The first word came at 6:25 a.m., Oct. 7 local time: Red alerts were issued via WhatsApp for several locations in Israel. Sirens could be heard in Tel Aviv. AP journalists saw rockets being shot from Rafah in Gaza towards Israel. Then word filtered in from the Israeli army that there were numerous security breaches in central and southern Israel. More rockets fell, with Israeli ambulances dispatched to areas where residents had reported strikes. Taken together, it told of an ominous new day in the region.
The first of what would be many AP news alerts moved 20 minutes later: Israel says Palestinian militants have infiltrated into Israeli territory from Gaza.
What unfolded over the next hours was massive in its scope: Hundreds dead without warning at the hands of the militant armed group Hamas, which executed a well-planned surprise attack on what would normally be a joyful holiday, Simchat Torah.
Rampaging fighters broke out of Gaza’s borders and arrived by air, land and sea, striking civilian towns in southern Israel and lightly armed military outposts.
They killed civilians, including panicked attendees of a music festival, and hunted down Israeli families in their homes. The victims included children and older people. They also abducted scores of Israelis as hostages, hauling them back into Gaza. The Israeli army, caught off guard, struggled for days to regain control of the invaded towns. Israel released counterstrikes into Gaza, killing hundreds. Over the next 10 days the toll would rise to thousands dead in Gaza and in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country at war.
The AP went live from Gaza within hours of the attack, and live feeds from various locations in southern Israel quickly followed. In the first 48 hours, hundreds of photos moved, along with dozens of broadcast and online edits.
With news developing quickly, the first-day mainbar went through 55 writethrus and multiple sidebars. Staff around the globe quickly jumped in, contributing separates, live updates and editing help to their colleagues. Day two brought into sharper focus the extent of the carnage as Israel ramped up its counterattacks on Gaza.
Help in the coverage also came from the investigative team. Reporters looked back on more than 100 Hamas propaganda videos and verified one that was posted to social media just weeks before the attack showing militants practicing some of the same operations they would eventually carry out — including blowing through a mock iron wall fence, breaking into homes and firing automatic weapons at human-shaped paper targets. Using satellite imagery, AP verified at least five sites where Hamas trained in the weeks and months leading up to the attack, including one less than a half-mile from Israeli border watch towers that was close enough to have been observed by binoculars. Such training in plain sight only added to the questions both the Israeli and U.S. officials are facing over a massive security and intelligence failure.
Earlier, the investigative team and the Jerusalem bureau worked on another visual investigation to reconstruct the deadliest single moment of the Hamas attack, when militants stormed more than 3,500 people at an electronic music festival in the desert three miles from the border with Gaza, leaving more than 260 dead and a still undetermined number taken hostage. AP journalists reviewed more than dozen videos taken during the massacre and interviewed survivors to dramatically reconstruct how the attack unfolded, nearly minute by minute. Videos compiled by Israeli first responders showed armed men plunging into the panicked crowd, mowing down fleeing revelers with bursts of automatic fire. Many victims were shot in the back.
Throughout the first two weeks of the war, the teams in Israel and Gaza worked in extremely challenging circumstances. The situation was especially perilous for AP staff in Gaza, who were forced to evacuate the office, once seen as a safe space, and their homes.
Even after fleeing to areas believed to be safe, they faced shortages of food, water and basic services as well as the ongoing threat of Israeli airstrikes.
Staff in Israel were shaken. Many lost friends, loved ones and acquaintances in the killings and kidnappings.
For courageous nonstop coverage since Oct. 7, with no end in sight, the Israel and Gaza reporting teams earn Best of the Week — First Winner.