Home Music

 ‘They Wanted to Dance in Peace. And They Got Slaughtered’

Israel’s Supernova festival celebrated music and unity. It turned into the deadliest concert attack in history

Israel's Supernove festival

Ido Derby

Several hours after the gates opened for the Israeli music festival Supernova, Amit Bar and her boyfriend Nir Jorno arrived with their friend Ziv Hagbi, excited for the event. The devoted electronic music fans had traveled from Matzliah, some 60 miles away. “We really waited for this event,” the 27-year-old Bar says. “It was supposed to be a really good one – really fun, lots of people.”

The gathering promised to be the highlight of the year, especially for those who loved psychedelic trance, or psytrance, the intense and celestial dance music subgenre. “[The music] is based on a philosophy of life,” says veteran British DJ Martin Freeland, who performs as Man With No Name and was scheduled for late Saturday morning. “It’s Woodstock with electronic music. It’s that kind of mentality: a hippie culture, but the music is different. These are the sweetest people. They would never harm anybody.”

Between 3,000 and 4,000 attendees flocked to an open-air space in Israel’s Negev Desert – about three miles from the Gaza border – where 16 DJs from around the world would spin in darkness and light for 15 hours straight. The event was timed to the end of Sukkot, a week-long celebratory Jewish holiday commemorating the harvest and the period after Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

Supernova, produced by Israel-based Nova Tribe, also doubled as the Israeli edition of Brazil’s popular Universo Paralello festival, a biannual nine-day event that has hosted electronic, reggae, and hip-hop artists near the country’s southern beaches for 20 years. It was set to take place Oct. 6 and 7, although its producers wouldn’t reveal the exact location to ticketholders — which included many teenagers able to get around the minimum age requirement of 23 — until shortly before it began. All anyone knew was this: “The event will take place in a powerful, natural location full of trees, stunning in its beauty and organized for your convenience, about an hour and a quarter south of Tel Aviv.” Attendees were prohibited from bringing weapons including guns and sharp objects. The announcement on the ticketing site joyously proclaimed, “We Are On!”

Many Supernova attendees who paid $100 a ticket shared Bar’s optimism. “Nova is like a family,” says 26-year-old Tel Aviv bartender Sofia Nikitin. “I bartend at a lot of festivals, and Nova is something different. People got prepared for this party for weeks. Everyone knows each other. It was like magic.”

But the dream of a communal music high ended in Saturday’s early hours when Hamas insurgents invaded attendees from all directions, killing at least 260 people and abducting dozens as hostages. Mass shootings and terror attacks at concerts are not new: The terrorists who assaulted Paris’ Bataclan in 2015 killed 130 people, including 90 inside the theater, and the mass murderer who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017 ultimately killed 60. But Supernova, which was intended to be the first in a series of dance events at that space in Israel, became not just the worst Israeli civilian massacre ever, but the deadliest concert attack in history.

“We arrived at the party at 3 o’clock in the morning, all the friends met and celebrated life,” festivalgoer Michal Ohana, 27, tells Rolling Stone. “At 6 a.m., the hell started.”

FOR MANY PEOPLE LIKE BAR, the site for Supernova was familiar. Located in an agricultural section of southern Israel near Kibbutz Re’im – a communal settlement with a population of around 430 – the space had hosted similar music events in recent years. The large, grassless area – complete with multi-colored, billowing coverings and tents – was perfect for dancing. Two DJ booths each had barricades, and banks of speakers sat, pyramid-style, on wooden platforms. Trees circled the center of the festival, which also included campgrounds. In an effort to be as eco-conscious as possible, plastic cups were banned, and attendees were told to buy a cup and receive free water in exchange. Organizers hired around 30 police officers for security, per the New York Times.

This gathering, though, promised to dwarf any previous festivals. Officially called “Universo Paralello Israel Edition—Supernova Sukkot Gathering,” it licensed the branding of its Brazilian counterpart from Universo Paralello founder Juarez Petrillo, a DJ and producer also known as DJ Swarup. (Petrillo was also on-hand at the Israeli festival and was set to perform.) This year, Nova Tribe was using the name.

