with the Gaza Strip. Some have about 400 inhabitants, while others might have as many as 800.

The first kibbutzim were set up over 100 years ago, well before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Several are located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, which Israel effectively annexed from Syria in 1981.

A building on fire
Kibbutz Kfar Aza was one of the first to come under attack Image: Hassan Eslaiah/AP/dpa/picture alliance

"The kibbutz movement is on the rise today, and it is very popular," said Drill. "That area [the southern part of Israel] consists mostly of kibbutzim, and there has been an incredible increase in population in recent years despite the military threat. These are strong communities with lots of nature. There's a very different standard of living than in dense cities."

Hamas attacks a 'huge breach of trust' with government

But there are also constant air raid sirens, which sometimes leave people with only 15 seconds to seek shelter.

Drill said kibbutzim residents are used to this. "The whole infrastructure has adapted to this. All the houses there are protected with concrete ceilings. But what has happened now is completely different," he said.

Hundreds of Hamas militants stormed Israel in the early hours of October 7, killing civilians and taking hostages, as seen in shocking videos circulating on social media.

"Nobody could have imagined people ramming a fence with a bulldozer, entering kibbutzim and slaughtering people, taking families and children in their beds to Gaza," said Drill.

Some observers have described October 7 as "Israel's September 11."

For years, the Israeli government and army have reassured the population that it was safe because of the country's missile defense system and because tunnels used to attack the country in the past had been destroyed.

"That was not true," said Drill, adding that the assault represented a "huge breach of trust" between those who live in kibbutzim and the authorities.

'It's a huge intelligence failure': Counterterrorism expert

Though there are some religious kibbutzim, most are nonreligious communities with left-wing ideals that refer back to their original socialist principles. Few inhabitants of the kibbutzim that were attacked would have voted for the current far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Many still remember the time when the border to Gaza was open. "We would go to the sea by bike," recalled Drill. The first fence was built in 1994.

Left to fend for themselves

The kibbutz inhabitants are all the more disappointed because it took the army a long time to arrive after the terror attacks. Many had to defend themselves against the Hamas terrorists.

Almost 50 people were held hostage in kibbutz Be'eri for hours before the army was able to get the situation under control.

"The terrorists knew exactly what the weak points were, where the kibbutzim were guarded, whether they were guarded at all," said Drill.

Ofir Libstein, the head of a regional council who was a longtime spokesman for Kibbutz Kfar Aza, was one of the most prominent victims of the October 7 attacks.

He had repeatedly called for peace, describing life on the border with Gaza as follows: "Life here is 99% like heaven. But 1% of the time, it's hell, and hell can break loose at any time."

This article was originally written in German.