Palestinians cross the Gaza-Israel border fence in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7, 2023

© Yusef Mohammed/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA Press Wire

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“They Are All Hamas”

‘Let me know of one Palestinian in Gaza who tried to save a Jew and maybe I’ll change my mind’

by
Deborah Danan
January 25, 2024
Palestinians cross the Gaza-Israel border fence in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7, 2023

© Yusef Mohammed/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA Press Wire

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Eyal Barad was in the safe room of his home in Nir Oz for more than 12 hours on Oct. 7 while Palestinians went on a rampage of his Gaza envelope kibbutz, eventually kidnapping or murdering more than a quarter of its residents.

Every so often, Barad, 40, was forced to cover his 6-year-old daughter’s mouth with his hand to stifle her squeals. The little girl, who is autistic, thought the whole thing was a game. Most of the time, though, Barad was glued to his phone, watching the live feed of a camera he had recently installed outside his home to monitor speeding cars. Images from the feed, which I obtained, show Palestinian women and children—some appearing as young as 8 years old—taking part in the horror of that day.

Survivors’ accounts, video evidence, and the interrogation recordings of apprehended Palestinians paint a damning picture of the complicity of Gazan civilians both in the Oct. 7 attack, in which more than 1,200 people were murdered and 240 people were abducted to Gaza, and its aftermath. It is one that has sparked a debate in Israel that challenges the inclination to draw distinctions between ordinary Palestinian civilians of Gaza—often referred to in Israel as bilti meuravim (uninvolved)—and their terror leaders. For many, Oct. 7 reeked of something that Jews have been familiar with for centuries; a phenomenon where not just a vanguard, but a society at large participates in the ritual slaughter of Jews.

Around 700 Palestinians stormed Barad’s kibbutz of Nir Oz—less than a five-minute drive from Gaza—that day, CCTV footage shows. The overwhelming majority of those, estimated by Eran Smilansky, a member of the kibbutz’s security squad, to be around 550, were civilians. They were largely unarmed and not in uniform. Some of those civilians carried out wholesale acts of terror themselves, including rape and abduction—and in some cases, the eventual sale of hostages to Hamas—while others abetted the terrorists. Others still simply took advantage of the porous border to loot Israeli homes and farms, including stealing hundreds of thousands of shekels in agricultural equipment.

‘The reality proves that there’s no such thing as a bilti me’urav (uninvolved) in Gaza. All of Gaza is Hamas.’

Similar scenes played out in several of the more than 20 brutalized Israeli communities. In one video that has become emblematic of the debate around the “uninvolved,” an elderly Palestinian man with walking sticks is seen hobbling at an impressive clip along with the rest of the mob through the breached gate of Be’eri.

Differentiating between terrorists and civilians is tricky, particularly since Hamas terrorists often wear civilian clothing, a tactic evident in the ongoing war in Gaza. However, other indicators help make this distinction, such as the absence of weapons and the fact that many were filmed crossing the border barefoot or even on horseback. Even senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk readily admitted that Gaza civilians had taken part in the Oct. 7 atrocities.

One video shows a group of men in civilian clothing beating a soldier while a separate image shows another group of what appears to be civilian men celebrating atop the smoking husk of a burned-out tank. In the infamous 47-minute terror reel of the Oct. 7 atrocities, Palestinians in civilian clothing are seen beating elderly hostages with sticks. Another repeatedly screams “Allahu akbar!” as he decapitates a Thai farm worker with a garden tool.

Barad’s speed camera in Nir Oz includes images of a Palestinian girl riding a stolen bike. In another, a Palestinian woman is seen pointing out Barad’s neighbor’s home to a uniformed terrorist. An image captured later shows a resident of that home being hoisted onto a motorcycle to be taken into Gaza.

But it’s the testimonies of the survivors that provide the clearest evidence that Oct. 7 was not just a terrorist attack, but a pogrom.

Batya Holin is a photographer and peace activist from Kfar Aza, which alongside Nir Oz and Be’eri, was one of the heaviest-hit communities. Holin had developed a friendship with a Gazan photographer, Mahmoud, with whom she arranged a joint exhibit last year of photos of her kibbutz and his village in the Gaza Strip. On the morning of Oct. 7, Mahmoud called and interrogated Holin, asking her how many soldiers were in her vicinity. That was when Holin realized that Mahmoud had given the photos of her village to Hamas. “Whoever says there are people there who are uninvolved, here is the proof,” she told Israel’s Channel 13 News. “They are all involved. They are all Hamas.”

