Nick Zhiharev was one of thousands of Israelis who attended an overnight music festival near Israel’s border with Gaza. The event was billed as a celebration of “friends, love and peace.”
It ended in a massacre.
Just after dawn on Saturday, Zhiharev spotted what he initially thought were fireworks streaming across the sky.
“But then I told my friend, ‘I think we’re getting bombed.’ And then as soon as I said that, the music cut off,” he said.
Zhiharev and others mostly shrugged it off. Israelis are used to seeing rockets fired from Gaza, the vast majority of which are shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system.
Zhiharev, who spent several years in Toronto as a teenager, said he wasn’t too concerned. Until he heard the gunfire.
“You could hear (the bullets) ricocheting off the cars. It was like a Call of Duty scene. There was shooting everywhere,” Zhiharev said.
“I felt like prey running away from a predator.”
Gunmen from Gaza appeared without warning and started firing indiscriminately into the crowd.
The music festival was one of the first targets for Hamas militants as they launched their unprecedented and coordinated attack on Israel, sending panicked partygoers scrambling in all directions.
Many didn’t make it out. Some tried to escape in their cars but found themselves trapped between other vehicles, and were gunned down in their car seats. Volunteer rescue crews have recovered more than 260 bodies from the scene so far.
Others were kidnapped and are now being held hostage by Hamas.
Seated at the kitchen table in his family’s apartment in Rishon le Zion, Zhiharev swiped left through photographs of smiling young faces on his phone, the festival attendees who are now missing, including several of his friends.
“Most likely dead or kidnapped,” he said, speaking barely above a whisper.
The 28-year-old former American college football tight-end managed to escape on foot. He ran for a couple of hours before finally taking refuge in a barn.
It was several hours, he said, before he saw anyone from the Israeli military.
“We were supposed to be this strong military,” he said. “Where were we?”
After getting caught seemingly off-guard, the Israeli military is hitting back hard, mobilizing thousands of reservists and formally declaring a state of war.
Their targets in Gaza have included a mosque and an apartment building. Israel blamed Hamas for using civilians as shields.
Palestinian Sabreen Abu Daqqa was trapped under the rubble in Gaza for hours, after an Israeli rocket struck her home. When she was finally rescued, she learned three of her children had been killed and another was missing.
“I was at home and suddenly, we heard a sound and everything fell over our heads, my children were next to me,” she said, with tears running down her cheeks.
The casualties are mounting on both sides to horrific heights not seen in decades. As of Sunday, at least 700 Israelis have been killed. Israeli air strikes have killed more than 400 people, including 20 children.
“It feels unprecedented. It doesn’t feel real,” said Israeli-Canadian Jess Burke. She lives in Toronto and came to Israel last week to get married. Their honeymoon was short-lived.
“I woke up at 7:00 in the morning to my dad banging on the door, letting us know that air raid sirens had gone off,” she said.
She and her extended family sheltered for hours Saturday in a small concrete room, as explosions and gunfire rumbled outside.
“I’m a third generation Holocaust survivor. And today we have reports that this is the single most amount of Jews that have been murdered in a single day since the Holocaust,” she told Global News in Jerusalem.
“It seems industrialized. It’s a massacre.”