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Survivors of the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Be'eri describe the apocalyptic scene

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On the road into Be'eri, an Israeli community about three miles from Gaza, I see a backhoe picking up bodies. They're the bodies of Hamas gunmen who stormed this community of just over 1,000 people last Saturday.

So we're walking into the kibbutz now, and I see a burned-out vehicle, the gate burned and chickens.

DORON SPIELMAN: This vehicle was caught on camera. They came. They shot out the windows of the vehicle, assassinated the people inside, and then they blew open the door here, the gate. They came right in.

FADEL: That's Major Doron Spielman, a spokesperson for the Israeli army. He's taking media through Be'eri on this day to give the world a glimpse of what happened once Hamas militants crossed the border from Gaza into Israel undetected, storming communities, entering homes, killing at least 1,400 people and taking at least 150 hostages.

So when we walked in, it looked like a very sort of manicured community with small houses and now utter destruction.

Homes are burned. Terra cotta roofs lay in shambles on the floor. There's just these gaping holes in the side of the house. Inside one there are portraits of the family who once lived there. Blood is spattered on the wall, on the front step and in the bedrooms.

Oh, it smells horrible in here.

I walk into another house. There are two children's rooms filled with books, stuffed animals and paint supplies. And the mattress is covered with blood. It's eerily quiet. The residents who lived here were killed or evacuated.

A few blocks down, I find the abandoned home of one of those evacuees. The front door is burned, but closed. The grass has patches of black from where it was burned, and it's the back of the house that's totally destroyed.

As I walk the grounds, I call Dan Alom. That day, he was at his parents' home, visiting.

Can you tell me what happened, what I'm looking at because I see such destruction in front of me?

DAN ALOM: Saturday morning, they just started shooting missiles. We wasn't scared 'cause we're used to it. Then we started hearing, like, guns shooting. They said, everyone, go to the safe room now and lock the doors. So we're just locked there - no electricity, no water for, like, 15 hours.

FADEL: Wait, nobody came to help you for 15 hours?

ALOM: Yeah. And they were inside our house. The terrorists, they were screaming and shouting. There was guns shooting all around and trying to open up the door. We just held it strong. We didn't let them. We started to hear the house burning. We were calling for help. And we talked with our brother. He said, yeah, we're on our way, we're on our way. And they didn't came.

FADEL: So what I'm looking at, all of this - like, your walls are black. That's 'cause somebody set them on fire.

ALOM: Yes.

FADEL: When he finally emerged from the safe room with his family, the scene was unlike anything he'd seen before.

ALOM: It was like an apocalypse - like, everything ruined, like, with bodies lay around.

FADEL: You saw the bodies everywhere.

ALOM: I was trying not to, but yeah.

FADEL: How many people did you lose in your community?

ALOM: I think it's more than 100. Like, the house in front of us - close friend - the father has been murdered for sure and the two biggest children and the mother. I don't feel anything anymore, but it's, like, devastating.

FADEL: I'm sorry.

ALOM: Yes.

FADEL: I'm looking at your neighborhood, and I can't imagine. So you survived this.

ALOM: Yes. Not a lot of our neighborhood survived.

FADEL: Has your community been able to bury their lost loved ones?

ALOM: Not yet.

FADEL: Really? Why?

ALOM: Because we're just still trying to figure it out, how we're going to deal with so much funerals. And we don't know where to bury them because it's not safe.

FADEL: They can't return home right now. And the 23-year-old is particularly worried about two friends, siblings. He was their camp counselor. One is 16, the other 13. He thinks they may have been taken hostage.

ALOM: I don't want to say their names because we don't know for sure, like, where are they.

FADEL: Who do you blame for this?

ALOM: I'm just not there at the moment. I'm just grieving for my friends, my parents' friends, my - like, my community. So I just don't know, like, how to deal with it. But we just know we're - like, we've just been slaughtered, and nobody came to help us. And I don't know whose fault it is, but just know, like, we've been slaughtered.

FADEL: I'm so sorry.

ALOM: Yes, I hope, like, that they will save all the ones who've been taken by the Hamas to Gaza. We just - I'm asking them for just think about them and try to get them back.

FADEL: I mean, how do you feel about the war? I mean, I know you have friends that might be in there.

ALOM: Yes, I'm worried about them. And after they will be home, I don't care what happened with Gaza. I really don't.

FADEL: You don't care.

ALOM: I don't care. Shoot them all - I don't care. I don't care.

