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An IDF soldier stands near Kibbutz Re'im, where Hamas militants killed around 260 people during the Supernova music festival, on Oct. 11.GORAN TOMASEVIC/The Globe and Mail

Kibbutz Be’eri was a symbol of the Israeli national dream, the desire and ability to make the desert bloom. This tiny oasis of greenery on the northern edge of the Negev Desert was one of the most affluent of its kind and one of the few kibbutzim that remained true to the co-operative principles it was founded upon in 1946, two years before the state of Israel itself.

Today, Be’eri symbolizes the nightmare that has always haunted Israelis – that the massacres and pogroms that had driven their ancestors from Europe and from other parts of the Middle East would somehow follow them here to this supposed refuge for the Jewish people.

When Hamas militants launched their surprise invasion of Israel on Saturday morning, Be’eri had just over 1,000 residents. By the time Israeli forces finally recaptured Be’eri more than three days later, at least 120 of those kibbutzniks were dead. And an unknown number of others are being held hostage in the Gaza Strip.

“We find more and more bodies all the time,” said Major-General Itai Veruv, who led the battle to retake Be’eri and who accompanied foreign and Israeli journalists to the shattered kibbutz on Wednesday. “I served more than 39 years, and I am used to seeing problems and difficulties on the battlefield. But this is not a battlefield. This is a pogrom. This is an ISIS event, something you cannot imagine.”

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Israeli soldiers walk in Kibbutz Be’eri, close to the border with Gaza Strip, Oct. 11.GORAN TOMASEVIC/The Globe and Mail

Maj.-Gen. Veruv said it wasn’t clear yet how much of Be’eri’s population had survived. “There are survivors in Israel that ran away, that we took out of the kibbutzes during the fight. We don’t know how to count how much are in Israel, how much dead, how much kidnapped to Gaza, how much we still didn’t find. We still haven’t found survivors in the kibbutz, but we hope.”

One of those believed to have been taken hostage from her home in Be’eri was Vivian Silver, a 74-year-old grandmother and peace activist with roots in Winnipeg. Ms. Silver, who was a founder of a group called Women Wage Peace, is believed to have been taken to Gaza as a hostage by Hamas. Also seized in Be’eri was 85-year-old grandmother Yaffa Adar, who was filmed being driven into Gaza in a golf cart by laughing militants.

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Tragedy haunts every corner of Be’eri. On what was once a quiet cul-de-sac near the main gate to the community – a place small enough that there was no need for street names – entire homes are now reduced to piles of smashed concrete. In the remains of one, photographs documenting a family growing up together – a newborn baby lying in blankets, schoolchildren sharing a picnic, graduation photos, wedding pictures, precious time with grandparents – lay beside a metal shopping cart in the rubble.

Next to it was a metre-deep crater filled with water. Several doors down, in front of another destroyed home, the body of a Hamas fighter lay inside a zipped white plastic bag with the Hebrew word for “terrorist” written on the outside of the bag in red. The bagged bodies of more Hamas fighters were piled more than a dozen high. Four days after the shooting started in Be’eri, the stench of death still hung over the entire kibbutz.

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Israeli soldiers in front of Kibbutz Alumim, close to the border with Gaza Strip, on Oct. 11.GORAN TOMASEVIC/The Globe and Mail

Some of the damage to Be’eri, Israeli officers acknowledged, was done by Israeli weaponry during the prolonged battle to liberate the kibbutz that continued until Tuesday. At the western end of the cul-de-sac, a two-storey house was scorched and missing part of its outer wall. Two unexploded mortar shells lay on yellowing grass.

Across the road, a pile of captured Hamas equipment – including a rocket-propelled grenade, and a pile of cartridges for Kalashnikov assault rifles, plus binoculars, rope and several of Hamas’s signature green headbands – lay on the lawn of another abandoned home.

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Major Doron Spielman, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said the scorched home was the scene of a standoff that saw 20 Hamas fighters holed up inside with 40 Israeli hostages until the house was stormed by Israeli troops on Sunday. He said six Israeli soldiers had died in the fight for that home, though he wasn’t sure what had happened to the hostages.

“The destruction, the devastation was so massive that we’re still not sure here which DNA we have that proves that people were killed, and which DNA we have here, that shows that people were taken hostage.”

The road leading into Kibbutz Be’eri was an equally grim scene. Just four kilometres south of the kibbutz stands the ghostly parking lot of the nearby community of Re’im. It was here that many of the young Israelis attending an outdoor music festival that began Friday night and continued until Hamas attacked on Saturday morning had parked their cars.

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An Israeli flag is seen next to a machine gun in front of Kibbutz Alumim, close to the border with Gaza Strip, on Oct. 11.GORAN TOMASEVIC/The Globe and Mail

At least 260 festivalgoers were killed, many of them in the Re’im parking lot where they were shot point-blank in their cars while trying to escape. On Wednesday, the parking lot was a graveyard of vehicles with bullet holes through their doors and windows shot out.

Retribution is coming, Israeli soldiers deployed to the region vowed on Wednesday. Large numbers of tanks and troops were visible in the area around Be’eri and Re’im amid rising expectation that Israel will soon launch a ground invasion of Gaza.

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“Every other military operation we’ve had has never propelled us to want to retaliate in such a massive manner,” said Adam, a 29-year-old member of a reservist reconnaissance unit who was called up for duty from university immediately following Saturday’s attack. The Globe and Mail is not using his last name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“The hardest challenge will be to keep our heads, to keep our self-discipline,” Adam said.

As he spoke, Israeli warplanes roared overhead and a thick pillar of black smoke rose from the northern Gaza Strip, where about 1,200 people had been killed as of Wednesday in retaliatory air strikes as Israel has imposed a full siege, including cutting off the supply of water, gas and electricity to the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there under Hamas rule.

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