An armed resident walks amid the ashes of a heavily damaged building in kibbutz Alumim, following the October 7 attack by Hamas fighters, in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2023

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

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Black Sabbath

The defenders of Kibbutz Alumim fought off Palestinian terror squads on Oct. 7 and saved their homes and families

by
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman
March 21, 2024
An armed resident walks amid the ashes of a heavily damaged building in kibbutz Alumim, following the October 7 attack by Hamas fighters, in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2023

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

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The evening of Oct. 6 was especially festive at Kibbutz Alumim, one of the two religiously observant kibbutzim among the communities that dot the Gaza envelope, the part of Israel’s fertile northwestern Negev region adjacent to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Most of Alumim’s 500 residents and their guests had gathered at the kibbutz’s synagogue to celebrate with song and dance the start of the Simchat Torah holiday, one of the two most joyous days on the Jewish calendar. Many of them didn’t finally retire until after midnight.

Ordinarily they would have returned to the synagogue the next morning to continue the celebration. Instead, at 6:29 a.m., they were suddenly roused from their beds by a deafening cascade of rocket launches from a nearby Iron Dome anti-missile battery, and the resulting booms marking the interceptions of some of the thousands of missiles launched from Gaza, less than 4 kilometers away. The usual Color Red warning alarms were barely audible amid the deafening tumult. So many intercepts were being fired that it was as if the Iron Dome firing mechanism was somehow stuck in the “launch” position. After a few minutes, the firing stopped completely, apparently because all of the battery’s available missiles had been used.

After more than 15 years of intermittent attacks from their neighbors, Alumim’s residents ostensibly knew the drill: One had 30 seconds to scurry into reinforced rooms (mamadim) and remain there for 10 minutes, until the risk of being hit by rocket or mortar fire, or falling shrapnel from the interceptions, had passed. This time it was different. The unprecedented barrage of rockets and mortars was quickly followed by a sustained ground assault by thousands of heavily armed men at 30 different points along the border. Their mission, explicitly defined in documents later found on the dead bodies of their commanders and on computer files, was to kill as many people as possible, to take hostages, and wreak destruction on both civilian and military installations.

A map of Alumim found on the body of one of the Palestinian commanders showed two different lines of attack. The one carried out by the first squad was pointed toward the nerve center of the kibbutz—the nishkiya (armory), the secretariat, and the kibbutz’s “war room” (hamal), a below-ground, two-room complex monitoring the various security cameras spread around the kibbutz. A similarly detailed plan for neighboring Kibbutz Sa’ad described the location of the secretariat (“a significant source of information for our forces”), the dining hall (a place to gather hostages), and the animal feed factory (a suitable place for the forces to gather and replenish themselves). For whatever reason, however, the first wave of attackers at Alumim didn’t follow the plan, instead choosing to try and first secure the front gate and adjacent areas of Road 232, the north-south artery parallel to the Gaza border.

Some of Alumim’s residents ascribed their survival to overt Divine protection. However, there was no question in their minds that a crucial factor was that they were fighting to save their homes and families.

The blackest day in Israel’s history had begun. Alumim’s residents, like those in neighboring communities, would spend many harrowing hours closed up in rooms that proved to be safe from rocket attacks, but in most cases couldn’t even be locked from the inside. In some localities, they would prove to be death traps.

Fortunately for Alumim’s residents, they would be spared the worst of the horrors visited on neighboring kibbutzim, thanks to a combination of good fortune, apparent mistakes by the Hamas attackers, late arriving assistance from various security forces and, most of all, the courage and resourcefulness of its plucky defenders. Alumim’s 41 foreign workers—22 Thais and 19 Nepalis—on the other hand, were far less lucky, and paid a terrible price.

As elsewhere in Israel’s border areas, the first layer of Alumim’s defense rested on its 12-member security team (kitat konenut: KK), backstopped by three persons manning the kibbutz’s hamal. In recent years, the IDF had cut down the sizes of the KKs, viewing them as increasingly unnecessary in light of new technological and engineering measures that supposedly ensured the defense of the border, and even a nuisance. It had also imposed new restrictions upon members who wanted to keep their weapons in their homes, requiring the installation of heavy wall locks embedded in concrete to prevent thefts (in fact, the thefts mostly occurred at army bases). The weapons themselves had neither long-range scopes nor night-vision equipment. Hence, the size of the KK at Alumim, once 16, was now 12.

Most of the KK members ranged in age from mid-30s to late-40s. Some worked on the kibbutz, others outside: One was a lawyer, another a university professor in brain research, two others were engineers in large companies. Had the attack taken place during the week, and not on the holiday or Sabbath, some of them would not have been home, and the outcome would have been far worse. Eerily, a similar situation characterized the beginning of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war exactly 50 years and one day earlier: The Egyptian and Syrian surprise attacks were launched on the Yom Kippur holiday, when nearly everyone in the country was at home, thus expediting the army’s ability to mobilize in the first critical hours and days.

Each KK member had considerable military experience. Nearly all were married, with three or more children. Most of their weapons, primarily M-16 rifles, were locked in the small nishkiya located in the center of the kibbutz not far from the hamal. The annual training exercise had been held a month earlier: The scenario that they practiced was one in which a few terrorists penetrated the kibbutz, took hostages and held them in a building. The KK’s role was to set up a thin line of defense, confront any attackers, and isolate the building in question, until nearby army units arrived, within the expected 15-20 minutes.

