Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
The verse in the title, from Psalms 23:4, and the entire chapter from which it derives (“The Lord is my shepherd”), are recited by Jewish communities every Sabbath, and by many Jewish and Christian communities at funerals. This chapter, with its powerful message, has sat in the foundation of my awareness from when I was a child. More than once, when in a frightening, or sad, situation, I remembered this passage.
As of the massacres conducted by HAMAS on October 7th, 2023, and since I visited some of the sites of these horrific crimes two and half weeks after they occurred, this verse has a completely new – and horrific – meaning for me.
I visited three different locations: the music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, and private homes at Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Kibbutz Be’eri.
I came there wearing several hats: a concerned and shocked Israeli – a son, a husband, a father and a grandfather, a human being trying to understand how such horrific things could have happened, and as an archaeologist, who usually sees evidence of violence and death with centuries or millennia filtering it, “softening” the blow.
At the site of the music festival, I saw the large open area where hundreds upon hundreds of people, young adults, families with young children, and music and peace lovers of all ages, backgrounds and origins, fled in terror from the HAMAS terrorists who were shooting at them. All around we could see their shoes and bags, their underwear and cosmetics, the baby toys and safety seats, which they dropped and left, as they ran in terror. The terrorists, who surrounded them on all sides, hunted them down, shooting hundreds, raping and then killing girls and women, and then took scores as prisoners back to Gaza. Some of the festival participants tried to hide in refrigerators that were in the bars and food stands at the festival, and the terrorists systematically went and opened each one and shot those hiding in terror in them. This massacre was not carried out by coincidence – various reports indicate that the timing of the HAMAS attack was to enable them to attack the festival – and this in fact was one of the first targets of their attack.
We then went to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, situated right next to the border with the Gaza Strip, and one of the first places attacked. Hundreds of terrorists stormed the kibbutz, and for hours, only the local civilian response team fought back – most of whom did not survive.
Here, even though the bodies of the murdered Israelis – and of the terrorists who had been killed while attacking the kibbutz – had already been removed, tangible evidence of the horrible terror could be seen. Right next to where the HAMAS terrorists burst into the kibbutz, there was a small neighborhood, comprised of a small road with houses and apartments on both sides, about 20 in all. This was the neighborhood where the young adults of the kibbutz lived. The murderous terrorists went from house to house, apartment by apartment, and murdered the occupants.
I saw blood and brains splattered on floors, walls and windows; I saw a couch with a big blood stain on its back, and a bullet hole showing how the person sitting on the couch has been shot, and right above the couch, at the level of the person’s head, and bullet hole in the wall and blood and brains splattered on the wall; and in the next room, the supposed “safe room,” which served as shelter, blood stains on the mattress and the floor were evidence of yet another murder. These were the scenes in room after room. People caught in their homes, hiding in terror in safe rooms, and murderous terrorists bursting in and killing them, without mercy or moral compunction.
The smell of death was everywhere – a strong and overpowering combination of drying blood, smoke, gunpowder and burnt wood.
Standing in this carnage and these ruins, I could not but think that this was the “valley of the shadow of death”! Here was what this means – not in a theoretical way, and not even through seeing it at other sites of massacres of relatively recent times (such as the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, or similar places). Here I could see the actual remains of the murdered people, evidence of their lives before they were slaughtered, and the sights and smells of their horrible deaths.
We then went to Kibbutz Be’eri, another one of the sites of indescribable carnage and murderous mayhem. Here I saw family houses that had been burnt down with their occupants, since the families remained in their safe rooms and did not come out, and the HAMAS terrorists burnt the entire houses down, burning the occupants to death.
