SDEROT, Israel − They are finding people in basements and stores. Hiding out in one of the rows of abandoned houses and small apartment blocks. On rooftops.
After regaining territorial control, elite Israeli police and military units are actively searching for remaining gunmen, whenever and wherever they find them, a little less than a week after Hamas stormed this town of 30,000 people on the edge of the Gaza Strip.
“Their food and water supply are running out,” said a sniper in an anti-terrorism police unit in Sderot who USA TODAY spent time with on patrol Wednesday, referring to Hamas militants. “We’re getting more of them now because they need to do something. Move from place to place.”
Over 1,000 Hamas fighters infiltrated 22 towns and army bases in a multi-front attack that caught Israel’s military off guard. For Israel, this represents the biggest intelligence failure in decades − a blow to a country known for having robust security that is the envy of the world.
Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, and thousands more on both sides injured. Over 100 were kidnapped, including more than a dozen Americans.
Such a dramatic and unprecedented attack set off a panic across the world’s Jewish communities from the U.S. and Mexico to France and beyond along with Israelis scrambling to track down their loved ones. The attacks are being referred to as Israel’s 9/11.
Tuesday night in Sderot and the surrounding areas, 23 gunmen had been hunted down and, ultimately, killed.
On Friday, the Israeli government announced it was evacuating the town.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has targeted Hamas, saying, “every Hamas member is a dead man.” As he tries to regain complete territorial control of a country roughly the size of New Jersey, Netanyahu has mounted a large-scale air strike in Gaza that killed more than 1,350 people and put tanks along the border. Now, patrol cars are zooming the militarized streets of southern Israel.
The member of the police unit, a sniper, asked for his name to be withheld because of the sensitive nature of his work and concern over potential reprisals from Hamas against him or his family. He said he killed two members of Hamas on Saturday during the initial assault on Sderot. At least 27 police officers like him were killed in the area. As for civilians, police still won’t say.
The sniper spent Tuesday night on a roof of an Israeli military base that was briefly captured by Hamas on the first day of the siege. The base sits off of a main road that looks over and across to the nearby Gaza barrier. He said his unit was authorized to kill anyone who tried to cross this road without permission.
“We are waiting for new waves of Hamas to come,” he said.
Inundated with calls from people who hear terrorists and shooting; ‘people are afraid’
Israeli authorities are also continuously mobilizing to trace, capture and kill, if necessary, Hamas holdouts in and around Sderot, even though Israel’s Defense Forces says it has regained full control of the areas of the south like Sderot that were attacked by Hamas.
Roei Valdman, a commander in Israel’s police who is responsible for an area that includes Gaza, Sderot and several other cities, said that his officers are being inundated with calls from people “who hear terrorists, who hear shootings… People are afraid.”
Valdman estimated that approximately 1% of these calls turn out to be “a real case, a real event.” However, he said that it was not possible to know for sure how many Hamas members could still be in Sderot or the surrounding area.
For the actual cases of Hamas infiltrators identified, “it’s a hunt.” His forces, side by side with the military, deploy helicopters, armored vehicles and other specialized equipment to catch or kill them.
Hamas, he said, was still managing to cross the Gaza border in “ones and twos” but so far, for the last several days, they have not been able to attack any civilians.
Valdman spoke from Sderot’s temporary police headquarters, a community center in the town. On Saturday, Hamas seized Sderot’s police station, leading to a standoff with security forces that lasted through the night until Valdman’s commander, Amir Cohen, decided to have it demolished with bulldozers, with members of Hamas trapped inside.
Eight of Valdman’s officers were killed inside the station as it was overrun by Hamas. They were heavily outgunned and outmanned. About two dozen Hamas members occupied the station, around which they had set up booby traps preventing police from storming it.
A physical fight with Hamas leads to a black eye
Cohen, a senior border police commander, sported a shiner on Wednesday in the halls of the center. The black eye was the result, an aide said, of Cohen fighting off Hamas as the attack on Sderot unfolded.