Eyal Rhein, 49, father of four, was the head (ravshatz) of the KK. His responsibilities included organizing the annual one- or two-day training exercise, mobilizing new members when needed, maintaining the necessary weapons and ammunition, and communicating with the IDF’s nearby Gaza Division during any emergencies and escalations. Realizing that the rocket fire was out of the ordinary, he quickly donned his Shabbat (Sabbath) pants and shoes, a simple protective vest, and the white shirt marking his status as ravshatz, grabbed his pistol, and went outside to have a look around, on an electric bike. At 6:52 a.m., while near the kibbutz’s back gate, he received a message from the army command to activate the KK. He quickly sent everyone a WhatsApp message to meet at the nishkiya, but not everyone would see it right away. Rhein was also told to close roads and gates in the fields immediately surrounding the kibbutz.

Fortunately, Rhein didn’t have the keys for two outlying gates, and headed back home to get them. Otherwise, he would have run into a squad of heavily armed attackers that was approaching from Gaza. Luck was also with other members of the KK: Nitai Nachtomi had overslept and thus didn’t make his regular early morning jog around the perimeter of the kibbutz; Eitan Okun had turned his alarm clock off at 6:05 a.m., thus delaying his planned drive to the Zikim beach just north of Gaza, where he would have found himself assaulted by seaborne Hamas squads; Amichai Shacham had overslept as well, delaying his attending to the cow sheds that were directly in the path of the Hamas invaders.

Rhein returned to his house, grabbed a helmet, rifle and ceramic vest, and the keys to the nishkiya. By this time, he had received an urgent message from 59-year-old Avi Braverman, who had gone to the hamal to monitor the security cameras: Armed men were at the back gate, and breaking in. At 7:06 a.m., Rhein sent another WhatsApp message to the KK that terrorists on motorcycles were in the kibbutz. The perimeter fence and gate separated fields and orchards from the kibbutz’s economically productive areas—packing houses, the cow sheds and state-of-the-art milking station, and chicken runs. Alumim’s foreign workers were also housed in this area, which proved to be fatal for many of them.

Ohad Braverman, 23, recently discharged from the Israeli Air Force’s elite heliborne search and rescue Unit 669, lived in the young people’s neighborhood of the kibbutz, about 500 meters from the back gate. Along with curious others, he had gone outside after the initial 10-minute waiting period to view the aerial spectacle. Just before 7:00 a.m. he heard an explosion, followed a few minutes later by bursts of small arms fire. Braverman exchanged knowing looks with his friend, 25-year-old Saguy Kenaan, a career army officer home for the holiday, and they quickly got organized. Toting a rifle, Kenaan gave Braverman his pistol, and together they set out in the direction of the firing.

Suddenly, two motorcycles, each carrying four or five heavily armed Hamas fighters, zipped by on the kibbutz’s outer circumference road, just 30 meters from where they stood behind some bushes. Shacham saw them too: He was on his way to check on the cows when he heard the shots and grenade explosions. He was first to arrive at the nishkiya, where he was joined after some minutes by Rhein and most of the rest of the KK, and also by Yaniv Beigel, 27, whose father, Zevik, was also a KK member. They hurriedly equipped themselves with the available rifles, five ammunition clips (each containing 29 bullets), a variety of well-worn helmets and protective ceramic vests.

What they didn’t have at this point were two-way radios, which under army regulations couldn’t be stored there, but had to be held in the hamal. Two hours would pass before KK members were able to get them. However, there weren’t enough to go around, and not all of them were properly charged. Led by Barak Shalom, who was in charge of the KK’s operational decisions, they set out, deploying in a number of places, and cautiously heading toward the front gate, where at least four of the Hamas attackers were awaiting them.

Menachem Binyamini was running about 20 minutes behind the others. He had been busy settling his four children in the family’s mamad and hadn’t immediately seen the burst of WhatsApp messages. Wearing shorts and sandals, he met up with the rest as they deployed. Some went toward the front gate, where they heard shooting. Ayal Young and Shacham went to a two-story building (the mechina, in kibbutz parlance) to check on visiting family members, and guide them to a mamad. Nachtomi and Okun joined them.

Shacham and Ohad Braverman were both trained combat medics. Together with Young, Kenaan, and Yaakov Bergstein, they proceeded to the area of the cow sheds, where they had heard some of the initial explosions and shooting. Some of the equipment had been damaged, and they quickly searched the area to ensure that there were no terrorists in the vicinity. Joined by Gilad Hunwald, a medic with the Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance service when not tending to the kibbutz’s avocado orchards, they then went to the foreign workers’ quarters. Some of the workers gradually emerged from hiding, and led them to the others.

The Thais, having taken shelter in a communal reinforced kitchen were as yet untouched. But the Nepalis, some of whom had crowded into a small shelter (migunit) adjacent to their rooms, were not. The scene was grim. Two were dead, and five more were injured, some badly. One had had his leg blown off by a grenade.

Braverman immediately called his old army unit to send a helicopter to evacuate them, but to no avail, as Bergstein tried to calm the frightened workers. The remaining Nepalis were concentrated in the large reinforced kitchen and the kibbutz defenders rejoined the rest of the squad as they deployed. Shacham, Braverman, and Schlissel went up to the roof of the nearby packing house, from which they saw some Hamas terrorists on the road outside the kibbutz.

