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Israeli desert town heals its wounds after Hamas attack

Tali Hadad with her son Itamar
— Ofakim (Israel) (AFP)

Passers-by call Tali Haddad a heroine when she shows them the place in the Israeli town of Ofakim where she saved 12 people from Hamas fighters on October 7, including her own son.

The attack that day caught residents by surprise in her normally peaceful neighbourhood, where some walls are still riddled with bullet holes.

More than 40 people were killed by Hamas fighters who drove from Gaza 25 kilometres (15 miles) away, cutting them down in the street, inside their homes or as they fought back.

That morning, Haddad, 49, refused to stay at home.

After sending out her soldier son Itamar to fight the attackers, she jumped in her car and began ferrying the wounded to safety.

But the mother of six, who has lived in Ofakim since 1997, doesn't consider what she and Itamar did as out of the ordinary.

Some walls in the town are still riddled with bullet holes from the Hamas attack

"The normal thing is what Itamar did -- to go and fight for the state of Israel, for Ofakim and for his house because they (Hamas) could have reached us if he hadn't taken his weapon," she told AFP.

"Who else would have done it? If he isn't doing it to protect his home, who is going to?"

The sirens for incoming rockets started blaring at about 6:30 am on Saturday, October 7 in Ofakim in the Negev desert.

With most local houses in the neighbourhood being too old to have a secure shelter, many residents instead went out into the streets, exposed to the militants shooting at them on sight.

- 'City of heroes' -

Shouki Yossef, 63, says about the October 7 attack: 'I'll never forget it. I saw my neighbour get shot dead'

"There was an alert, my wife woke me up, we went into the shelter," said one local resident, Shouki Yossef, 63.

"There were about 13 of us... we heard the shooting, I saw the terrorists coming."

"I'll never forget it," he added tearfully. "I saw my neighbour get shot dead."

Yossef, who tells the story to anyone who will listen, said he hung onto the shelter door for more than five hours hearing bursts of gunfire and grenade blasts outside.

The Hamas gunmen were either killed or left, without taking any hostages in the town, as the militants did in other communities.

Local residents accompanying groups of visitors tell them about what happened that day, with Ofakim often overlooked for other mass killings and kidnappings in farming communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

In all, the attacks by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

An Israeli woman carries a baby past graffiti in Hebrew and English with slogans against Hamas and condemning the October 7 attack

In Gaza, Israel's military operation to "destroy" Hamas has left more than 28,300 dead, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

On the wall of Yossef's house, graffiti in Hebrew and English now proclaims "Death to terrorists" and "The people of Israel will live".

There are placards everywhere outside houses with the names and photos of those killed, a few words about them and how they died.

On the edge of the neighbourhood, a huge mural has been painted of a female police officer shaking a civilian's hand above the slogan "city of heroes".

- 'You'll be OK' -

Among the town's "heroes", Haddad is one of the best known.

Israelis visit a site in Ofakim, a town in southern Israel, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the Gaza Strip, which was targeted in the October 7 attack

After sending Itamar out to fight, she said she told police officers that she was going to get her car to evacuate the injured as ambulances were nowhere to be seen.

Her son was the first.

"I saw my son bleeding on the ground. We put him in my car and I took him to the health centre on the edge of town," she said.

"I took his gun and I said to him: 'Itamar, you're a hero, you'll be OK, I'm going to get the other injured.'"

She handed her son's gun to a young soldier, who was on leave at the time.

He was killed a few moments later confronting Hamas fighters.

Haddad took 12 people to safety as bullets whistled over her car.

On the edge of the neighbourhood, a huge mural has been painted of a female police officer shaking a civilian's hand above the slogan 'city of heroes'

Four months on, Haddad is looking after Itamar as he recovers from his injuries.

Her own "therapy" is tending to the plants on her balcony, she said.

"It's important that Israel doesn't give up," she added.

"Hamas and terrorism must be destroyed. We've got to see it through."