Southern Israeli towns traumatised by Hamas killings

Populations being evacuated as military sends battle tanks and troops towards Gaza border

Israeli soldiers take position near a police station that was overrun by Hamas militants on Saturday in Sderot. AP
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In the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, the streets are largely empty. Less than 24 hours ago, the police station was occupied by Hamas militants who launched a shock attack across the border, entering tens of Israeli communities near the besieged Gaza Strip.

Hundreds – perhaps close to 1,000 people – have already been killed in the space of 24 hours in Israel and Gaza, as the Israeli air force mounts relentless air strikes on the densely populated enclave.

The distant thud of bombs can be heard as the army strikes Gaza, less than 13km from Ashkelon.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been called up for military duty in the wake of Saturday's surprise attack, the worst violence seen in Israel in decades. Israel is evacuating key towns in the south as it tries to stabilise the security situation.

There are a lot of people that are traumatised, with post-trauma, hysteria and we have to calm them down. And we have a few injured
Yitzhak Drezner, ambulance driver

“We have no idea how long we’ll be here. I’m here until the fat lady sings. I’d rather be at home with my family and young daughter and watching Cocomelon with her. Instead, I’m out here,” Ben, a civil servant in his 30s, told The National.

It seems we have a long road ahead of us. We’re just hoping that not only the home front but also the international community stays strong behind us until we get the job done.”

On the road to Ashkelon, our car was suddenly stopped. Locals looked visibly shaken.

The city is home to a large French community, many of whom recently moved to the country and have said they are now coming to terms with living in a war zone.

“This is definitely a strategic surprise. We thought these resistance groups would launch something from the north," said Orna Mizrahi, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security, told The National, referring to previous battles between Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.

Ms Mizrahi suggested that Hamas had used a period of recent calm, in which about 20,000 workers from Gaza were allowed to cross the border for work in Israel, to prepare for such an assault.

"They kept quiet while they got our money with the workers coming inside Israel. It’s the worst scenario," she said.

Israel has confirmed a “significant number” of hostages have been taken by Hamas.

Hamas said it would release the precise number of hostages in Gaza on Sunday.

Chilling footage

As night fell, we entered the outskirts of Sderot, which on Saturday was the scene of indiscriminate killings by Hamas fighters.

Gunmen in a pickup truck roamed the streets at dawn, shooting the residents that they came across, reports say.

Chilling video footage posted by Hamas shows its fighters going door-to-door in towns across southern Israel, shooting or kidnapping residents.

On Sunday, at a makeshift ambulance station outside the town, medics told The National that many survivors were traumatised by what they saw.

Yitzhak Drezner, a volunteer ambulance driver who works as a nurse at a hospital in Jerusalem, was awaiting the next emergency call out.

"There are a lot of people that are traumatised, with post-trauma, hysteria and we have to calm them down. And we have a few injured," he said.

Asked how his life had changed in 24 hours, he said: "It's changed rapidly. On Saturday, I was on holiday, it's the sabbath. I had to go on calls and respond to calls in Jerusalem. This morning I came down here to help out."

Medics at the station told of how they carefully removed the body of a local taxi driver who was shot to death in his vehicle on Saturday morning.

Israel's military on Sunday said a number of Hamas fighters were still at-large.

Mr Drezner, like all paramedics dressed in body armour and a helmet, said he was called out to live-fire incidents on Sunday where gunmen were still engaging with Israeli forces.

The death toll from the attack on Sderot has not yet been confirmed, but is thought to be at least dozens.

Updated: October 09, 2023, 8:52 AM