Seeing how bad the situation was, Hunwald left Shacham with the wounded Nepalis while he went to get a large vehicle to evacuate them to a hospital, but with the terrorists operating in the kibbutz and outside, that wasn’t possible. When the unarmed Hunwald returned, Shacham was no longer there, as he was responding to a large-scale Hamas attack that had just begun. Hunwald saw four terrorists by the soccer field, 50 meters away. They saw him too, and shot at him. He ran to hide among the cows and the milking stations. Certain they would come after him, he recited the Shema Yisrael prayer traditionally uttered before one dies. Eventually, hearing firing, he decided to run to the vehicle repair area. Sure that he would be found, he again recited the Shema. Removing his bright orange MDA vest, he carried on an internal dialogue with God over the next hour, asking to be saved. He thought of his family and the catastrophe that was taking place, while also preparing to battle the terrorists with a hammer if they discovered him.

Road 232 and the surrounding fields outside the kibbutz was a scene of mayhem. Hundreds of young people fleeing the two-day Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, 13 kms to the south, were being slaughtered in their cars, roadside makeshift bomb shelters, and neighboring fields by marauding Hamas gunmen. Women were being raped, murdered, and kidnapped. A few terrified young people ran into the kibbutz from the road, only to be suddenly attacked from behind by the Hamas gunmen who had arrived from the back gate. Kibbutz security camera footage captured a horrifying scene of a young woman on her knees begging for mercy, only to be shot dead, and another mercilessly cut down as she fled.

Some of the gunmen joined the killing spree on the road, and they would never regain control of the front gate. Nor did they have free rein on the road, even though hours would pass before sizable Israeli forces would arrive in the area. Two brothers, Noam and Yishai Slotki, both reserve soldiers in the Golani infantry brigade, had jumped in their car in Beersheba upon learning of the Hamas attack, drove 50 kms and fought the terrorists along the road near Alumim’s entrance, before being killed, at approximately 9:30 a.m. An IDF lieutenant colonel, the commander of an artillery battalion stationed at the southern end of Road 232, had been at his home in Kiryat Gat, 90 kms away, when the attack was launched. He grabbed his weapon and jumped in the car, but he could only get halfway there, to Alumim. A few other Golani infantry brigade soldiers stationed nearby had joined the fight as well.

Crucially, one of the Hamas commanders was badly wounded in the neck in the initial fighting. At 7:19 a.m., he was hustled back to the front gate, and then evacuated to Gaza, via the same way he had first penetrated the kibbutz. The loss of one of their commanders probably threw a wrench into the attackers’ original plans to take over the kibbutz, which had not even begun to be implemented. Yet numerically, Hamas retained a considerable advantage for many hours, as scores more of their men filtered in to join the assault.

Eran Schlissel, on December 28, 2023
Eran Schlissel, on December 28, 2023

Eran Schlissel Joshua Teitelbaum

About 10 minutes later, Eran Schlissel, Kobi Be’eri, and the battalion commander killed two Hamas attackers near the front gate. Together with the two Beigels and the three Golani soldiers, they then met up at the gate and hurriedly discussed tactics, even while exchanges of fire continued. The battalion commander went back toward the road. A number of policemen were there too, and called for a medic. Be’eri, a trained medic who had brought some supplies with him when he left his house, went out to the road, while father and son Beigel were left to guard the gate.

What they saw on the road outside the kibbutz was a scene from hell: The bodies of 12 to 15 persons fleeing the Nova festival were already strewn along the side of the road. Be’eri began treating those who were still alive, and put two of the wounded in a passing car; others, fleeing in the fields, were too afraid to heed his calls to come with him to the kibbutz. It was at this moment that Be’eri began to understand the enormity of what was taking place.

Meanwhile, at 7:45 a.m., most of the rest of the Alumim defenders rushed to the house of an elderly couple, the Kurtzmans, who had reported that someone had broken in. They were evacuated from the window of their mamad. Failing to establish any verbal contact with the intruders, one of the Alumim defenders decided to enter the house, via the mamad. He was immediately jumped upon from behind. Assuming it was a terrorist, he was able to shoot and kill the attacker with his pistol, with the KK’s Eitan Sabag also firing from the mamad window inward.

Only later did it turn out that the incident had been a tragic case of mistaken identity. Each of the two combatants had thought that the other was a Hamas terrorist. The dead man, 24-year-old Ofek Atun, had fled the Nova festival together with his girlfriend, Tamar Kam. They had been slightly injured by a grenade thrown into the packed roadside migunit where they had taken shelter. At 7:23 a.m., they entered the kibbutz seeking refuge, and hurriedly broke into what they thought was an empty house. After Atun had been shot, Kam, who had been hiding in the bathroom, tried to communicate with the defenders, who failed to verify her identity. She then opened the front door of the house, but was shot and wounded by a member of the KK, who mistook her for a terrorist.