FADEL: That right there is a sentiment I've heard repeatedly from grieving, traumatized Israelis - shoot them all, eliminate Gaza, erase it. And off in the distance where plumes of black smoke are rising out of Gaza, Israel is retaliating hard. Israel's government has vowed to take out Hamas and is expanding its military campaign in Gaza, just a few miles away, where at least 2,700 people have been killed. More than 800 are children. It's under siege. Civilians are trapped inside. Neighborhood blocks are reduced to rubble. And access to the devastation in Gaza is harder to recount with so few journalists inside. The borders are sealed. It's not the kind of response Noy Katsman wants, even though they, like Dan Alom, have lost so much. Their brother was killed in the attack in a different community. When I return from Be'eri, I meet them in a cafe in Jerusalem before the start of the Jewish morning ritual.

NOY KATSMAN: It's tough days. I'm in - we're sitting here, Shiva, you know? It's seven days after the funeral...

FADEL: Yeah.

KATSMAN: ...In Judaism where you sit and you - like, everyone comes and shares their condolences.

FADEL: Their brother's name?

KATSMAN: Hayim, which means life in Hebrew.

FADEL: Beautiful.

KATSMAN: Yes.

FADEL: Hayim Katsman was one of 30 Americans killed in the attack. When Hamas gunmen stormed into the community, he hid in a safe room in his home in Holit, about a mile from the Gaza border, with his neighbor and her two children.

KATSMAN: And the terrorists came, and they bombed the door.

FADEL: Hayim was hiding in the closet when they shot him.

KATSMAN: And finally, like, at 2 a.m. or something, they found his body, and then they called me and told me.

FADEL: In life, Hayim Katsman was a peace activist.

If your brother were alive, what would he want to happen in his name if he had a say in what would happen and the reaction to his killing?

KATSMAN: I'm sure he would say that we should never kill innocent people. I'm sure he would have called them to stop. I mean, I just don't understand who this helps. It just helps the government, maybe, to - that the people would think they do something. But it doesn't help the people. I mean, does it make me feel better that so many Palestinians are killed in Gaza? No.

FADEL: Who do you blame for what happened to your brother?

KATSMAN: I don't blame anyone, but I do have expectations from my country, and my basic expectation for my government is to give security and safety to all of the people, and they for sure fail for that. And my government - instead of saying, OK, we failed, maybe we need to do something else - they're saying, oh, we need to kill more Palestinians. We need to - now we're going to really destroy the Hamas. Like, I'm just 27, and I remember them saying it so many times. So of course there's a revenge and the good feeling - they killed us, we killed them. But what about our safety? I mean, my brother isn't safe for sure.

FADEL: And why do you feel like it's important to talk about this publicly?

KATSMAN: Well, I just believe that the majority of people in Israel and Palestine lose from this situation. What does it mean, winning now, after my brother and 2,000 people are dead? We want safety. There's a very small amount of people that earn from this situation. If it's the right-wing politicians who gain power from violence and hate.

FADEL: When you say you want something different, you want safety, what would that look like when you think about the reaction you wish happened for your brother?

KATSMAN: Well, my brother wrote that - in his doctorate that he wants justice and security for everyone who lives between Jordan and the sea. Managing the conflict doesn't work. Every time there's a different terror attack, that's what happens when you manage a conflict. I'm sorry to tell you. And you need basic understanding of how people feel. And if after they kill us a thousand people, we're going to kill them 3,000, that's not understanding of people, because these people will grow up and hate us even more.

FADEL: As Katsman speaks in this open-air cafe, people begin to stare.

KATSMAN: I'm a little afraid people are looking at me, and I'm afraid they don't like what I said.

FADEL: Then the waitress walks up to our table.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: What is this interview for?

FADEL: An interview for NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: OK, and is it, like, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli?

KATSMAN: It's pro-life. And my brother died on Saturday. And he was a peace activist, and I'm talking in his name. That's a problem. Israelis only care if something is pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. It's a symbolic. We don't care about the safety of our lives. We don't care about people who are getting killed in thousands. We only care if it's pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. Who cares? All this question is a distraction if it's pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. People die. People die from both sides. That said, we're going to kill 3,000 Palestinians, so that's pro-Israel now? No, of course not.

FADEL: See? Noy Katsman tells me. Violence emboldens extremism in their society and among Palestinians. It's a cycle that needs to break. We say goodbye, and they head home to mourn with their family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.