The all-night party was scheduled to run from just before midnight Friday through approximately 5 p.m. on Saturday. It would present more than a dozen DJs on three stages: Israeli DJs Astral Projection, NoFace, Artifex, and Jackalon alongside Man With No Name, the German group Protonica, Japanese DJ Spectra Sonics, and Swiss DJ Jumpstreet, among others. “You don’t know how much love was at this festival,” Chen Mizrachi, a 34-year-old artist manager who helped with festival logistics, tells Rolling Stone.

Electronic dance music has flourished in Israel since the late Eighties. Festivals and packed crowds are the norm in Israel, thanks to a temperate climate and a shared desire to chill out. “There’s no DJ in the world who doesn’t like to come to Tel Aviv — the great people, the great weather,” says Raz Gaster, whose Beyond Management company manages some of the Israeli acts at the festival. “You can party more than in every other city in the world.”

The festival reflected the free-spirited nature of the artists on the bill and Israel’s history with musical escapism, which dates back to the Sixties when traveling hippies discovered the beach-strewn community of Goa, India. The pilgrimage gradually spread to Israel.

Starting at age 18, all men and women in the country are required to serve in the military. In the Eighties, it became something of a ritual for Israeli soldiers, after finishing their duties, to travel to Goa, where they immersed themselves in techno as well as the culture and drugs associated with it. They brought some of that back with them to their home country. “[Psytrance] is up-tempo, four-on-the-floor dance music,” says Freeland. “The minimum tempo [in dance music] is 130 beats per minute, but [psytrance] is up to 150. It’s what we used to describe as acid house, but sped up.” That influence was also seen in the Hindu-inspired tents and decor at Supernova. Attendees, like Bar, expressed the ethos with their colorful, flowing fashions, septum rings and tattoos.

“We arrived at the party at 3 o’clock in the morning. At 6 a.m., the hell started.”

Michal Ohana

At the festival, a production glitch delayed the start of the music by a few hours. As attendees wandered the grounds and danced, the sense of community was undeniable. “Everyone knows each other,” says Nikitin. “One old lady was giving everyone little notes with good words. She was at every Nova party. Everyone knew her. It was like a family.” (The woman survived the massacre.) Before his own set, NoFace, aka Lee Chizmario, strolled between DJ booths. “Most of the people I knew,” he says. “There were friends from years past. We all knew each other from when I just started and we’d party together.”

“Israel is not such a big place,” says Bar. “Eventually, it’s the same people going to the same places, and when you dance on a dance floor next to them for 12 hours, you remember the people around you. You remember them the next time you go and dance.” In those early hours, people kissed, hula-hooped, and blissed out to the music.

The idea that anything dangerous or deadly would take place — even given the location so close to Gaza — rarely crossed anyone’s minds. “It’s quite known that we do these events around the Gaza area,” attendee Yoni Diller, the 28-year-old founder of a creative agency in Tel Aviv, tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a lot of open areas. We thought it was safe. Most of us did the army, so we’re not scared. It’s not our first time being in the Gaza area. It’s not supposed to be a dangerous area.”

Not everyone felt so secure, however. “All the way, I asked my friend, ‘Why are we so close to Gaza?’ ‘Why are you having a party so close?’” says Ohana, who had returned to Israel from Portugal to see her sister and attend the festival. “I was told that there were security guards and that everything was approved.”

“Every event you have in Israel, no matter if it’s close to the border or not, you must have police,” says Eliran Slider, whose Israel-based FM Booking company handles many psytrance artists, including a few at the festival. “Production pays a lot for security and police.” Slider had to leave for another event, but he, like many, felt there was little to worry about.

IT WAS 6:40 IN THE morning and Artifex, whose visual trademark is shaving his head on each side, was in the middle of his set. The music was so loud that at least some in the crowd had no idea mortars and rockets were hammering in the distance. “At this moment, there was also music, so we couldn’t hear any sirens,” says Nikitin. “I noticed there was a big boom, and I looked up in the sky and saw the missiles and the bombs.”

Before anyone could fully grasp what was happening, Chizmario, who was near the DJ booth, told Artifex to turn down the volume, and a security guard jumped onstage and told everyone to hit the floor and cover their heads with their hands. Chizmario went to the backstage area and told the non-Israeli musicians what was happening. “I tried to explain to the artists, to make them realize it’ll be OK,” he says. “[We’re] used to having alarms about missiles. We didn’t think the shooting part would arrive.”