Kobi Be’eri heard what had happened, and rushed to the house. He attended to Kam for the next three hours, with the assistance of Gilad Huler, an ex-policeman and MDA volunteer, who brought medical supplies, including an intravenous line for fluids. Eventually, with her situation deteriorating, Hunwald brought a vehicle to evacuate her. Huler drove, and Be’eri sat with the wounded Kam in the back. Just as they exited the kibbutz onto Road 232, a burst of fire hit the vehicle. Be’eri was wounded in his left hand by a bullet that ricocheted off the barrel of his rifle, and bullet fragments were later found in Huler’s phone and in the car. They “flew” toward Mabuim, a helicopter landing area where ambulances had gathered, 18 kms away. There, Be’eri bandaged himself and put another badly wounded person in the car, as well as a paramedic. Never in his 30 years as a combat medic had he seen so many wounded, and so many different kinds of wounds: He treated 15-20 persons over the course of the next half hour.

While the tragic episode at the Kurtzman house was unfolding, outside the kibbutz, on Road 232, the battalion commander stopped an Israeli police special patrol unit (Yasam) heading south, just before they ran headlong into a large Hamas force, many of whom were now situated by the kibbutz’s packing house and firing outward toward the road. A fierce battle ensued, lasting 20-30 minutes. Many of the Hamas men were killed. At least one of the Yasam members, Sgt. First Class Ran Gvili, was also killed and his body was abducted to Gaza.

The Beigels, still at the front gate, had already taken heavy fire from the direction of the packing house. Now hiding behind a concrete barrier, they could only wait while the battle unfolded in front of them, knowing that if Hamas prevailed, their fate was sealed.

Once the fight on Road 232 subsided, there was a lull for about 30-40 minutes, leading many of the KK members to think that the penetration of the kibbutz had been contained, even as they continued going house to house in search of the attackers. Soon afterward though, the KK’s ultimate test in their battle to save their home began. At around 9:20 a.m., Shacham heard a big explosion and saw smoke rising by the kibbutz’s swimming pool, about 100 meters from the nearby jojoba fields. Braverman, Shalom and Sabag saw a number of Hamas men penetrating via a break in the fence, and advancing toward the kibbutz members’ residences via a recreational area that included a soccer field, the pool, a basketball court, and Gan Hadar, a small garden named for Hadar Goldin, an Israeli soldier who had been killed by Hamas in 2014, and whose body was still being held in Gaza.

KK members raced to take up various positions on the other side of the road that ran between the recreational area and the residences.

Braverman fired his first shot of the day at a Hamas attacker carrying an RPG, and killed him. Shacham positioned himself behind a tractor. Suddenly, he saw three or four terrorists heading in the direction of his house, where his wife and three children were huddled in their mamad. Firing some shots to divert them, he sprinted to the house, which hadn’t been touched. Alone, he then charged the terrorists by the pool, just across the road, wounding one of them.

At that point, though, Shacham was wounded by a grenade. Both his hands were hit, his rifle jammed, and the pistol he had been carrying had fallen away. Lying on his back, he managed to report that he had been hit. Even as his adrenaline rose, his fear melted away. He assumed that his fate was sealed, that Hamas attackers would now charge his position “to finish the job” while he fruitlessly tried to get his rifle to operate.

But they did not do so, choosing apparently to regroup. Within minutes, Nachtomi and Okun reached him, followed by Young and Schlissel. What to do? No decision had been made during the annual training exercise on where to bring the wounded. Fortunately, Michaela Koretsky, a trained midwife in Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital who was also responsible for the kibbutz infirmary, lived 40 meters away. Schlissel called her to confirm that she was home, and banged on her door before she even answered. He brought Koretsky’s husband, Zvika, to Shacham, who helped him get into the house, while the others provided covering fire. The Koretskys laid the wounded Shacham down, removed his helmet and vest. Nurse Koretsky washed off the dirt, bandaged him and inserted an IV to replenish fluids. All she had for the pain, though, was Advil. Shacham swallowed three.

Young saw more terrorists penetrating, in pairs. He and Schlissel moved from low bushes near the houses toward a small hill behind a two-story building 60 meters from his house. Nachtomi, Okun, and Braverman, all positioned nearby, exchanged fire from close range with the attackers. Leaving Schlissel, Braverman then advanced toward the pool area, and took heavy fire. The situation was difficult: His M-16 rifle lacked a scope, and he couldn’t see where the firing was coming from. For the first time that day, he feared for his life.

Concurrently, Schlissel and Young took heavy fire from a different direction. Schlissel was wounded in his upper leg, and also got hit by a fragment or a bullet in his cheek, but carried on, and killed his attacker. Young did the same, from almost point-blank range. The dead Hamas man turned out to be one of the commanders, and in possession of documents detailing the attack plans. However, Young was badly wounded in the exchange. He managed to send a message that he had been hit.

Okun and Nachtomi had been on the other side of the building shooting toward the attackers in Gan Hadar. Schlissel, a reserve army platoon commander, directed them toward where Young had been wounded. With Okun providing covering fire, Nachtomi reached Young. Removing his vest and shirt, Nachtomi understood that the bullets had pierced his lungs. Somehow, with Nachtomi’s help, Young, a big man, managed to stand up and together they were able to get him to the Koretsky house, while Okun stayed behind providing covering fire.

Koretsky’s living room was starting to look like a scene out of MASH. Young was dripping blood all over the floor, and they laid him down on his side. Koretsky identified three wounds in his back, and also one in his jaw. Spitting blood, he was having difficulty breathing. She managed to find another IV for fluids, and applied an emergency chest seal. KK members brought more bandages. Koretsky had never treated gunshot wounds before, but her own resourcefulness, backed by phone consultations with Dr. Dan Schwarzfuchs, the kibbutz doctor, who at that point was on duty as head of the emergency room at Soroka Hospital, proved to be lifesaving.

