JERUSALEM (AP) — It was, they thought, an ironclad social contract. Israeli citizens would serve in the military and live along enemy borders. In exchange, the army would defend them.
That contract was shattered Saturday when hundreds of Hamas militants breached Israel’s defenses from the Gaza Strip, pouring in by air, land and sea on a rampage that would leave hundreds dead. The infiltration caught Israel’s storied high-tech army completely unaware and stunned a country that prides itself on military prowess.
Further shocking Israelis was how long it took the military to respond. As thousands in southern Israel suddenly found themselves besieged, their cries for help went unanswered for hours. Holed up inside homes and safe rooms as militants sprayed bullets, torched homes and hurled grenades, they turned in desperation to social media, to journalists and to friends, beseeching the army to save them.
The weekend attacks and the military’s response brought an unsettling new sense of vulnerability and abandonment. Thousands of families had no idea whether loved ones were alive or had been taken as captives to Gaza. At the height of the violence, there was no one to turn to for guidance or information. Contact centers were eventually set up, but the focus was on soliciting information from families rather than offering it.
Six members of Jonathan Silver’s family are missing, and he approached authorities for help. At least three relatives are captive in Gaza, he said, and the others are assumed to be there, too. He saw video of a cousin and two children taken hostage from their kibbutz, Nir Oz.
But the family has received no information, Silver said.
“We tried to reach everybody – the homeland command, police, friends, acquaintances, people on the kibbutz,” he said. And for hours, “there was no one to talk to.”
He’s particularly concerned for his aunt, who has Parkinson’s disease and needs her medication. He’s frustrated, but he also said now is not the time to criticize too deeply.
“I have a lot of questions and a lot to say. The day of reckoning will come,” he said, but “now I prefer to stand beside the army.”
In Israel, military service is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. In the eyes of many citizens, it is the glue that keeps the country together in a region widely hostile to its presence, and it’s recognized worldwide for its technological advances and intelligence-gathering capabilities.
That it could be taken so completely by surprise by a militant group is something Israelis are hard-pressed to fathom.
For Merav Leshem Gonen, a feeling of helplessness gripped her when her daughter called in a panic from a music festival that was attacked.
“Mommy, we were bombed. They shot at us. The car was shot, we cannot drive, everybody here is hurt,” Gonen recounted her daughter saying.
“She was talking to me and said, ‘Mommy, help us, we don’t know what to do.’ And I’m saying, ’We love you, and it’s OK. We are trying to find a way to take you out of there. We are sending people,’” Gonen told a news conference outside Tel Aviv. “And I know I’m lying because we don’t have answers, and we didn’t have any answers. Nobody had.”
Journalist Amir Tibon had good fortune that many others didn’t: While the army struggled to regroup, his 62-year-old father, a retired general, entered the breach. Noam Tibon headed from his home in Tel Aviv to Nahal Oz, a kibbutz where his son, his wife and their two young daughters were hunkering in a safe room. On the way, he connected with another retired general and a group of commandoes.
After firefights with militants along the way, the elder Tibon extricated his son and family. More than a dozen others at Nahal Oz did not survive.
“The terms of the contract between us and the state had always been clear: We protect the border, and the state protects us,” Amir Tibon wrote in an article retelling the rescue for his newspaper, Haaretz.
“We fulfilled our share of the deal heroically. For all too many of our beloved friends and neighbors, on this black day of Saturday, October 7, the state of Israel did not fulfill its share.”
Maayan Zin said she learned that her two daughters had been abducted when a relative sent her photos from a Telegram group appearing to show them sitting on mattresses in captivity. She’s among dozens of distraught families who say there’s been a lack of support from Israeli authorities about their loved ones held in Gaza.
“There is no information. No one has contacted me since yesterday. Not the army, not the government, not the police,” she said.
At first, she couldn’t believe what she saw in the images. “I thought it was Photoshopped,” she said.
But videos she found online confirmed her worst fears. Dafna, 15, and Ella, 8, were shown weeping and terrified. Their father, her ex-husband, was seen being taken across the border into Gaza, his leg bleeding heavily.
“Just bring my daughters home,” Zin pleaded. “Bring everybody home.”
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.