Brave kibbutzniks live and die on Israel's front lines

They have always defined Israel’s true frontiers and will continue to do so


Israeli soldiers remove bodies of of Israeli civilians in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ??? ????? ??? ???? ?????? ????? ????? ??? ??? ????? ??? ????? ????

October 11, 2023 17:10

An entire region of Israel lies desolate. Israelis usually refer to it as “Otef Aza” – the area that is around the Gaza Strip. But until Simchat Torah morning it was one of the happiest and most flourishing parts of the country.

It is a long string of kibbutzim and moshavim, which in recent years were growing as young families sought to escape the crowded centre of Israel and build modest but pleasant homes surrounded by green pastures.

Some of them were “returning sons” who joined their ageing parents in the fields, cowsheds and factories of the kibbutz, many others commuted every day to Tel Aviv. It was worth the hour-long drive.

Even in the previous rounds of warfare with the Palestinians in Gaza, the kibbutzim were never totally abandoned. Families were evacuated but men stayed to milk the cows and gather the crops. Now they are all gone. At least half of the 1,200 Israelis killed in the terror attack were on the kibbutzim. More than 100 bodies have been found on the largest of them, Kibbutz Be’eri. Even more bodies are still being counted at the second-largest and closest kibbutz to Gaza, Kfar Aza.

This week, there was a call-up among older kibbutz members in other parts of the country – older, because the younger ones had all been called up to their reserve units. Cows still needed to be fed and milked and preparations for the winter in the fields can’t wait. The survivors of the massacres will return to rebuild their homes, and the farming can’t stop.
The kibbutzniks, a tiny proportion of Israeli society and one of the most reviled by members of the current government as “leftist”, “privileged”, “Ashkenazim”, were once again on the forefronts of Israel’s wars, dying in disproportionate numbers. The kibbutznikim have always defined Israel’s true frontiers and will continue to do so.

On Tuesday afternoon, I stood at the western edge of Kibbutz Kfar Aza by the gate which had been blown open using explosives by the first group of Hamas terrorists who entered the kibbutz on Simchat Torah.

A mile away, just over the border fence which was breached that morning in 29 locations, were the first houses of Gaza City.

As behind us teams from the Home Command rescue unit and the Military Rabbinate Corps were starting to remove the first bodies from the burnt-out homes of the “youngsters’ quarter”, I asked Lieutenant-Colonel Karmi Meir, commander of the 71st reserve paratrooper battalion whose men had rushed from their homes and by the afternoon of Simchat Torah were already in battle in Kfar Aza, how he felt.

“I can’t allow myself to look or think too much about the bodies,” he answered.

“We have a long war still ahead of us,” he said, looking at Gaza City. “My main focus now is on my men who fought here ferociously and saved dozens of lives. I wish we could have arrived earlier and saved more. We didn’t lose any of our men in the fighting and as a commander that’s my responsibility and will continue to be.”

As I left, he was still waiting for orders about which base in southern Israel to report to so he could begin training the battalion for the ground campaign in which they are certain to take part. Some of his soldiers were still going through the last standing houses on the kibbutz, making sure there were no more Hamas men lurking. Others stood silently outside the houses where bodies lay.

On the paths winding through Kibbutz Kfar Aza, there were still bodies of dozens of the attackers. Most of them didn’t resemble the men in black uniforms, with military-grade combat webbing and new assault rifles, that can be seen in the footage of the first wave of the Hamas attack. Some had patchy uniforms. Others were in civilian clothes. Their Kalashnikov rifles were old and rusty.

The IDF is still piecing together what happened on Simchat Torah but a picture is beginning to emerge of separate waves of attacks. The first was of the Hamas special-forces Nuhba Unit, who would have been notified in advance to prepare for the operation and were first through the fence. Some of them would have also been the first back in Gaza, having captured Israelis, dead and alive.

But once the fence was breached, many others passed through -- terrorists of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad anxious to take prisoners of their own, other Hamas members, and at some point even Gazans who were not active members of any group but wanted to take part in the killing and pillaging. Some even made it back with stolen credit cards which have already been used to make online purchases.

But those who came through later met Israeli security forces who had finally responded. Many, perhaps most, of those were killed in Israeli territory.

The IDF is still collecting all the terrorist bodies but the assessment is that there are as many as 1,500 Palestinian bodies in Israel, as well as dozens of prisoners taken alive. Learning more about their identities and affiliations is a crucial part of the intelligence which has to be gathered before the ground offensive begins.

And there are other preparations. International sympathy with Israel following the terror attack is at an all-time high but more level-headed senior officials in government are fully aware that it won’t last forever and will begin to erode the moment the IDF enters Gaza and the number of Palestinian civilian casualties rises. As one of them said this week, “It’s essential to extend our legitimacy.”

The decision of the IDF to allow international journalists to go into Kfar Aza and record the atrocities there for the world to see, before allowing in members of the domestic media, was a controversial one which, of course, angered Israeli journalists who insisted that it was their public who needed to see those images first.

But it was a decision that the officers stand behind and believe that they made the right call. The scenes from Kfar Aza dominated front pages around the world and could have bought Israel more time.

This is not going to be a short war and the support that Israel is getting right now is phenomenal. It may not last.

October 11, 2023 17:10

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