Hunwald, who had been hiding alone and unarmed for more than hour, heard nurse Koretsky’s call for assistance on WhatsApp and decided to try and get there. By his own testimony, this essentially saved his life. Along the way, he was nearly shot by other KK members, who mistook him for a terrorist, even though he had put his orange MDA vest back on. Nachtomi gave him Young’s weapon, and he now joined the fight.

Charred debris and objects are scattered inside a kibbutz building, October 18, 2023
Charred debris and objects are scattered inside a kibbutz building, October 18, 2023

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

Young’s situation was unstable, and Shacham needed proper medical care as well. At some point, Avi Braverman, who was also a volunteer ambulance driver, left the hamal to get an oxygen tank that he had in his home. A few dozen meters from the Koretsky house, he came under fire and abandoned his electric bike, crawling the remaining distance, dragging the tank behind him. Shacham and Hunwald kept Young conscious by telling him jokes and yelling at him. It was clear that both he and Shacham needed to be evacuated.

There was no ambulance on the premises that day: The person responsible for it, an ex-kibbutz member, was on call, and thus had it at his home, 7 kms away. Hunwald told Zvika Koretsky to get his car, a Skoda seven-seater minivan, parked 100-200 meters away. With covering fire from Ohad Braverman, Bergstein, and Sabag, he backed it up to the house. It was only with great difficulty that they were able to get Young to the car and lay him down. Shacham sat in the front, and Hunwald provided cover from the back as they made their way toward the kibbutz entrance. Koretsky gave his wife his personal weapon, telling her to give it to his father, who had joined them in their mamad.

Hunwald hopped out before they exited the kibbutz, and off went the unarmed Koretsky and the two wounded men, on a perilous journey up Road 232 to the Sa’ad junction a few kilometers away, and from there another 5-6 kms to the MDA station in the town of Netivot. Slamming on the brakes at each Israeli army or police roadblock and shouting “wounded, wounded,” they managed to avoid being mistaken for terrorists. The car’s wheels were smoking by the time they reached the MDA station, and fire extinguishers were used to put out the incipient fire. Luckily, there were two ambulances available at that moment for the two wounded men to transport them to Soroka Hospital, 40 kms away. Young had to be stabilized along the way. By 1:30 p.m., he was in surgery, for the first of a number of operations, four hours after sustaining his life-threatening wounds.

At the kibbutz, there were now only 40-50 meters separating the combatants, and the firing was intense. Between 9:30-9:45 a.m., a Ze’ev armored vehicle arrived at the front gate, offering some hope to the increasingly beleaguered defenders. It was driven by a member of a Border Police elite unit (Yamas), and contained the battalion commander who had been at the front gate of the kibbutz, and four other Border Police members, who brought the two Beigels to the area opposite the pool. Ohad Braverman hopped in to guide them, but the vehicle made only a single, five-minute sortie into the battle zone, drawing heavy fire from grenades and machine guns. Receiving an urgent call to come to neighboring Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where a horrific massacre was taking place, the Ze’ev then departed.

At this point, the KK had little cover, other than a couple of vehicles, and it was difficult to get a direct sight line on the Hamas men, who were positioned behind concrete barriers. The KK members jumped from place to place, firing and taking cover. Bergstein had positioned himself behind a pine tree, which was soon hit by precise fire. He managed to take cover behind a vehicle.

Shacham saw terrorists heading in the direction of his house, where his wife and three children were huddled. Firing some shots to divert them, he sprinted to the house, which hadn’t been touched. Alone, he then charged the terrorists.

Seeking a more direct angle of fire, Schlissel, Binyamini, and Shalom crossed the road to fire from behind a migunit, but that wasn’t effective, and they crossed back. Suddenly, Binyamini shouted: “Grenade.” It landed on the road 3 meters from Bergstein, who never saw it. Luckily, it didn’t explode. Taking cover in the bushes, Binyamini picked up his head, saw a terrorist facing the other direction, and killed him with a burst of fire. Taking more fire, he realized that there were at least 10 more attackers, and he had already used up half of his ammunition. Later he joked that had he known earlier that there was more than one terrorist, he wouldn’t have been so bold in his behavior.

The situation now appeared increasingly desperate. Three members of the KK had been wounded—Young, Shacham, and Schlissel, who was still fighting, but wouldn’t be able to for much longer. A good portion of their ammunition had been expended. Many Hamas men were now seen moving freely around the perimeter fence in addition to those already inside the kibbutz, and IDF forces were long overdue. Bergstein, feeling that he wasn’t going to survive, recorded a heartfelt message to his wife, who was ensconced in their mamad with their four children. She understood his intent, and with a knife in one hand and a book of Psalms in the other, tried to maintain her cool, and keep the children (ranging in age from 18 months to 10 years) busy.

As bleak as the situation now appeared, however, the killing of the Hamas commander and the KK’s success in holding their line of defense had bought the defenders of the kibbutz valuable time. Many of the attackers were now redirecting their efforts toward easier targets: the defenseless foreign workers and adjacent structures and storehouses. Much of the area was set ablaze, and the kitchen where many had taken shelter and adjacent living quarters were being raked with fire from AK-47 rifles and grenades.

