Update: Doron Katz-Asher and her daughters Raz and Aviv Asher freed by Hamas
The last photograph Leeor Katz Natanzon has of her young nieces was sent by her sister from a safe room in their family home near the Gaza border.
When her sister and mother stopped responding to messages and after hours of frantic unanswered calls, Ms Natanzon’s worst fears were confirmed – all five had been taken hostage by Hamas militants who crossed into southern Israel early on Saturday.
“We feel like we are in a horror movie that has no end,” Ms Natanzon told The National.
“When I talked to my mother, she told me Hamas soldiers are in her house. I told her to stay inside the safe room and to lock everything.
“My sister sent me pictures of her girls and said they were all right.”
Her mother Efrat Katz, 68, sister Doron Katz Asher, 34, and nieces Raz, four, and Aviv Asher, two, are among more than 50 people kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Oz about 2km from the Gaza fenceline.
Ms Natanzon’s brother Ravid Katz and her mother’s boyfriend Gadi Moses are also missing.
Houses set alight
Israel has said at least 150 hostages were seized.
Her sister’s phone was later traced to Khan Younis, the big city closest to the kibbutz on the southern Gaza strip.
The two women and children were seen in a video filmed in Gaza of hostages seated in a car.
“I couldn’t watch the video taken by Hamas. It’s way too difficult to see them like this,” Ms Natanzon said.
“We are devastated.”
The youngest of four siblings, Doron Katz Asher was visiting her mother for the Sukkot holiday.
Ms Natanzon, 37, left the kibbutz to visit her in-laws a day before the rocket strikes by Hamas began on Saturday.
From speaking to survivors, she learnt that Hamas militia set fire to houses in the tightly knit community of 400 residents.
This forced people out of safe rooms – some built with reinforced concrete walls and heavy metal doors.
“They were shooting people and they set houses on fire,” Ms Natanzon said.
“People were sitting with their children inside the safe rooms and started to choke because of the smoke.”
The warning from Hamas that it would execute hostages if Israel’s strikes on Gazan homes without warnings continue has intensified the anxiety of families.
“The only thing for us is to get them back,” Ms Natanzon said. “We are trying to call talk to anyone who can help bring them back.”
Uncertain about their fate, she prays they are safe.
“I keep thinking about what the little girls are doing,” Ms Natanzon said.
“My mum for her granddaughters is like air to breathe. I'm not sure the babies even understood what was happening.
"My sister and mother had to be strong. I imagine my mum hugging them and making them feel calm."
Coping with loss
The Israeli government has vowed to obliterate Hamas and air strikes have pounded the Gaza Strip reducing apartment blocks to rubble.
More than 2,200 lives on both sides have been lost, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas is expected to escalate.
Many are struggling to cope with recognising friends killed in harrowing footage filmed by Hamas and shared on social media.
Shoval Cohen knew 20 people killed in the Supernova Music Festival massacre where at least 260 people were confirmed dead after Hamas fighters attacked.
She said many were students or worked in the technology sector.
“I personally know 20 people at the festival who got murdered,” said Ms Cohen, 30, who works in an IT company.
“It has been very difficult to deal with but as Israelis we have got used to disconnecting our heart from our head and to have faith.”
Ms Cohen’s husband is a close friend of Avinatan Or, who has been seen in videos surrounded by fighters as his girlfriend Noa Argamani was abducted by Hamas militants on a motorbike across the Gaza border.
Ms Cohen wants to remember Mr Or from her wedding celebrations in June.
“Avinatan is an electrical engineer and one of my husband’s best friends,” Ms Cohen said.
“I want to see him the same way I saw him at my wedding and not like in that terrible, terrible video watching his girlfriend driven to Gaza.
“He is a big guy so to watch him walking in restraints surrounded by terrorists was traumatic.”
Ms Cohen is among groups of people determined to ensure the hostages are not forgotten.
“We are all traumatised because this is different than before,” she said.
“These are not soldiers, they are people who were at a music festival and in the kibbutz.
“We have this huge hole in our heart.”