Roni Abuharon, a detective in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim, grabbed his pistol and floppy police hat. “Don’t leave me alone,” his wife pleaded as sirens signaled incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip, less than 20 miles away.
Down the street, Itamar Alus, his good friend and fellow officer, told his wife to lock the door and take their children to the bomb shelter.
The officers rushed outside. Mr. Alus glimpsed his friend from afar, running to meet the sudden staccato of gunfire. It was the last time they would see each other.
Ofakim, a quiet desert community of about 30,000 people, was the site of fierce, prolonged fighting during Hamas’s surprise attacks on Oct. 7. It was one of the farthest points the terrorists reached. With the Israeli military slow to respond to the unfolding horror, it fell to local police officers — many of them with nothing more than pistols — to defend the city and prevent Hamas from pushing deeper into Israel. Officers stared down hostage-takers, contained the rampage and prevented more bloodshed.
One measure of what might have been: The dead assailants left behind a cache of grenades, anti-tank rockets, plastic explosives and land mines that they had not had a chance to use.
“The police saved us,” said Cochy Abuharon, Roni’s older sister. “Without their courage, there would have been more slaughter.”
The New York Times stitched together key moments of the battle of Ofakim through text messages, photographs, audio recordings, video footage and interviews with victims, family members and officers. Building on reports in the Israeli media, the Times reporting reveals the heroism and harrowing choices of local officers and residents during a terrifying wait for a rescue.
And it suggests that the assault on Ofakim began with a well-timed ambush.
About 50 Israelis died in the battle, including at least six officers. That grim outcome played out again and again elsewhere. At least 58 police officers died in attacks around the country.
In Ofakim, residents called it “Black Shabbat.”
Two white pickup trucks rolled into town around 6 a.m., before any siren had sounded.
It was Saturday, the Jewish day of rest.
The assault team comprised more than a dozen men. Each wore a green combat vest bulging with ammunition.
A video of their arrival, taken from an upstairs window, shows grenades, launchers and ammunition organized neatly on the sidewalk alongside one of the trucks. In addition to their arsenal, the men had medical kits, instructions for slinging an injured limb, maps of Ofakim and plenty of food — preparation for a lengthy, ferocious attack.