The individual stories of the foreign workers who survived are chilling. All of the Nepalis were young students, on a program that combined study in agricultural techniques with work. They had only been in the country a few weeks, and couldn’t tell the difference between Arabic and Hebrew, which only added to the confusion and terror that they experienced. By contrast, most of the Thais were older, ranging in age from late 20s to early 40s, were married and had children. All came from a poor rural area of northeast Thailand. Many were from the ethnic Hmong hill tribes. Most had been in Israel for some time, and thus were familiar with the periodic rocket alerts, but obviously nothing like this.

A couple of the workers managed to survive by hiding under their friends’ dead bodies in the kitchen, amid pools of blood that commingled with water and bags of rice that had been ripped open. Another jumped out of a window, ran to the cow sheds, and covered himself in cow dung, leaving only his nostrils free, hoping that the cows would not step on him. He would lay there for eight hours before being rescued. A couple of others managed to hide in the nearby pepper fields. Two hid in a closet under the sink in the kitchen.

Korawit Kaeokoed poured salt water all over his clothes to try and combat the smoke, and eventually took refuge in a small alcove above a refrigerator, and remained there until 5:00 a.m. the next morning, without food or drink. Just before losing cellphone reception, he sent a goodbye message to his family.

Altogether, 12 Thais and 10 Nepalis were killed. One of the 12 Thais may have been killed by an Israeli border policeman after being misidentified as a terrorist in the gathering darkness. At least three Nepalis and one of the Thais were wounded.

One of the Thai workers, Phonsawan Pinakalo, was stabbed in his forearm and then kidnapped to Gaza, where he endured horrific beatings and solitary confinement for 50 days, losing 22 kilos in the process, before being released in late November along with 109 other hostages. One of the Nepalis, Bipin Joshi, was also wounded and kidnapped. He was subsequently seen on a video clip while being dragged through Shifa Hospital in Gaza by his captors, and he is still being held. Another of the wounded Nepalis, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, tied a tourniquet to his leg to stanch the bleeding, something he had learned from watching movies.

At 11:00 a.m., Schlissel went to the second floor of the mechina building where some guests were being housed. He moved them, and a kibbutz member who had gone to be with them when the attack first started, to another mamad, and took up a position that gave him a wide view of the scene that was unfolding on the road: He could see scores of Hamas men, both there and within the kibbutz. At some point, a high-tension electric line exploded, causing a fire. Security cameras at this time spotted a Hamas gunman in the area of the kibbutz’s vehicle repair garage trying to break into a car. Braverman, Shalom, and Nachtomi made their way there, and managed to wound him in the leg. At some point, Schlissel managed a single shot that hit a Hamas gunman near the perimeter fence, 200 meters away. Overall, it seemed that the Hamas attackers, deterred by the stoutness of the kibbutz’s defenders, were no longer focused on attacking the residences.

At around 1:00 p.m., Braverman and Hunwald came to Schlissel, and told him that he couldn’t continue any longer, that the extension cord that he had wrapped around his thigh to stanch the bleeding was no longer sufficient, and that he needed to be evacuated. Barak Shalom took him to nurse Koretsky, and a half hour later he was evacuated.

The first signs of a sizable IDF force had now appeared on the horizon. At 11:00 a.m., a Yasur helicopter overloaded with more than 50 fully armed and equipped paratroopers from paratrooper Battalion 890 landed nearby, barely intact, after having been hit by a rocket propelled grenade while descending. Just minutes after the soldiers hurriedly disembarked, the helicopter was hit again and exploded. Under fire, they battled Hamas men for the next half hour or so, and then regrouped.

At around 11:45 a.m., eight men from the special tactical unit (Metzada) of the Israeli Prison Service arrived via the avocado fields to assist the kibbutz defenders. Ohad Braverman quickly found their commander, who was later wounded in his hand, and briefed them on the situation. They then deployed in the area of the packing house and garage, and then the cow sheds, joined by the battalion commander, taking heavy fire. Subsequently, they would be reinforced by a unit from the IDF General Staff’s elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal.

Warrant Officer Ido Rosenthal, who died defending the kibbutz
Warrant Officer Ido Rosenthal, who died defending the kibbutz

Netivyah

At noon, 20 men from the Israeli Air Force’s elite commando unit, Shaldag, heading south to Kibbutz Be’eri, made it as far as Alumim. For the next 40 minutes, they fought a heavy battle in the area between the road and the southeast corner of the kibbutz. The unit’s oldest member, 45-year-old Warrant Officer Ido Rosenthal, was felled by the kibbutz fence. His body was recovered after fierce fighting. At around 12:30 p.m., the Shaldag commander called in a helicopter gunship that raked the Hamas attackers who had been firing at the road from inside the kibbutz. Altogether, about 30 Hamas fighters were killed.

Maj. Nimrod Palmach, a reserve officer from another unit who had joined up with the Shaldag fighters, brought the paratroopers from Battalion 890, who had regrouped in a grove of trees, into the battle. They would stay on site until 4:00 p.m. before moving onto Be’eri, where fierce fighting was taking place. Shaldag subsequently lost four more of its people that day. Apart from its crucial role in protecting Alumim, its actions essentially opened up Road 232, enabling more first responders to get where they needed to go, and more civilians to be evacuated.

