Or Gat returned on Friday to Be’eri, the Israeli kibbutz where he was born and raised, and found a totally different world: homes smashed, cars torched and streets packed with soldiers preparing for the next stage of Israel’s response to the Palestinian assault a week ago.
His mother, Kinneret; his sister, Carmel; and his sister-in-law, Yarden, are still missing, and the younger women are feared to be Hamas captives. His father, Eshel; his brother Alon; and his 3-year-old niece, Gefen, all barely escaped.
Be’eri, which lies near the eastern border of the Gaza Strip, suffered one of the deadliest massacres in the attack, with over 100 deaths, according to Israeli authorities, or around 10 percent of the kibbutz’s population. Palestinian gunmen went house by house, killing or capturing those they found. The Israeli military took hours to arrive.
“My sister and sister-in-law are held hostage, and my mother is probably dead,” Mr. Gat, 34, said bluntly.
“There’s no place for sadness anymore,” he said later, as he surveyed the damage. “There’s enormous anger.”
When Hamas attacked Israel on Saturday, Mr. Gat — who has been living in Tel Aviv but had intended to move back to Be’eri — was in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod for a friend’s bachelor party with kibbutz buddies. They fled into bomb shelters as the assault began.
He stayed in touch with his family as, hour by hour, the situation devolved into horror. “They kept saying: The army’s coming soon, the army’s coming soon,” Mr. Gat said. “But they didn’t come.”
The gunmen trashed the family’s house, pushing Alon, Yarden and young Gefen into a car, Mr. Gat said his brother had told him. The car sped toward Gaza, Yarden’s brother, Gili Roman, said, sharing details of what Alon had told him.
But some of the gunmen got out along the way, leaving only the driver. As he drove onward, Alon and Yarden grabbed Gefen and threw themselves from the moving car. They started running, with gunmen in pursuit, Mr. Roman said.
Alon said Yarden “realized she couldn’t run fast enough,” so she gave Gefen to him, Mr. Roman said. Alon managed to hide with the child until Sunday morning. But Yarden is missing.
“The last time he saw her,” Mr. Roman said, “she was hiding behind a tree. We don’t know what happened, but she saved her daughter.”
Mr. Gat’s father, Eshel, managed to hide in the bathroom and lock the door, keeping the gunmen out, family members said. Carmel was last seen by Eshel, in the captivity of the attackers, Mr. Gat said.
Volunteer emergency workers who searched the kibbutz in the days after the massacre found bodies everywhere, including those of small children, according to Moti Bukjin, a spokesman for ZAKA, an emergency response group.
By Friday, most of the corpses seemed to have been removed. The kibbutz crackled with tension as soldiers walked through. A tank hummed just past the iron fence demarcating its border. At one point on Friday morning, a rocket alert sent dozens scrambling for cover, and a resounding boom echoed through the ravaged town.