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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dozens were killed at Israeli music festival, others abducted

Israeli security forces guard a checkpoint near the southern city of Sderot on Sunday. Israeli forces battled holdout Hamas fighters and pounded targets in the Gaza Strip on Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “long and difficult” war ahead, after the Palestinian militants launched a massive surprise attack.  (JACK GUEZ/AFP)
By Aaron Boxerman and Sheera Frenkel New York Times

Just after dawn Saturday, a few thousand young Israelis were gathered at a music festival just a few miles from the border with Gaza when rockets began arcing in the sky. Some initially dismissed them as a nuisance, soon to be dealt with by Israel’s missile-defense system.

“I thought, ‘OK, some missiles – the Iron Dome will take care of it,’ ” said Andrey Peairie, a 35-year-old resident of Kiryat Gat.

But then one of his friends spoke on the phone with his wife, who delivered a chilling warning: Armed Palestinian militants were in the area. They quickly scrambled to leave, Peairie said.

The small group had made it less than a half-mile before gunfire erupted. The music festival quickly devolved into terrifying chaos. At least 109 people were believed to have been killed, according to Israeli security officials.

In videos from the scene, scores of Israelis can be seen attempting to flee the area. In another, a young woman, Noa Argamani, whose identity was confirmed by the New York Times, is forcibly driven off by what appear to be Palestinian militants, who force other Israeli captives to march ahead.

One Israeli security official called the attack a massacre. The death toll has continued to rise over the past day, with some of the most gruesome stories emerging from survivors of the festival.

Raziel Tamir, another attendee, told Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, that he had seen more than 50 Palestinian militants at the scene firing with abandon. “There was a crazy number of bodies,” he said. “We ran. We had to skip over bodies.”

Outdoor “nature parties,” or music festivals in Israel’s wooded valleys and southern deserts, are a popular pastime among young Israelis, with music stretching from the middle of the night into the early morning. Some are unauthorized, but Peairie said the festival – near Re’im, in southern Israel – was well organized, with security and medics ready to handle any issues.

Eliav Klein, 29, who was attending the festival Saturday with dozens of his friends, said security guards had quickly moved people away from the main festival area when the rockets first appeared after 6 a.m. But by the time Klein had packed his things and moved toward his car, gunmen had surrounded the area and opened fire.

“Cars were stuck and couldn’t move,” he said. “People just got on foot and ran. It was crazy.”

Peairie and a small group of fleeing festival attendees gathered in the bushes in an attempt to hide. Gunfire resounded all around, he said, with bullets whistling directly over them. He crawled to the top of a nearby hill to get his bearings.

“Re’im was smoke and flames and gunfire,” Peairie said. “I have a military background, but I never was in a situation like this.”

He and others lay for more than an hour in the bushes. Then after more than five hours, they made it to a nearby town, where hundreds of other survivors had gathered.

Klein joined a group of people heading west, toward a nearby kibbutz. They walked for hours, he said, unaware whether more gunman were nearby.

On Sunday, many festival attendees remained missing. In the aftermath, friends and family desperately circulated photos and contact information on social media, urging anyone with knowledge of their loved ones’ whereabouts to reach out.

“I still don’t know where some of my friends are,” said Klein, adding, “I don’t know if they are injured or dead or if they were kidnapped and taken to Gaza.”

Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year-old Israeli who was born in California, went to the music festival Friday night. On Saturday morning, his parents received two final messages from him on WhatsApp about 90 minutes after the assault began: “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”

He is still missing, said his father, Jon.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.