Concurrent with Shaldag’s arrival, another elite commando unit (Yahalom) from the IDF’s Engineering Corps showed up on the scene with an armored vehicle, and Braverman and Shalom joined them. The tide was definitely starting to turn.

At around 1:00 p.m., the hamal reported that three Hamas men armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs had penetrated via the avocado fields through a back gate, and were heading toward the kibbutz residences, including Yaakov Bergstein’s. Part of the Yahalom unit, guided by Braverman, rushed to the area in a David light armored vehicle, machine-gunning one of the Hamas attackers on the way. Another part of the Yahalom group, led by their commander, and Shalom and Sabag rushed there as well, approaching from a different side. A second Hamas attacker smashed the window on the back porch of the house of an elderly kibbutz member, Beni Muller, and shot him in the stomach as he emerged from his safe room. Arriving just moments later, the Yahalom-led fighters killed him but their commander, Lt. Itai Cohen, was mortally wounded. Braverman managed to get him into the David vehicle, but he expired in his lap. The third attacker apparently escaped.

Hunwald saw that Muller required hospitalization, and took him on a small electric vehicle to the center of the kibbutz, preceded by Ohad Braverman, who provided cover. There, the elderly kibbutznik was placed in the front seat of a car, with an attached IV, that the kibbutz’s secretary Zvika Blumstein had managed to bring them. Eran Schlissel, who had been wounded four hours earlier, and was rapidly losing steam, was seated in the back. Hunwald drove them under fire to Mabuim, where intensive care ambulances were waiting. Spent bullets were later found in the car. There he met up with Kobi Be’eri, and the two men returned to the kibbutz, with Zvika Koretsky following in his car. Along the way, a tank nearly ran them over.

At around 2:00 p.m., the paratroopers of Battalion 890, now numbering approximately 150, arrived at the kibbutz’s front gate, where they were met by the Alumim defenders. Throughout the afternoon, the defenders continued to search for terrorists, while the paratroopers slowly and methodically (too methodically, in the eyes of KK members) began deploying to combat the remaining Hamas fighters and help secure the kibbutz.

No one had reached the foreign workers since the massacre that had taken place hours earlier. Gilad Hunwald knew and had worked with some of them. Since 2:00 p.m., he had been receiving repeated voice messages from two of the wounded: “save me, save me.” One of them would survive, the other would not. Beside himself, he tried repeatedly to get to them, screaming himself hoarse, but was prevented from doing so by the officers who had cordoned off the entire area, while the security forces searched for terrorists. A major part of the problem was that the different units were not in radio communication with one another, thus raising the danger of “friendly fire.” No one had the authority to allow him in, and no effort was made to attain it.

At around 5:00 p.m., the paratroopers completed their actions in the cow shed area and the 10 surviving Thais and two Nepalis were brought to the mechina building. Two of them told Hunwald that there were still two Nepalis alive in their bunker kitchen, and he finally managed to get to them, together with some of the paratroopers. They were lying amid five bodies. Hunwald evacuated them to an ambulance. After returning, he and Braverman did the same with a wounded Thai, who had contacted a kibbutz member telling him that he was alive and needed help.

For Hunwald, the army’s refusal to try and go rescue the foreign workers earlier, and dismissal of the idea since “they were all dead anyway,” was shameful, and spoke to what he saw as a terrible differentiation between Israelis and the foreign workers. Ohad Braverman, on the other hand, while understanding of Hunwald, saw the operational decisions as justified, given the extant dangers.

As darkness fell, and with the army now deploying in and around the kibbutz in a massive way, the KK’s job was mostly over. They gathered at the hamal for a short rest and rehydration. Some were entirely spent, and went home; others continued patrolling for a few more hours. Reunions with their wives and children were emotional; the families had sat in their safe rooms for most of the day, with little nourishment, and an ever-present sense of danger, relieved only by periodic messages from their husbands/fathers, and updates from the hamal. Just as the defenders had gone into automatic pilot mode, focusing on the job at hand, so too had their wives, who pushed their fears and anxieties to the side in order to keep their children busy and calm. Some of the children handled it better than others: One teenage girl had hidden curled up in a closet for 17 hours.

Sleep was hardly an option, despite the exhaustion. The kibbutz members were told that they would all be evacuated at 3 a.m., and to prepare their belongings. Many hours later, a convoy of buses and cars left with the families to two hotels in Netanya, a beachside city 30 kms north of Tel Aviv, and 135 kms from the kibbutz, where they remain to this day. The KK members would eventually rotate in and out of the kibbutz alongside a small team that has restored the kibbutz’s economic operations.

Like the rest of Israeli society, Alumim’s members were shocked and traumatized by the events of Oct. 7, especially as the full extent of the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas became known. It was the most fatal day in Israeli history, with 1,200 civilians and soldiers killed, and 253 kidnapped. Not since the Holocaust had Jews been subject to mass murder, torture and rape, and Jewish collective memory across the world was deeply stirred.