“The door opens, and we see a wounded girl. Someone shot her in the leg … We tried to help her [and] give her water. She was dying in front of our eyes.”

Yoni Diller

When alarms began sounding, it became frighteningly clear that everyone needed to leave the grounds immediately. With Petrillo and several others, Gaster ran to his car and saw other artists doing the same. Driving as fast as possible, Gaster called Freeland in his Tel Aviv hotel room and told him not to go to the festival. At that moment, Gaster thought rockets were the only issue. But once he arrived at a safe-space house about 18 miles away, he began receiving text messages and calls: “They are shooting at us … Everybody’s shooting at us.”

“Then I understood what was happening,” he says. “We didn’t have a clue until we arrived at the house.”

In his own vehicle, with a friend, Chizmario began driving out and soon saw other cars  turning around and doubling back. “Maybe they saw something up in the road and got scared, and they all went back,” he says. At one point, as he and his friend took a different road, they ran into men with weapons. “They pointed a gun at us, so we made a U-turn and tried to go another way,” he says. With the help of Waze, they managed to get out.

Confusion and chaos followed at the festival site. Within half an hour, attackers – clad in body armor and carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades – arrived in trucks and motorcycles. As attendees drove out by way of the dirt roads to the north and south, they encountered Hamas fighters armed with guns on the road. Other Hamas militants flew in on motorized paragliders, striking the ground and opening fire, Mizrachi says. When the traffic began bottle-necking, Hamas, which blockaded the two roads in and out of the festival, started firing into cars along those routes. “After a few minutes, we saw cars with broken windows and started to hear the shooting of guns,” says Jorno, who was attempting to drive out. After running back toward festival security, Jorno saw insurgents shooting women and a person in a wheelchair.

“People were panicking,” Diller tells Rolling Stone. “Suddenly we see this car bumping into another car very slowly. The door opens, and we see a wounded girl. Someone shot her in the leg, and her whole left knee was disconnected from her body. She couldn’t brake. Her knee was shot. We tried to help her [and] give her water. She was dying in front of our eyes.”

By 8:00, the Hamas soldiers blockading the roads started hunting down music fans gathered in nearby bomb shelters, the Wall Street Journal reported. “We called the Army [over a radio] to let them know we were in the security station, stuck,” Mizrachi says. “We asked, ‘Where are you?’” But Hamas had intercepted the transmission. “We are on the way for you,” a voice told Mizrachi in an Arabic dialect. Upon fleeing, Mizrachi felt a sense of hope when he spotted an Israeli policeman stopping a car. He soon realized that it was a Hamas fighter who had stolen a uniform.

The insurgents blocked the northern exit by 8:30, just two hours after the rockets sprayed overhead. Panicked festivalgoers tried to escape by running across the open fields around the festival, but the militants gunned many of them down. Others tried to hide wherever they could on the festival grounds, in dumpsters and in the surrounding foliage. Video footage and photos from the massacre show hundreds of attendees sprinting in every direction. “We couldn’t imagine that hundreds of terrorists could invade Israel like this,” Amir Ben Natan, a 37-year-old stock trader from Herzliya, says. “I feel like I was hunted. They tried to kill me. Not just me, everyone at the festival. We were helpless. We were unarmed civilians who just wanted to have fun.”

“I feel like I was hunted. They tried to kill me. Not just me, everyone at the festival. We were helpless. We were unarmed civilians who just wanted to have fun.”

Amir Ben Natan

Separated from her friend, Ohana ran for what felt like hours, ultimately ducking under a tank. She thought she would be the most protected there, but she was still shot in the leg and had shrapnel pierce her stomach. “For six hours, I lay without moving, scared, while they shot at me and threw grenades at us,” she texts Rolling Stone from an Israeli hospital. “I saw the terrorists approaching me. I did Shema Yisrael [a Jewish prayer that begins, “The Lord is our God…”] and prayed to God that I would get out of this alive. My friends died by me and I saw friends kidnapped in front of my eyes.”

When Jorno and Bar jumped out of another vehicle that offered them a ride, they scrambled to a hiding space under a bush. Hagbi seemed to make a right turn out of the car, ending up around 60 feet away. “We had our faces on the sand,” Bar says. “We couldn’t put our heads up.” They wanted to call out to Hagbi but didn’t, fearing they’d give away their location. After a few hours, they saw an Israeli woman in a car and heard Hagbi’s voice. They believe he tried to escape with her.

