Early Saturday morning, the music at an outdoor rave near the Gaza border was drowned out by sirens as rockets streaked through the sky from the Palestinian territory. After a long night of partying, people quickly began preparing to head home when Hamas gunmen, who had sneaked into Israel, arrived in pickup trucks and opened fire, killing at least 260 festivalgoers.
In the week leading up to the party, Tal Avnery, an 18-year-old Israeli from Kfar Shmaryahu, a suburb north of Tel Aviv, told his father that he and his friends were going camping in the south. His dad helped his son gather his gear and taught him how to build a tent.
Tal, without telling his parents, was actually planning to go to an outdoor music festival, where thousands of Israelis – teenagers, adults with families, and anyone in between – set up camp to enjoy a long night of music.
The morning after Tal left with his friends for their “camping” trip, his father, Sivan, said he received a surprise call. At 8 a.m. his older son, Amit, was calling to say that he had heard from Tal, who said he went to a party, and now people are shooting at him.
“I think he didn’t want to call us [his parents] because he said he was going camping, and didn’t want us to know he went to a party,” the father told The Globe and Mail.
After a few failed attempts to establish contact, Tal called his parents. Panting and overwhelmed, he told his father “they’re shooting at me.” At first, he didn’t believe him, but his son insisted. “Dad, they’re shooting at us. At us.”
As other notifications flooded their phones, Mr. Avnery’s fatherly instincts kicked in. “I didn’t really think,” he said. He just slid a pair of jeans over his pyjamas, laced up his boots, and told his wife “I’m going.”
Not knowing what he would encounter, he grabbed his gun, water and a military-style helmet from his years as a reservist in the Israeli army and a volunteer at the neighbourhood police station.
“The whole way, Tal had off-and-on phone connection and his battery began to die,” his father said. In bits and pieces, Tal managed to tell his father what happened. As if in a loop – Tal ran, hid, was found and shot at. Again he ran, hid, was found and shot at.
By the time his father was on the road, his son was completely alone. Sivan had no idea who would get to him first, him or the Hamas gunmen.
During the long, agonizing drive, he sent his son an audio message, instructing him “to find a bush, crawl under it, and bury himself in the sand and hide … that it would take time to get there.”
Tal waited for about two hours for his father to arrive. Using a WhatsApp-live location tracker, his father “drove like mad” toward his son while Qassam rockets from Gaza fell as close as 500 feet from his car.
The father-son reunion was quick. “He came out of the bushes, my sweet boy, and I ran to him. We hugged quickly and I told him, straight to the car. Half a second later, we were gone.”
On Saturday, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, which began with a barrage of rockets serving as cover for dozens of Hamas gunmen, who entered Israel from Gaza and began overrunning towns and military bases near the Gaza border.
The first responders weren’t the military or police, but regular citizens like Mr. Avnery. Driving away from the scene, father and son picked up some injured Israelis they came across, only stopping when they made it to Patish, a small religious town about 10 miles from the Gaza border.
On Saturday morning, the Jewish day of rest, “there wasn’t a single person on the streets [of Patish],” said Mr. Avnery. But when he informed people of what was happening, “they came from the synagogue with a kippah on their heads,” breaking Shabbat to set out with pickup trucks to rescue people from the party. Mr. Avnery estimated that they rescued more than 200 people, squeezing 20 to 30 on each vehicle.
In the afternoon, Mr. Avnery, Tal and two of the teen’s friends, and a few other survivors drove home. Everyone was in shock, Mr. Avnery recalled. On the drive, the survivors told atrocious stories about Palestinian gunmen shooting civilians and taking hostages. They were in a “catatonic state” speaking about what happened and what they saw, Mr. Avnery said. “It was simply hell.”
Asked how he’s doing now, Mr. Avnery said that “At first you don’t think. But when things calm down a little, then you can start to think and wrap your head around this insanity. It’s unbearable, what happened on Saturday.”
Mr. Avnery has been talking to a therapist specializing in PTSD at work, but he is worried for his son.
“What hurts me most is what happened to Tal,” he said. “Sunday morning, he could have woken up on the other side of the fence [in Gaza], or worse.”