That said, for all the horror of the day, Alumim had escaped the worst of it, albeit barely: Four members of the KK had been wounded, as had two residents (in addition to Muller, Doveleh Bergstein, the father of the KK’s Yaakov Bergstein, had been hit by a mortar fragment early in the day). Neighboring Kibbutz Sa’ad was not penetrated at all. Like Alumim, it is religiously observant, a fact that entered into portions of the public discourse. Inevitably, word quickly spread about the “miraculous” events at Alumim and Sa’ad, as compared to the horrific destruction at many of the other neighboring secular, mostly left-of-center kibbutzim. The fact that 19 foreign workers and an Israeli civilian had been killed within the kibbutz’s confines, not to mention the soldiers who had been killed beating off the attackers, was ignored. Fake social media posts attributed to the kibbutz’s rabbi, Amit Kula, declared that the kibbutz had been spared because it observed the Sabbath. This included locking the gates, so as to prevent motorized transportation on that day (an absurd notion in and of itself: All the kibbutzim in the area locked their gates). Rabbi Kula responded angrily, calling the idea that God distinguishes between observant and nonobservant Jews an abomination, pointing to the fact that many observant Jews had been killed that day, both soldiers and civilians in neighboring towns. Moreover, the kibbutz itself had failed to protect its foreign workers, hence there was no cause whatsoever for celebration.

As the full story became known, the “miracle” seemed less and less miraculous. In addition to the massacres of the foreign workers and the Nova festivalgoers on Road 232 outside the kibbutz, two members of the security forces had died at Alumim that day, as had the two Slotki brothers and Ofek Atun. Two other members of kibbutz families had been killed as well: Shachaf Bergstein, the brother of KK member Yaakov Bergstein, had been at the synagogue celebrations the night before, and was killed in his home in neighboring Kfar Aza; Lt. Nitai Amar, the son of a kibbutz family, was killed in battle down the road at Re’im; and the sister of a kibbutz member was killed while doing her morning training run with her running club from Sderot. The son of another kibbutz family would be killed in battle a few weeks later.

Alumim’s residents themselves viewed the events of the day through a number of different lenses. Some people did ascribe their survival to overt Divine protection. Most others, though, viewed things similarly as Rabbi Kula, namely that one utters the traditional prayer of thanksgiving in such situations, without any pretense of being able to answer the question: “Why me? Why did I survive?” Alumim’s defenders were acutely aware of how easily the results of the battle could have been radically different, and most of them gave short shrift to the idea that they had benefited from Divine intervention. However, there was no question in their minds that a crucial factor accounting for their success was that they were literally fighting to save their homes and families.

The massacre of the foreign workers remained a sore point for some, and particularly for Hunwald. Could more have been done to save them, for example, by immediately moving them en masse into the kibbutz’s residences, after the first wave of killings? The question gnawed at him, even while he acknowledged that no one had had a clue that the initial penetration of the kibbutz by the 10 terrorists was only the beginning of the ordeal. Some KK members emphasized that the subsequent large-scale massacre and kidnapping of the foreign workers had essentially bought the kibbutz defenders valuable time and even somewhat thinned out Hamas’ ranks, lending a special poignancy to what had happened, and reinforcing their sense of responsibility and indebtedness. As the first shock of the events gradually faded, and the kibbutz members began coping with their new status as displaced persons, the enormity of the Oct. 7 events gradually sank in. Some kibbutz members made sure to publicly and repeatedly emphasize that the Thai and Nepali workers were part of the Alumim community. Assistance was extended to the wounded, and ceremonies made sure to include reference to their sacrifices. By the beginning of February, six of the 10 Thai workers who had survived the ordeal and gone home, as well as one who had left before Oct. 7, had returned and were welcomed with open arms.

What does the future hold? Prior to Oct. 7, a common mantra among the kibbutzniks in the Gaza envelope was that their lives there were “95% paradise and 5% hell.” Nearly all of Alumim’s residents hoped to return home, but on one condition: There could be no restoration of the status quo ante that had included the “5% hell” and ultimately left them vulnerable to marauding terrorists. But after Oct. 7, could the authorities be trusted to achieve this, and if so, how? Kibbutz spokesman Dani Yagil was succinct: “They destroy, we’ll build,” in line with the pioneering ethos that had led to the establishment of Jewish settlements in the area in 1946, two years before the State of Israel was founded, and the founding of Alumim in 1966 by dedicated idealists.

Others, especially those with young children, weren’t so sure. After all, as Eitan Okun related, half of the children in the kibbutz were already in therapy before Oct. 7, owing to the constant stress engendered by Color Red warning sirens. How could they, as parents, have subjected their children to this? And could the destruction of Hamas’ military capabilities and ability to rule, the declared goal of Israel’s war against it, really be achieved? And what about the profound fissures that had opened up in Israeli society in the preceding year, and that were now reappearing again, five months into the war? Overall, there seemed to be a longing for more pragmatic voices that could lead Israel away from the abyss into which it was staring.

The fight for home on Oct. 7 had been won. The fight to keep and renew that home, both the kibbutz itself and the nation as a whole, was far from over.

This story is based largely on in-depth interviews with most of the Alumim defenders and a number of others who played crucial roles on that day. It was supplemented by captured Hamas documents provided by the IDF spokesman’s office; by a moving meeting with Alumim’s surviving Thai workers, conducted with the help of Leila Djamel; by the input of Dr. Ada Gansach-Wilson regarding the kibbutz’s Nepali workers; and by a number of published items. Special thanks go to Alumim’s Stanley Kaye, and to Bar-Ilan University professor Joshua Teitelbaum.

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, and Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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