Christmas Day in Israel is a regular workday. But December 25, 2023, was far from ordinary for me. I joined a business delegation to communities adjacent to Gaza that were devastated by the massacres 80 days earlier. I didn’t need to be convinced that the atrocities of October 7 were horrific, so I was unsure what could be gained by seeing such destruction. And I wouldn’t realize the importance of our visit until the end of the day.
An IDF spokesperson met us at the entrance to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz about 1,500 meters from the Gaza border. We were given protective vests, helmets and a safety briefing. About 800 people lived in the kibbutz on October 6. On October 7, 10 percent of the population was murdered and many more were kidnapped. Most of the survivors have been living in a hotel north of Herzliya ever since. The kibbutz was frozen in time. For the rest of the world, the date was December 25. But here, the date was October 80. We saw sukkot (booths erected for the holiday that ended October 6) still standing outside houses. A kid’s bike was lying on a front yard.
The attack began at 6:30 a.m. Hamas terrorists invaded by motorcycle, pickup truck, and gas-powered glider. Our army guide told us stories of what happened at particular houses. In one house, terrorists broke in and found a family. The father grabbed his gun and returned fire and told his 4-year-old daughter to escape out the back and run to a neighbor. The terrorists murdered him and his wife, then pursued the 4-year-old girl to the neighbor’s house where they found her hiding with other children. All of those children were abducted (the 4-year-old girl has since been released and is now living with her aunt and uncle). The terrorists brought cannisters of gasoline to burn buildings and people. They went house to house, tying up residents, dousing them in fuel, and watching them burn.
Every house had spray paint markings indicating the army’s sweep of the kibbutz. It took the IDF several days to secure the area. If a house had a red circle with a dot, it meant they found at least one corpse. We walked the plant-bedecked pathways of the kibbutz and imagined the peaceful neighborhood of October 6. But there were so many red dots.
One row of homes had banners hung outside: “Yotam Hayim was kidnapped from this house.” “Emily Damari was kidnapped from this house.” “Yuval Salomon was brutally murdered in this house.” We were permitted to enter one house. The front door was riddled with bullet holes. The inside was pockmarked with many more. The number of bullet holes made it seem like there was a fierce battle. But the residents were likely sleeping when the attack started and were met with sprays of bullets.
While residents vow to return (and one hardy couple already has) Kibbutz Kfar Aza has been turned into a memorial. Ours was not the only tour bus at the kibbutz entrance. There was a group of police officers and a group of foreign visitors. We walked around in stunned silence.
And this experience felt eerily familiar for me. I’ve been here before. I’ve done this before.
With groups, with my family or on my own, I’ve had opportunities to tour sites around the world where Jews were oppressed and murdered. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. A cemetery in Fez where I paused at the grave of a teenage girl murdered in 1834 for refusing to convert to Islam. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv. The memorial of the destroyed community of Rhodes, Greece. The Auschwitz Death Camp in Poland. In all of these places, I stopped. I read the placards. I remember seeing chips of bone still in the soil around the crematoria of Auschwitz. I bore witness.
And touring Kfar Aza felt like all those experiences. The signs indicating who was murdered or kidnapped from which house reminded me of the brass bricks in the cobblestones of Prague’s Jewish quarter commemorating who lived where before deportation to Theresienstadt. I am sadly accustomed to this ritual of reflection. When Jewish people tour the world, we go to Jewish sites. We visit synagogues of destroyed communities. And memorials and museums. We know how to do this.
But of course, Kfar Aza is different. And if I struggled to understand why, I would be reminded by the thunderous clap of an explosion just a kilometer or so away. While we were at the kibbutz, Apache helicopters buzzed overhead. They fired missiles at targets in Gaza just across the fields from the kibbutz. We saw plumes of smoke rising from buildings in Jabalia, a Gaza neighborhood directly opposite Kfar Aza. Unlike Prague and Warsaw and Fez, this story was still being written.
In the evening, we visited the Zikim army base to provide dinner for the soldiers. Rafi, a reservist in the elite Unit 669, gave us a tour. Born in London, he grew up in Israel then went back to London as an adult where he met his wife and began a family. When the war broke out, Rafi returned for reserve duty. His wife and children remain in England.
There is a gate on the southern edge of the base where a gravel road leads to Gaza, a few hundred meters away. Unit 669 coordinates transport in and out of Gaza. They perform daily missions to the Strip to bring in supplies and to extract captured intelligence and weapons caches, Hamas prisoners, and injured Israeli soldiers. We watched as convoys came and went. One convoy had just returned and unloaded manuals, computers, and other intelligence assets that had been recovered from a Hamas tunnel.
