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Ambushed and Outgunned, Local Police Defended an Israeli City

Roni Abuharon, a detective in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim, grabbed his pistol and floppy police hat. “Don’t leave me alone,” his wife pleaded as sirens signaled incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip, less than 20 miles away.

Down the street, Itamar Alus, his good friend and fellow officer, told his wife to lock the door and take their children to the bomb shelter.

The officers rushed outside. Mr. Alus glimpsed his friend from afar, running to meet the sudden staccato of gunfire. It was the last time they would see each other.

Ofakim, a quiet desert community of about 30,000 people, was the site of fierce, prolonged fighting during Hamas’s surprise attacks on Oct. 7. It was one of the farthest points the terrorists reached. With the Israeli military slow to respond to the unfolding horror, it fell to local police officers — many of them with nothing more than pistols — to defend the city and prevent Hamas from pushing deeper into Israel. Officers stared down hostage-takers, contained the rampage and prevented more bloodshed.

One measure of what might have been: The dead assailants left behind a cache of grenades, anti-tank rockets, plastic explosives and land mines that they had not had a chance to use.

“The police saved us,” said Cochy Abuharon, Roni’s older sister. “Without their courage, there would have been more slaughter.”

The New York Times stitched together key moments of the battle of Ofakim through text messages, photographs, audio recordings, video footage and interviews with victims, family members and officers. Building on reports in the Israeli media, the Times reporting reveals the heroism and harrowing choices of local officers and residents during a terrifying wait for a rescue.

And it suggests that the assault on Ofakim began with a well-timed ambush.

About 50 Israelis died in the battle, including at least six officers. That grim outcome played out again and again elsewhere. At least 58 police officers died in attacks around the country.

In Ofakim, residents called it “Black Shabbat.”

The Ambush

Two white pickup trucks rolled into town around 6 a.m., before any siren had sounded.

It was Saturday, the Jewish day of rest.

The assault team comprised more than a dozen men. Each wore a green combat vest bulging with ammunition.

A video of their arrival, taken from an upstairs window, shows grenades, launchers and ammunition organized neatly on the sidewalk alongside one of the trucks. In addition to their arsenal, the men had medical kits, instructions for slinging an injured limb, maps of Ofakim and plenty of food — preparation for a lengthy, ferocious attack.

The gunmen streamed into the dense neighborhood of Mishor HaGefen on the outskirts of town. There, they seemed to pause, residents recalled. Hamas rockets were pummeling towns across the region, and the terrorists in Ofakim apparently waited for the sirens to draw people outdoors on their way to bomb shelters.

A member of the Israeli police inside the bullet-hole-riddled home of Rachel and David Edri, a couple in their 60s living in Ofakim.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

An elderly woman was shot in the back when she came outside. Others were killed as they approached the shelters.

Fanning out across the neighborhood, gunmen burst into homes, catching people by surprise in the panic of the sirens and shooting. A police video taken after the battle shows a man shot dead in his living room, just inside the screen door. His wife died in the hallway nearby, slumped on the blood-smeared tile floor.

Down the street, gunmen opened fire on Victor Rachmilov, 59, as he tried to escape the neighborhood with his daughter in his white Mitsubishi S.U.V. Bullets tore through his car and limbs as he tried to maneuver past them. With no way out, Mr. Rachmilov and his daughter fled the car. He was hit four more times in the legs.

For some reason, the shooting stopped long enough for Mr. Rachmilov and his daughter to escape. Video shows her ringing a doorbell, looking for safety as her father limps nearby.

“I’m still not sure what drew them away,” Mr. Rachmilov recalled. “We were easy targets.”

This was the chaos that Mr. Abuharon, Mr. Alus and other officers found when they ran to help.

‘Rabbits at a Shooting Range’

Almost immediately, Mr. Alus spotted three green-vested men. He fired twice, striking one in the leg. But they returned fire, spraying bullets around him. He retreated, outgunned.

As a police officer, Mr. Alus, 39, thought he might someday tangle with a terrorist wielding a knife or gun. He never envisioned a Hamas invasion, with teams of killers terrorizing Israelis in their neighborhoods and homes. And he never imagined that he and his fellow officers would face them alone, without the superior firepower of the Israeli military.

Senior military leaders have acknowledged that intelligence and security agencies failed to anticipate and prevent the attack. The have said little about the military’s response, which took hours as civilians ran and hid from gunmen in several towns.

The funeral of Yuri and Roza Yadgarov, who were killed in their home in Okafim. Roughly 50 Israelis, including six police officers, were killed in the city on Oct. 7.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Moving through the neighborhood, Mr. Alus climbed atop a garden wall and shot a Hamas gunman several times in the head. It was the first time he had killed someone.

Next door, a fellow officer faced a similar confrontation. He shot and killed a gunman who was trying to enter the back door.

Videos captured fragments of the two shootings. Another video shows the terrorist that Mr. Alus killed, lying in a craggy backyard.

Minutes later, Mr. Alus said, he came upon a rabbi lying in the street, shot and injured. Gunfire continued to pop. A trained medic, Mr. Alus knew he could help the man. He also knew that the protocol was to stop the shooter first, then tend to the wounded. But as bullets peppered the ground, Mr. Alus said he dragged the rabbi by his belt into a nearby house and wrapped a towel around his injured leg.

