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A day after attacks from Gaza, Israeli victims mourn 'intelligence failure'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Israel is reeling a day after the Palestinian group Hamas launched a surprise attack from Gaza to the south. Israeli Public Broadcasting says Hamas has killed at least 600 Israelis and wounded more than 2,000. Israel has responded with hundreds of airstrikes on Gaza, where health officials say at least 300 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 wounded. Israel has also been fighting to take back control of communities where people were killed or taken hostage. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been talking to people on both sides and joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hello, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Daniel, you're getting new details about just what did happen yesterday and since then. What do we know at this point?

ESTRIN: Well, we know - we are learning that the scale of this invasion was much bigger than we were told initially. Israel says there were 29 points where militants crossed into Israel. And Israelis have been watching videos that Hamas has published showing gunmen coming in on paragliders, trucks, motorcycles, taking over military bases, driving military vehicles back into Gaza and taking many Israelis hostage. We've seen videos of an elderly woman, of soldiers taken hostage. Israel has also still been fighting militants who are still - been hunkered down in Israel still today. Israel is pummeling Gaza high-rise buildings. And it also struck at Hezbollah in Lebanon after Hezbollah fired at Israel. So these developments, especially Israeli hostages and the fire from Hezbollah - those have a potential of escalating this war.

RASCOE: And we're going to get back to what you're hearing from Gaza in a couple of minutes. But you've been talking to Israelis who were in towns attacked yesterday. What kind of stories are they telling?

ESTRIN: Yeah, we visited the Soroka Medical Center. It's the main hospital in southern Israel where these events have been taking place. And people have been in shock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: I saw scores of people outside the emergency room standing, crouching on the ground. They had no information about where their missing children were. There were many parents whose children were at an outdoor festival, a rave, when gunmen stormed the party and sent them running. There was one mother, Batsheva Elus (ph), who was sitting on a plastic chair, rocking and praying.

BATSHEVA ELUS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She was saying, "He'll be back. He'll be back. He's alive. He's alive. Maybe they're looking for him in the field. Bring me my son." And she was there at the hospital with her friend, Daniela Zaituni (ph).

DANIELA ZAITUNI: So we're here waiting.

ESTRIN: Waiting for?

ZAITUNI: Information. Something.

ESTRIN: We met another man there, Mayer Zohar (ph), who was crying into his hands, waiting for news about his daughter who went missing at that party.

MAYER ZOHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said, "All of this has happened because of Israel's weakness." He was talking about Israeli military reservists who have skipped training during months of protests against the government's recent moves to weaken Israel's judiciary. He said, "Think of the intelligence failure - Hamas preparing the trucks and no intelligence?"

ROHI SHALEV: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: We met this man, Rohi Shalev (ph). He was in a hospital gown. He said he was at that party when six trucks with some 50 gunmen surrounded everyone and started shooting. He and his girlfriend crawled under a truck, pretended to be dead, but the gunman shot them. He was shot in the back, and he doesn't know if his girlfriend is going to make it.

SHALEV: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said Israel should, quote, "wipe out Gaza." And I told him there are more than 2 million people living in Gaza. And he said, "This is Israel's biggest disaster ever. They killed our loved ones. They kidnapped our elderly and our children." And this is something I heard a lot at the hospital, even from Palestinian citizens of Israel like Adel Telagat (ph).

ADEL TELAGAT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says his sister was picking vegetables when the gunmen came and killed her even after she said, I am Arab.

TELAGAT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He told me, "They are Muslims? They're infidels. Gaza deserves to be wiped out."

And then I walked into a hospital room, and I ran into someone I hadn't seen in years - a professor from my college days at Brandeis University outside Boston. He lives in Israel, Ilan Troen. He was wearing a Brandeis T-shirt, and he was standing at the foot of his grandson's hospital bed.

ILAN TROEN: My daughter and son-in-law were killed today but, in their dying, saved his life.

ESTRIN: How?

TROEN: They fell on his body. They were all together in a secure room, and they covered his body, and he was saved. He - nevertheless, a bullet penetrated them and went into his abdomen.

ESTRIN: His teenage grandson, Rotem Mathias (ph), was there asleep in the hospital bed, and he says the whole family stayed on the phone with the grandson for hours after his parents were killed while he was hiding in the laundry room and then under the bed. The gunman returned.

TROEN: And you could hear the Arabic and the breaking of the glass, the kicking down of the door, and the coming back just to make sure they had done a good job. And he escaped.

ESTRIN: Troen's daughter, Deborah (ph), and her husband, Shlomi Mathias (ph), were both musicians. She was a singer. He taught music at a mixed Arab and Jewish high school.

TROEN: These are people that were committed to the good life for everybody, and yet it is they who paid the price for hatred.

ESTRIN: Troen is a professor of Israel studies, but he was at a loss for words to explain what had happened. He referenced the Shoah, the Holocaust.

TROEN: The world does not work in a straight formula. We know that from the Shoah. We know that from all kinds of life experiences. This is just another one to add to the long list of events that we just can't understand.

RASCOE: Briefly, Daniel, what's going on in Gaza now?

ESTRIN: Well, families have fled their homes to U.N. schools, which have served as shelters before. We've spoken to Palestinians with mixed feelings - some saying it was a great achievement, what Hamas did. You know, Palestinians talk about being trapped in a blockaded territory with repeated rounds of conflict, high death tolls. This caught them by surprise, though. And now the army says they're preparing for a ground invasion, which, as we've seen in the past, can lead to very high casualties.

RASCOE: NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you, and stay safe.

ESTRIN: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.