In some of the houses, the destruction was so massive that the occupants’ remains were reduced to ashes and could not be identified. To assist in identifying the remains of all the murdered people, colleagues of mine from the Israel Antiquities Authority stepped in, using archaeological techniques to find remains of those murdered. I had a chance to see my brave colleagues conducting this indescribably hard and gut wrenching work, at times done under enemy fire! While I have often excavated remains of ancients who suffered death and destruction, here this was carried out on people who had been murdered less than three weeks ago. The archaeologists, sifting through the remains in these houses, managed to find bones and teeth of some of the deceased, which will enable identification – and burial. A new type of archaeology has been born – the archaeology of terrorism…
Perhaps the hardest and most disturbing scene that I saw, amongst all the horrible sights of blood, brain, carnage and destruction, was in one of the houses at Be’eri. Approaching the house, once again a strong stench of death was hanging in the air. On the porch, in front of the main door of the house, there was a large pool of congealed blood. Amongst this blood I saw a meat cleaver, two knives and a hammer, the weapons used to kill the person whose blood was on the floor. I then entered the home, and right behind the main door, next to the dining room table, another large stain of blood was on the floor, and in it a large knife – once again, a weapon used to murder this victim. Moving further into the house, in the “safe room” there were large bloodstains on the mattress of the bed in the room, and splattered blood all around. Here was horrifying, indescribable evidence of the murder of an entire family.
Most importantly, this was probably committed not by the “Nukhba” terrorists (the elite unit of the HAMAS) who spearheaded the attack, but very likely by regular Gazan who followed them, after the various communities were overcome. These Gazans killed, raped, plundered and took captives on their own. They didn’t kill using guns – they killed using house utensils that they found.
As I stood outside of this house, trying to gather my breath and working hard not to break down, I thought of the poem that Haim Nahman Bialik, the Israeli national poet, wrote after witnessing the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. This poem, “the City of Slaughter”, became an iconic text in early Zionism.
Here is an excerpt of the English translation of this Hebrew poem:
“…Get up and walk through the city of the massacre,
And with your hand touch and lock your eyes
On the cooled brain and clots of blood
Dried on tree trunks, rocks, and fences; it is they.
Go to the ruins, to the gaping breaches,
To walls and hearths, shattered as though by thunder:
Concealing the blackness of a naked brick,
A crowbar has embedded itself deeply, like a crushing crowbar,
And those holes are like black wounds,
For which there is no healing or doctor.
Take a step, and your footstep will sink: you have placed your foot in fluff,
Into fragments of utensils, into rags, into shreds of books:
Bit by bit they were amassed through arduous labor—and in a flash,
Everything is destroyed…”
While less than 50 Jews were murdered in that pogrom, it had a profound effect on the modern history of the Jewish People. On October 7th, the death toll was about 30 times worse! Clearly, this horrible event will be a watershed moment in Jewish history, and perhaps world history. Time will tell.
I also heard first hand reports of the incredible bravery of the civilians in the various communities, and IDF soldiers and officers, who fought valiantly, against unspeakable odds, during the attacks, saving hundreds of civilians in the process. I talked with members of the civilian first response team at Kibbutz Be’eri. Although the team was comprised of only around ten members, most of whom were only armed with pistols, and who lost several members of the team during the fighting, they managed to fight off the terrorists, without almost any help from the IDF, from early morning until the late afternoon. While they could not stop the terrorists from killing close to 100 kibbutz members, they did manage to save hundreds of others due to their bravery. If ever someone deserved a medal of honor – it should go to the members of these civilian first responder teams!
I was fortunate. I was not at these sites during these horrible terror attacks. I woke up on Saturday, October 7th like any normal day, and only realized that something was amiss when the air raid sirens went off due to rockets being fired from Gaza. I was not present when these heinous terrorists attacked peaceful civilian communities, killing, raping, torturing and abducting hundreds of infants, children, men, women, elderly and sick.
I was lucky. However, visiting these locations, at which such murderous, barbaric attacks occurred, seeing the horrific evidence of the murderous rampage – and blood and brains, the destruction and burning – I will never be the same – in any of the “hats” mentioned above. I ended this day in a state of horror, unable to think clearly. All I wanted to do was cry. I came home, took off my clothes and shoes, which still reeked of death and destruction, shared some of my feelings with Adina, my partner, and collapsed asleep.
But in the morning, I woke up and decided that I must write down my initial feelings about this – which you see here – and hopefully, soon, I’ll write some more, and then we’ll take the films that the videographer Yuval Pan took on site, and try to convey to the world some of the horrors that we saw.
May the victims of this barbaric massacre rest in peace; may the wounded heal, both physically and mentally; and may the kidnapped return without any delay.
And may the terrorists, their facilitators and supporters, be punished by death!