That’s when he spotted a wounded soldier whose helmet had been pierced by a bullet. Were more soldiers on their way, Mr. Alus asked?

“No,” the soldier responded. “I came from home.”

“I realized that we were on our own,” Mr. Alus said. “Like rabbits at a shooting range.”

Escape From a Window

Michal Bilia, a Yemenite Jew, had gathered her sons and grandchildren for a Sabbath breakfast. She placed two challahs on the dining room table.

They never got the chance to break bread.

Gunfire crackled outside, sending the family scrambling upstairs. Windows shattered. With nowhere to hide, they climbed through a window to the roof. Video shows the frantic escape, as children hurried for safety and adults passed a month-old baby through the window, all amid the pop of gunfire.

As Ms. Bilia escaped, she saw a gunman in the yard below and warned her 28-year-old son, Ariel, who was still indoors: “He’s out there. Get inside!”

She then scurried along the roof to join her family beneath her neighbor’s solar panels. Ariel tried to follow. Video footage shows that he made it halfway out of the window before slumping onto the roof, dead.

The family huddled on the roof as the sounds of grenades and gunfire mixed with the screams of their neighbors. A rocket-propelled grenade blasted through their front window, shuddering the house and scorching the living room. The explosion partially melted a baby carriage and a clock.

The challahs, covered by a white cloth, remained unscathed.

The Bilia family home after it was attacked on Oct. 7.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

For hours, even the baby hid silently. “She didn’t make a sound,” Ms. Bilia said. “It was a miracle.”

Finally, Mr. Alus spotted them and helped them to safety.

Police officers cleared the area, lobbing grenades into a nearby shed where three gunmen had taken cover. Mr. Alus shouted in Arabic for the lone survivor to come out. As he emerged, Mr. Alus heard another other officer shout “fire” and they shot him dead.

Mr. Alus said they believed he had a bomb.

“These guys had come there for a suicide mission,” he said, “not to turn themselves in.”

Hostage Situation

Yigal Ilouz, 56, a police bomb technician, drove to Mishor HaGefen after his shift ended that morning in Ofakim. A father of four, he had spent more than 30 years as an officer and had been something of a father figure to Mr. Alus.

He was scheduled to retire in two months.

Yigal Ilouz’s four children and his wife, Ravit, second from right, with a photo of Mr. Ilouz.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr. Ilouz had his police rifle, protective vest and helmet — more protection than many others had. But as he entered the neighborhood with two other officers and a soldier, he was ambushed by gunfire from a second-floor window.

Hamas gunmen had broken into the home of Rachel and David Edri, a couple in their 60s, and were holding them hostage. A large wall protected the house. The upstairs window had a clear view of the streets.

Bullets struck Mr. Ilouz in the neck and torso, finding a gap in his vest. Under fire, his companions fell back, unable to pull him to safety.

Only later, as more forces arrived at the hostage standoff, could officers retrieve Mr. Ilouz’s body.

The streets outside the Edri home were lethal. That is where the authorities found the body of Roni Abuharon, the officer who had grabbed his floppy hat and rushed into danger. The sidewalk is still stained with his blood.

Around 9:30 a.m., hours after the assault began, Mr. Alus joined the officers assembling outside the house. He made two gruesome discoveries. First, he learned that a good friend and police officer, Avi Buzaglo, had been killed. Mr. Alus picked up Mr. Buzaglo’s police hat, shook off the blood and put it on his head so people would know that he was with the police.

Then he saw Mr. Ilouz’s body. He was crushed.

When his wife called later, pleading for him to come home, Mr. Alus resisted. “It was hard to go home,” he said, “when my friends could not.”

‘We’ll Save Them’

Yamam, a secretive police counterterrorism unit that specializes in hostage rescues, arrived that afternoon at the Edri house.

Officers, including the Edris’ son Evyatar, assembled outside, trying to negotiate for the couple’s safety and occasionally trading gunfire with the hostage-takers, video footage shows.

Inside, Ms. Edri charmed her captors, plying them with food and drinks. She signaled discreetly through the window that they were being held by five terrorists.

Before dawn, Yamam, the hostage rescue team, decided to storm the house and end the standoff. Evyatar Edri thought there was a low chance his parents would survive, but urged the commandos to do what was necessary.

He remembers the commander’s embrace and his words: “I promise you. We’ll save them.”

The operators stormed the house around 3 a.m., leaving the walls and floors smeared in blood.

A police radio crackled: “The hostages have been rescued alive.”

The battle for Ofakim was over.

Aftermath

Shortly after 9 a.m., Mr. Abuharon’s wife, Shiran, emerged from the bomb shelter, where she had hidden with a large kitchen knife. Her brother-in-law, Rafi, met her there, with the news that her husband had been killed.

“Come, Shiran,” he told her. “The kids need you.”

The following day, Rafi Abuharon, a police officer himself, drove to a makeshift mortuary an hour away. He had to view hundreds of bodies before finding his younger brother.

At Mr. Abuharon’s funeral, Evyatar Edri embraced Mr. Abuharon’s widow. “We’re connected by blood,” he said.

John Ismay, Ang Li and Arijeta Lajka contributed reporting.

Roni Abuharon’s wife, Shiran, near a memorial to her husband near the site where he was killed.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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