Zikim was buzzing with activity. We set up a large buffet with salads, drinks, pita and meats. The portable grills laden with sizzling chicken and steak filled the base with a delicious aroma, and groups of soldiers returning from Gaza gathered around the tables to eat. Just as I thought we were nearing the end of the rush, another group would arrive. One group of soldiers, with faces caked in dust and bodies weighted down with ceramic vests and M-16s, returned from a mission to retrieve two captured senior Hamas fighters. They had just handed their prisoners over to army intelligence and arrived hungry after a hard day’s work.
The barbecue was supposed to end at 7pm but by 9pm there were still soldiers returning from missions, so we kept adding more charcoal to the grills and replenishing the buffet. Just as we were starting to wind down we heard a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza. I’ve been through many rocket attacks in Raanana, but here being so close – practically seeing where they were launched from – I didn’t immediately realize what was happening. But then we saw Iron Dome missiles shoot up into the sky and soldiers running for cover in the meguniyot, or shelters, that were peppered throughout the base. We followed the soldiers into the shelters and heard the explosions overhead. I’m used to the Iron Dome booms but I’ve never experienced them so loud before. Crowded in the shelters with the soldiers, many still holding their pitas stuffed with meat and dripping with tehina, it was as if the barbecue simply changed venues for a few minutes before we ventured back outside.
On the drive back to Tel Aviv I made the mistake of checking the New York Times. There was an article on public opinion in the US. The article stated that “a narrow plurality of voters…said Israel should stop its military campaign to protect against civilian casualties, already totaling nearly 20,000 people.” These death toll figures are provided by “Gaza health authorities” (a.k.a. Hamas) and should be viewed at the very least with skepticism. But even accepting the number, for the New York Times to report that they are all civilian casualties means that the Israeli army has not killed a single Hamas militant in its 80 days of warfare. In fact, the IDF recently reported that they have killed 8,000 Hamas militants since the start of the war. Regardless of the veracity of either claim, it is patently unreasonable to report that every death in Gaza is civilian, despite Hamas’s propaganda. Yet this is how the New York Times reports on the war, and then they run a piece on US public opinion as if just reporting about that subject instead of playing an active role in shaping it.
Our children are fighting this war. When they come back from Gaza for brief respites, we hear horrific stories. A good friend’s son relayed one of his experiences that stuck with me. As their tank was advancing a young girl ran in front of it. When they stopped, the tank then came under fire from a nearby building. Their unit was able to repel the attack and rescue the girl. She was terrified and told the soldiers she had been ordered at gunpoint to run in front of the tank. Israeli soldiers risked their lives to save this Palestinian girl who Hamas wanted dead. Had she died, her death would be gleefully reported by Hamas and unquestionably accepted by western media as another innocent killed by Israel. There is no question that the IDF has inadvertently and tragically killed Palestinian civilians. But there is also no question that many of those killed in Gaza are not civilians, and also that many of the civilians who have been killed were killed by Hamas.
And yet, as Secretary Blinken recently noted, “even as we hear many countries urging an end to this conflict… I hear virtually no one demanding of Hamas that it stop hiding behind civilians, that it lay down its arms, that it surrender. This would be over tomorrow if Hamas does that… How can it be that there are no demands made of the aggressor, and only demands made of the victim.”
I thought about how familiar touring Kfar Aza felt – another destroyed community for us to visit and bear witness. But this story is still being written. The next chapter was evident at Zikim – an army base alive with activity, teeming with heroic soldiers. While the destruction of Kfar Aza felt disturbingly familiar, the previous editions of this story never had a chapter like what we saw over grilled steaks at Zikim.
And that must be why I was drawn to make this visit in the first place. It is important to bear witness because it is difficult to see things clearly in a world turned upside down. Where seemingly reputable news sources report preposterous assertions – like every death in Gaza is a civilian and every civilian casualty in Gaza was caused by Israel. In a world where fundamentalist thinking (whether driven by Jihadism or wokeism) blindly asserts no matter the facts who is the oppressed and who the oppressor, it is important to see what actually happened at Kfar Aza. When you see that, it becomes clear that while of course the world should be appalled by the destruction in Gaza, its response should be the demand that Hamas end this bloodshed by releasing the hostages and surrendering.
And until then, it is important to see places like Zikim, where thankfully Israel has the ability to continue our story in a way that the stories of Fez and Rhodes and Krakow could not.