Echoing Holin’s testimony, former hostage Nili Margalit said that “civilians, regular people,” abducted her to Gaza in one of the kibbutz’s golf carts. Likewise, an NBC News investigation found that Noa Argamani was likely kidnapped by a civilian mob. A video of her abduction shows her unarmed captors wearing regular clothes. Argamani may have been later handed over or sold to Hamas.

Natali Yohanan, 38, recounted hearing a Palestinian woman enter her home with two men. The woman stayed there for several hours, intermittently cooking for her male companions, watching Netflix, and ransacking her clothes. The men would occasionally try to break open the safe room door, where Yohanan, her husband, and two young children, were hiding.

“She started singing and asked them, are you hungry? Are you thirsty? She went into my fridge and heated up food,” Yohanan said. “She was very relaxed and seemed happy. She stole my credit card, my passport, and my clothes—even some of my underwear—but the clothes she didn’t want she folded and put on the bed. It was so strange.”

Then there are the Gazans who worked at the kibbutzim. Yohanan’s husband, a farmer, is one of many people in the Gaza periphery communities who hired Palestinian workers from Gaza. Like many others I spoke to, Yohanan believed that the terrorists were acting on inside knowledge obtained by those Gazan workers. Israel had gradually raised the number of work permits in the months leading up to Oct. 7 with an estimated 18,500 Gazans working in Israel before the onslaught. The thinking behind the policy was that economic incentives to the residents of the Strip would sustain the fragile peace. Hanan Dann, from Kfar Aza, told me that he was “glad that workers from Gaza were coming to Israel to have jobs and meet Israelis, to see that we’re not all devils.”

In several of the devastated communities, detailed maps were found on the bodies of dead terrorists, maps that residents say could have only been drawn up by people with intimate knowledge of the area. Gazan workers relayed an extensive range of information to Hamas that enabled the terror group to plan its attack with extraordinary meticulousness, including the identities and residences of security heads, the locations of electric boards and communications systems and how to disable them.

The workers’ betrayal left an indelible mark on the surviving kibbutzniks, leading many to reexamine previously held beliefs about their Palestinian neighbors. Nir Oz, like many of the other ravaged kibbutzim in the area, was home to scores of peace activists, many of whom volunteered for a program known as Road to Recovery, driving sick Gazans to Israeli hospitals for treatment. Many now believe that while there are Gazans who want to live in peace, they do not represent the majority; or, as one survivor summed it up to AFP, “there are more who don’t want us alive.”

Irit Lahav, whose parents were from Nir Oz’s founding members, described the community as a “peace lovers’” kibbutz. “It broke my heart. How can we ever get over this sense of betrayal?” Lahav, who shuttled Palestinian cancer patients several hours from the border with Gaza to their treatments in central Israel, told me. “The Palestinian public simply hates us.”

Not everyone, however, was surprised by the involvement of Gazan civilians. “I don’t differentiate between them and Hamas,” Nir Shani told me. “Let me know of one Palestinian in Gaza who tried to save a Jew and maybe I’ll change my mind.” Shani’s teenaged son Amit was taken hostage and later released as part of a prisoner exchange at the end of November. Shani is from Be’eri, also home to lifelong peace activists, including Vivian Silver, the founder of Women Wage Peace, and Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz. Silver was murdered and the Lifshitzes were taken hostage. Yocheved was later released but Oded remains in Gaza. “They are people of peace who were always supporting Palestine,” the couple’s grandson Daniel said of them. He recounted how bystanders in Gaza spat on his grandmother, who was thrown over the back of a motorcycle after being pummeled in the ribs by her captors.

In one viral video, the near-naked and bloodied body of Shani Louk, an Israeli German who was abducted from the Nova music festival but who was later declared dead, is seen being paraded through the streets of Gaza in the back of a pickup truck. Hordes of Palestinian civilians are cheering, spitting and slapping Louk’s deformed figure while chanting “Allahu akbar.” The last tranche of hostages to be released in November’s truce saw crowds of Palestinians line the streets, jeering as the Red Cross ambulances passed by. The aunt of released hostage Eitan Yahalomi said that after the arrival of her 12-year-old nephew into Gaza, “all the civilians, everyone, beat him.”

IDF Sgt. Adir Tahar was murdered and decapitated during the invasion while manning a post near the Erez border crossing. His father, David, was forced to bury his son’s body without his head. An interrogation of two Palestinians by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency revealed that the remains of the head—which had been mutilated until it barely resembled a human skull—were kept in the freezer of an ice cream store in Gaza. One of the men had tried to sell the head for $10,000. The man in question was a Palestinian civilian and not a Hamas operative, Tahar told me. The Shin Bet did not respond to a request for confirmation in time for publication.

