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Israeli survivors recount terror at music festival, where Hamas militants killed at least 260

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The night was a getaway. Thousands of young men and women gathered at a vast field in southern Israel near the Gaza border to dance without a care. Old and new friends jumped up and down, reveling in the swirl of the bass-heavy beats.

Maya Alper was standing toward the back of the bar with teams of environmentally conscious volunteers, picking up trash and passing out free vodka shots to party-goers who reused their cups. Just after 6.a.m., as a light-blue dawn broke and the headliner D.J. took the stage, air raid sirens cut through the ethereal trap music. Rockets streaked overhead.

Alper, 25, jumped into her car and raced to the main road. But at the intersection she encountered crowds of stricken festival attendees, shouting at drivers to turn around. Then, a noise. Firecrackers? Panicked men and women staggering down the road just in front of her fell to the ground in pools of blood. Gunshots.

Saturday’s attack on the open-air Tribe of Nova music festival is believed to be the worst civilian massacre in Israeli history, with at least 260 dead and a still undetermined number taken hostage. Dozens of Hamas militants who had blown through Israel’s heavily fortified separation fence and crossed into the country from Gaza opened fire on about 3,500 young Israelis who had come together for a joyous night of electronic music to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Some attendees were drunk or high on drugs, magnifying their confusion and terror.

The Associated Press reviewed more than dozen videos taken during the massacre and interviewed survivors to reconstruct how the deadly attack unfolded. The party was held in a dusty field outside of Kibbutz Re’im, about 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) from the wall that separates Gaza from southern Israel.

“We were hiding and running, hiding and running, in an open field — the worst place you could possibly be in that situation,” said Arik Nani from Tel Aviv, who had gone to the party to celebrate his 26th birthday. “For a country where everyone in these circles knows everyone, this is a trauma like I could never imagine.”

While rockets rained down, revelers said, militants converged on the festival site while others waited near bomb shelters, gunning down people who were seeking refuge. Many of the militants, who arrived in trucks and on motorcycles, were wearing body armor and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Videos compiled by Israeli first responders and posted to the social media site Telegram show armed men plunging into the panicked crowd, mowing down fleeing revelers with bursts of automatic fire. Many victims were shot in the back as they ran.

Israeli communities on either side of the festival grounds also came under attack, with Hamas gunmen abducting dozens of men, women and children — including elderly and disabled people — and killing scores of others in Saturday’s unprecedented surprise attack.

The staggering toll from the festival was becoming clear Monday, as Israel’s rescue service Zaka said paramedics had recovered at least 260 bodies. Festival organizers said they were helping Israeli security forces locate attendees who were still missing. The death toll could rise as teams continue to clear the area.

As the carnage unfolded before her, Alper pulled a few disoriented-looking revelers into her car from the street and accelerated in the opposite direction. One of them said he had lost his wife in the chaos and Alper had to stop him from breaking out of the car to find her. Another said she had just seen Hamas gunmen shoot and kill her best friend. Another rocked in his seat, murmuring over and over, “We are going to die.” In the rear-view mirror, Alper watched the dance floor where she had spent the past ecstatic hours transform into a giant cloud of black smoke.

Festival-goers who managed to make it to the road and parking lot where their vehicles were parked found themselves trapped in a traffic jam, with militants stalking the cars and spraying those inside with gunfire. Drone footage of the scene taken after the attack and reviewed by the AP show chaotic lines of cars where drivers had attempted to flee. Some burned-out vehicles were flipped onto their sides, while others had bullet holes visible in shattered windows.

Nowhere was safe, Alper said. The roar of explosions, hysterical screams and automatic gunfire felt closer the further she drove. When a man just meters away shouted “God is great!”, Alper and her new companions sprung out of the car and sprinted through open fields toward a mass of bushes.

Alper felt a bullet whiz past her left ear. Aware the gunmen would outrun her, she plunged into a tangle of shrubs. Peering through thorns, she said she saw one of her passengers, the girl who had lost her friend, shriek and collapse as a gunman stood over her limp body, grinning.

“I can’t even explain the energy they (the militants) had. It was so clear they didn’t see us as human beings,” she said. “They looked at us with pure, pure hate.”

Videos show the gunmen executed some of the wounded at point-blank range as they crouched on the ground. Some of the militants even rifled through the vehicles of their victims, grabbing purses and backpacks.

An unknown number of people from the festival were taken hostage. A video posted to social media by militants and verified by the AP shows an Israeli couple, Noa Argamani and her partner Avinatan Or, being dragged away by their captors.

Argamani, her face contorted in panic, shouts “No, no!” in Hebrew while being forced onto a motorbike, sandwiched between two gunmen. She reaches out for Or, whose hands are bound behind his back as a group of militants march him forward.

Their whereabouts are now unknown. But Hamas claims it is now holding more than 100 Israelis as hostages. On Monday, the group threatened to begin systematically killing captives if the Israeli military bombs Palestinian areas without warning.

For over six hours, Alper and thousands of other concert attendees hid without help from the Israeli army as Hamas militants sprayed automatic gunfire and threw grenades.

Her limbs were so contorted into a tangled mess in the bush that she couldn’t wiggle her toes. At different points, she heard militants speak in Arabic just beside her. A yoga devotee who practices meditation, Alper said she focused on her breath — “breathing and praying in every way I knew possible.”

“Every time I thought of anger, or fear or revenge, I breathed it out,” she said. “I tried to think of what I was grateful for — the bush that hid me so well that even birds landed on it, the birds that were still singing, the sky that was so blue.”

A tank instructor in the Israeli army, Alper knew she was safe when she heard a different kind of explosion — the sound of an Israeli army tank round. She shouted for help and soon soldiers were lifting her out of the bush. Around her lay the lifeless body of one of her friends. The girl from her car she had seen collapse was nowhere to be found; she believes that Hamas militants took her into Gaza.

Alper said the Israeli army, on its way to fight Hamas militants in the hard-hit kibbutz of Be’eri near the Gaza border, was at a loss as to know what to do with her.

At that moment, a pick-up truck full of Palestinian citizens of Israel pulled up. The men from the Bedouin city of Rahat were scouring the area to help rescue Israeli survivors. Helping Alper into their car, they drove her to the police station, where she collapsed, crying, into her father’s arms.

“This is not just war. This is hell,” Alper said. “But in that hell I still feel that somehow, we can choose to act out of love, and not just fear.”

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Biesecker reported from Washington.