For a week, the couple held on to the grim hope their missing best friend had been kidnapped instead of just murdered on the spot. “We know he spoke Arabic. We really trust him, that he’ll know how to manage whatever situation he’s in,” Bar said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“He’s a big hero. I’m sure he’s helping people right now. I’m sure he’s not dead, because he’s Ziv,” Jorno added, speaking on the same call.

On Saturday, they got the news they dreaded. “Ziv is already murdered,” Bar texted Rolling Stone. A eulogy posted online by a relative read, “We will remember you laughing … We will remember you having fun … Don’t stop dancing.” Hagbi was 28.

Nikitin initially hid in the forest but fled to a field when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the trees. “It was like in movies. You see all gray, there’s wind in your face, and sound, then you don’t hear anything in your ears, you hear only buzzing,” she said. “I just started to run.” She eventually found Israeli police. Later, she heard how another bartender had covered herself with blood from a gunshot victim to disguise herself as already dead. The friend told Nikitin that Hamas fighters found her anyway and ordered her to open a refrigerator at the bar in which people were hiding. It was a calculated move: If the people hiding in the fridge were armed, they’d shoot the bartender thinking it was Hamas. “Everyone hiding in the refrigerator, they opened it and killed them,” Nikitin relayed. (The bartender survived the attack.)

After the initial shock sent music fans fleeing, Hamas fighters scoured the festival grounds for survivors. One attendee who was playing dead by a car flinched his body enough to show life, so a Hamas militant walked over and shot him dead. Rather than kill all of the concertgoers, though, Hamas captured an unknown number to bring back to Gaza as hostages. One couple, Noa Argamani and her partner Avinatan Or, were caught on camera as Hamas separated them, placing Argamani on a motorcycle while directing Or away on foot with his arms behind him. (Their status is still unknown.) As the carnage mounted, festivalgoers had to wait about eight hours for help from the Israeli army.

Some of the casualties include Osher Vaknin, who helped organize the festival, as well as an Israeli soccer player, Lior Asulin, and a British man, Nathaniel Young, who was serving in the Israeli army. Vaknin’s twin brother Michael remains missing. An American who for days after the massacre was presumed missing, Daniel Ben Senior, 34, had moved from Los Angeles to Israel to take care of family members. “This is the first time in so long she was going to just relax and dance,” her cousin, Riki Ben Senior, told The Washington Post. Her father, Jacob Ben Senior, told CNN that she was working at the festival as a paramedic; later in the week, he confirmed to CNN that she had died.

At 8:11 a.m., California-born Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who had just turned 23 when he attended the festival, texted his mother, Rachel Goldberg,with two messages: “I love you” and “I’m sorry.” Neither she nor his father, Jonathan Polin, have heard from him since. A photo taken inside a bomb shelter showed Hersh with several others, defending themselves until Hamas took all but eight of them. One of the survivors told Hersh’s parents that their son had lost part of his arm, according to Los Angeles Times. The last photo of him was taken at 12:45 p.m., as he boarded a truck with other captives. He is believed to have been taken hostage as family and friends beg diplomats for help rescuing him.

HAMAS’ TERROR ATTACKS WERE more organized, widespread, and sophisticated than any of the festivalgoers sheltering in place could fathom. While the insurgents were attacking the festival, Hamas militants were also infiltrating kibbutzim to the north and south. They launched their attack by firing more than 2,000 rockets and were able to disable the Israeli military’s communications and remote-controlled machine guns using drones, allowing them to blast a hole in the border fence. More than 1,500 Gazan insurgents entered Israel through 30 points in the fence and over it with paragliders, according to The New York Times. They also reached some of their targets by boat.

At 5:55 a.m., Hamas militants arrived at Be’eri, a kibbutz about a 20-minute drive from the festival grounds, where the BBC reports that about 100 people were killed and others taken as hostages over 20 hours. Within the hour, Hamas militants were killing Israelis in their homes elsewhere.

Hamas, which took control of the 139-square-mile Gaza Strip in 2007, attacked 22 Israeli towns in total within miles of the Gaza border. The militants had been rehearsing the widespread onslaught in mock Israeli villages for months. A Hamas operative in Lebanon claimed plans had begun two years ago. They practiced landing their paragliders while holding their guns out, and firing rocket-propelled grenades at buildings.