“The reality proves that there’s no such thing as a bilti me’urav (uninvolved) in Gaza,” Tahar said. “All of Gaza is Hamas.”

In several cases, Palestinian families held hostages in their homes. Released hostage Mia Schem said she was being held by a family in Gaza. “Entire families are in the service of Hamas,” she told Channel 13. Avigail Idan, the 4-year-old Israeli American whose parents were murdered, was also held in the homes of several Palestinian families. When former hostage Russian Israeli Roni Krivoi remarkably managed to escape his captors during an Israeli air raid, he hid alone for several days before being discovered by Gaza civilians, he said, who returned him to Hamas.

“There are no innocent civilians. Not one. They don’t exist,” Schem said. “All of them there are terrorists.”

Another hostage, 17-year-old Agam Goldstein-Almog, agreed with Schem. She said that she was brought to a school and “a nice lady offered us water, a mattress, and a place to sleep” and assured her the place was safe. “I turned to my mother and said, ‘Mom, there are good people in the world. And five minutes later they fired a barrage of rockets from the school [into Israel] and everyone was shouting, ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,’ and I told her, ‘Scratch that, they’re all the same.’”

“If we previously believed that there was a chance for peace, we’ve lost all faith in these people, especially after we were there and among the population,” Goldstein-Almog added.

There have been scores of examples of Gazan civilians in various professions who appear to be, at the very least, in the “service of Hamas.” From New York Times, Associated Press, and Reuters photojournalists breaking the Oct. 7 breach into Israel (with one spotted brandishing a grenade), to UNRWA staffers who have praised the attacks, kept hostages in their homes (a claim the U.N. agency strongly denied), and covered up the existence of tunnel shafts and weapons caches in their schools. One teacher at an UNRWA school in Khan Yunis, Jawad Abu Shamala, was a member of Hamas’ leadership in charge of its funds.

The director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, Ahmad al-Kahlout, confessed to Israeli security forces in December that his hospital doubled as a military facility for Hamas. He admitted to being recruited to the terror group and receiving military training, and added that there were other “doctors, nurses, paramedics, and clerks” who were also military operatives in Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. His last remarks in the video, released by the IDF, may suggest that he did not have a choice. Calling Hamas leaders “cowards,” al-Kahlout said, “they ruined us.” Similar claims can be found in several videos by ordinary Gazans, some of whom were silenced mid-sentence. One clip cited by The Wall Street Journal prompted Hamas to issue a warning against publishing any materials it deems “offensive to the image of the steadfastness and unity of our people in Gaza.”

Then again, a survey conducted in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that while about one in five Gazans polled blamed Hamas for their suffering in the war, 57% of Palestinians in Gaza (and 82% in the West Bank) continued to support Hamas’ decision to attack Israel. Moreover, support for the terror group overall (42%) has increased since Oct. 7.

While many Palestinians have occasionally expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of Hamas’ governance, such as electricity shortages or tax hikes, its actions as a “resistance” faction are viewed favorably. Take, for example, the words of a banker from Gaza City cited in the WSJ report: “I hate Hamas, the government. I never respected them. But the militants? I believe in them so much, they are sacrificing their souls for the sake of Palestine.”

Seasonal expressions of discontent are not a new phenomenon. There have been protests against the group in 2017, 2019, and as recently as last summer. Benny Avital, a member of Nir Oz’s civilian security team, told me that prior to Oct. 7, the protests in Gaza had fueled hopes that “the Gazan people will rise up against” their leaders.

Several notable Israelis have expressed similar sentiments. Singer-songwriter Idan Raichel, who in the past has described his music as a bridge for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors, said last week that Gaza civilians should do more to “rise up against Hamas,” and the fact that they don’t means that “most of them should be treated as involved.”

Even Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, who’s more dovish than the right-wing government, has pointed the finger at Palestinian civilians in Gaza. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said almost two weeks after the attacks. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”

For Avital and other Israelis, there is no longer any middle ground after Oct. 7.

“For us now, there is bad and good. Before we were sure there was something in the middle. Now we understand there is nothing in the middle. There are people who want to kill you and there are us, who just want to live a quiet life.”

Deborah Danan is a journalist and communications consultant based in Jaffa, Israel. Her work as an investigative reporter has taken her across the Middle East, from Gaza to Jerusalem to Cairo to Amman.

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