Valdman said that there were only 10 officers in Sderot on duty when they were attacked. The assault fell in the middle of a Jewish holiday. With the army overwhelmed along the border, the defense of the town fell to the police for the first hours.
Eventually, an elite counter-terrorism unit with the Israel Defense Forces came with reinforcements.
“Of course we are trained to deal with terrorism but most of the time we are dealing with crime and ordinary citizen concerns around here,” said Valdman, who believes the fast response from his officers helped prevent a larger massacre in Sderot.
‘This work is not too scary if you don’t think about it too much’
The makeshift police station at the center of town was swarming this week with hundreds of rescue workers, police, army and special forces. They filtered in and out on different missions. Donations − meals, soap and toothpaste, cases upon cases of water − sat on an outdoor concrete square that had a basketball court on it and was covered from the sun.
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog paid a brief visit and urged the international community to demand the release of hostages taken by Hamas.
Throughout the hour, air raid sirens would go off, sending several dozen people who were loitering outside smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and making small talk scrambling for cover inside. This was followed by loud thuds and bangs. On Sunday, the center received a direct hit from one of the barrage of missiles that Hamas is sending over the border each day. But the damage was not significant. And no one was hurt.
“A week ago, I had just come back from a vacation in Norway, and I thought I was about to go on a work trip to Canada. I barely had time to wash my clothes before I was called up for duty,” said one soldier, who was passing by a USA TODAY reporter as he waited on a wooden bench inside the center for the latest all clear after a round of missile fire from Gaza.
The patrol unit that the sniper is part of is working 12-hour shifts to investigate every serious report that comes in about Hamas militants: sightings, strange noises, rumors.
It also rushes to the scene of rocket attacks in Sderot to assist any wounded and because, according to the sniper, “sometimes Hamas attacks places it has just fired on.”
There’s a lot of time sitting around, eating snacks, some good-humored roasting. At one point, the sniper was given a shoulder massage by another member of his unit.
“This work is not too scary if you don’t think about it too much,” confided another officer.
Like the sniper, none of the other officers can be identified for security reasons.
Sitting around − for now
A lot of time sitting around − until there isn’t.
A crackly message came through on the radio.
A dozen heavily armed police commandoes and one reporter piled into two large vans and sped around Sderot’s deserted streets. Up front, in the passenger’s seat, the unit’s commander wedged his automatic weapon, ready to fire, between the vehicle’s mirror and its windshield frame. Many of the town’s residents have evacuated to other parts of Israel, but many have remained behind. They’ve been told to stay indoors.
The report that had come in was of a rocket attack on a house in Sderot.
The location was near a cluster of homes on a cul-de-sac.
Within a few minutes of arriving it became clear there was no sign of a rocket here. Just a dog barking in a high pitch and a couple of residents trying to communicate and gesture to the unit from behind a head-level wall outside their home about 50 feet away.
Then, another report came. There may have been shots fired.
“Get down,” the unit’s commander ordered.
That too was over before it started.
Back in the van, yet another order had arrived, this time to search a house where a rocket definitely had landed just 10 minutes earlier.
“We’re going to do a quick check for casualties,” said the sniper, shortly before the door was kicked open. In the sky above, small clusters of shiny smoke trails could be seen.
These could be rockets just launched from Gaza, where the intensity of Israel’s bombing campaign has sent up large plumes of dust and ash and led to scenes of apocalyptic destruction. Or Israeli missiles sent to intercept them.
Inside, the house seemed lived in.
A half-eaten piece of chocolate cake, spoon resting quietly on a plate, sat on the dining table. There was a jumble of clothes strewn across the sofa. A musty human odor.
The rocket had fallen straight through what looked like the main bedroom and hallway upstairs, exposing a twisted and gnarly web of wires, plaster, wooden beams, steel mesh.
The stairway, walls, doors, floor and ceiling were covered in a light gray dust. A part of the missile was lying in the bathroom, near the toilet.
No wounded, no people, though. No signs of Hamas.
“It’s clean,” said the sniper. “We’re leaving. Stay close.”
Contributing: Seth Frantzman, Josh Meyer