'You're walking into Bergen Belsen': On the ground in Kfar Aza

The kibbutz near Gaza has become the scene of the conflict's deadliest massacre yet


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 *** ??? ????? ??? ???? ?????? ????? ????? ??? ??? ????? ??? ????? ????

“Children. One, two. You open the door, you see a family,” said the IDF soldier. “Some of them, handcuffed, then shot. Some of them...” He made a slashing gesture across his neck.

He was one of the search and rescue clearing the many dead from Kfar Aza, a kibbutz on the Gaza border where one of the most horrific massacres in the history of Israel took place last Saturday.

“You're about to enter Bergen-Belsen,” IDF spokesperson Richard Hecht warned the JC as the first press convoy to enter the kibbutz since its liberation on Monday lined up to pass through its yellow gates.

There were decomposing Hamas bodies lying in the ditches by the sides of the road, under trees. It was just a fraction of what we would see inside. 

There is no official number yet of how many people were killed that day, but Jewish bodies still lay on the ground where they were gunned down, covered by blankets. Whole families were slaughtered in their beds and in their safe rooms as day broke.

At least five bodies were in black bags with a white printed Magen David, lying in a row. Stretchers were lined up against scorched houses prepared to remove more of the dead. As we watched, two more bodies were carried away by soldiers who were entering the semi-detached bungalows one by one.

The soldiers had been working to clear the carnage for just two hours before press arrived, and they spoke of their anger, sadness and disbelief at what had taken place here.

“I don't want to look at this. I don't want our people to have to look at this. But we have to look at this. We have to allow these images to burn into our minds. Because we have days ahead of us, months ahead of us, to carry on this war,” soldier Doron Spielman told the JC.

At least four civilians from Kfar Aza, which had 760 residents, were taken by Hamas into Gaza during their rampage on the kibbutz. The attack took place on Shabbat and the last days of Sukkot, and residents’ sukkahs remained, with neon-coloured paper chains and hanging decorations blowing in the wind above the carnage below. There were tipped-over cots, a broken pastel green mug on the floor.

Some 70 Hamas terrorists attacked the kibbutz. Israeli fighters only went in on Saturday evening, some 12 hours after the surprise ambush, and it was not until Tuesday morning that the army regained full control of the kibbutz. Some of the residents managed to survive the attack.

Most houses were burned black with floors reduced to ashes, both the inside and outside walls riddled with innumerable bullet holes. One front door had a streak of blood as if a paintball hit it, and keys hanging out of the lock inside. A quintessential kibbutz signpost for a house belonging to Rinat and Ziv Matzliah lay on its side, a furled Israeli flag tied to the top.

"Did you see the mothers, the children?" one soldier asked the JC. "Even the Islamic State didn't do this."

Journalists walked down the kibbutz paths row by row, warned not to enter the houses for fear of uncleared booby-traps with explosives and unexploded ordinances. We stepped over bodies of Hamas militants lying in the sun, baked, the stench of death all around. It looked as if they would be cleared last, left to rot on the sides of the road leading up to the kibbutz, inside the houses, on the grass patches of the square gardens.

"I don't care, these people aren't humans, they're beasts — don't tell me any different," one soldier shouted to his comrade.

Part of the fence separating the Gaza Strip from the kibbutz was broken open, what soldiers called the “entry point”, although an Israeli news report cited a tunnel potentially still active as late as Monday, leading from the Strip under the kibbutz. It would be the first tunnel found that has managed to breach the vast, billion-dollar barrier which boasts a sensor-equipped underground wall with remotely controlled weapon and radar systems, as well as cameras.

There were constant bursts of gunfire and explosions in the distance, the boom of jet fighters, smoke and an incoming rocket which forced journalists and soldiers to take cover together. 

Journalists were allowed to walk around, but there was too much horror to take in.

"What happened here changes the situation," said a soldier to his friend. “Everything has changed now."

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