Within an hour of news breaking about the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed his country that the state of Israel was now “in a war.”

President Biden expressed horror at the attacks and pledged his support to Israel that day, telling Netanyahu “my administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.” In another statement, the president condemned Hamas as terrorists. “This attack was a campaign of pure cruelty — not just hate, but pure cruelty — against the Jewish people,” the president said. “One of the worst chapters in human history that reminded us all that — that expression I learned from my dad early on: ‘Silence is complicity.’”

“I prayed to God that I would get out of this alive. My friends died by me and I saw friends kidnapped in front of my eyes.”

Michal Ohana

More than 1,300 Israelis have died in the conflict so far alongside 29 Americans. An additional 3,300 Israelis have been injured, according to NBC News. Hamas militants have taken an estimated 150 people total hostage, including Americans. “There are a number of U.S. citizens who are unaccounted-for,” a State Department spokesperson tells Rolling Stone. “The U.S. government is working around the clock… with the Israeli government on every aspect of the hostage crisis.”

Almost immediately after Hamas’ attack, Israel mounted a siege against Gaza, launching airstrikes and depriving two million Palestinians in the area of electricity, food, water, and fuel. More than 2,200 Palestinians have died in retaliatory strikes — including more than 700 children — and nearly 9,000 more wounded, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Officials in Gaza have claimed that Israeli bombs have struck mosques and hospitals. Because of the airstrikes — Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza this week — Gazan civilians haven’t been able to rescue people from the rubble. “While panic and the fear of a historic expulsion permeates Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are watching in horror amidst stringent lockdown conditions, escalating army raids, and settler attacks,” wrote Rolling Stone writer Jesse Rosenfeld from Israel.

The Israeli army has displaced more than a million Palestinian civilians and forced them to leave the northern part of Gaza since last Saturday. A spokesperson for the United Nations said it would be “impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences.”

WHEN ISRAELI SOLDIERS ENTERED what was now a crime scene, they came upon remnants of the festival — discarded water bottles and shoes, some of the tents still standing. While some photos taken during and after the event could pass as a typical music festival like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, the aftermath looked apocalyptic. Psychedelic scenery around the stages had fallen over. Smoldering abandoned cars blocked the exits, and bullet casings lined the roads. More than a week later, the Times has reported, the shells of cars and pieces of tents remain on the festival grounds.

“It’s crazy to do a massacre like that on innocent people,” Mizrachi says. “Young people with dreams. They just wanted peace, love, and to travel the world.”

The attendees who died were united in their love of music and community; now, their families and friends were brought together in mourning. Chizmario buried a childhood friend. Nikitin went to a service for her friend and bar manager. Gaster has attended funerals for seven of his friends and colleagues. When the family of Supernova attendee Bruna Valeanu, a 24-year-old who had recently moved with her family from Brazil to Israel, tried to plan her funeral, they needed 10 people to attend, per Jewish tradition, according to CBS News. On social media, they asked for 10 people to show up. Around 10,000 came to grieve.

In a statement issued Oct. 14, festival producers Nova Tribe denounced what it called “a scene of unspeakable tragedy, an inhumane war crime, an unprecedented violation of the most basic human values.

“At this moment, our production team is focused on providing the right and extensive emotional and mental support to everyone involved,” organizers wrote. “We are working tirelessly, day and night, conducting search and rescue operations, helping identify the victims and updating their families. Searching for those located in the disaster area, or other locations, recovering equipment from the site and its surroundings and, above all, ensuring the security of Israel.”

The organizers also promised to uphold the festival’s mission. “We will keep fighting until we reach our objective adorned on our tribe’s flag: to spread light throughout the world.”

Survivors of the massacre are still making sense of what they endured. “Everyone needs to know what happened,” Nikitin says with a broken voice. “It’s the last thing I can do for my friends and for Nova and for all of Israel. It was a peaceful festival. Everyone hugged everyone, and everyone loved everyone.”

“All they wanted was to come and listen to the music,” says Gaster. “They like to party with their friends. They wanted us to come and dance in peace. And they got slaughtered.”

From Rolling Stone US