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Matt Gurney: What I watched Hamas do
The screams I heard on Monday weren't fake. The monsters at the door weren't actors in a lot of latex. These monsters were real.
By: Matt Gurney
On Nov. 6, one-month-less-a-day after the Hamas assault on southern Israel, I was one of a small number of journalists to receive a briefing by a senior Israeli government official at the Israeli consulate in Toronto. Part of the briefing was the showing of a film, approximately 42 minutes long, that contained video and audio records of the attack. The sights and sounds came from many sources, including home security footage, survivor footage, surveillance cameras at private residences, military facilities and in public places, as well as cameras and Go-Pro-style body worn cameras carried by Hamas. Later in the film, we also see footage taken by Israeli first responders — some of it informally, via body worn cameras and smartphones, but some of it also deliberately and meticulously, as part of the documenting of the attack's aftermath. The video also included audio portions of what the Israeli government claims is intercepted Hamas communications sent during the attack.
I have to preface this near the top: I can't vouch for the authenticity of the videos, or of the translations. I believe that the videos are authentic and the translations accurate — the latter is easier, since it has by now been shown to enough people that any false translations would have been noted by members of the audience, but I don't speak Hebrew or Arabic, and had to rely on the captions. As for the videos, while some of what I saw on Monday was new to me, other clips have already been shared widely on social media. There's a decent chance you've seen some of them, too. For further disclosure, many of the clips are very short — a few seconds each. The Israelis said that in many cases, they are only choosing to release what the families of victims have agreed to allow to be shown. That's an editorial decision, and I haven't seen the unedited videos. I can’t tell you what I wasn’t shown.
So if you're absolutely determined to find a way to discredit or dismiss everything I'm about to say, I'll keep it easy for you. I saw what was presented to me, by Israel, and have little ability to independently confirm any of it.
If you're interested in hearing what I saw, though, here it is.
I should start by telling you I don’t plan to dwell on all the atrocities or try to summarize the whole 42 minutes of carnage I watched in any kind of coherent sequence. It's not that the atrocities aren't important — they're obviously the central point of the briefing for reporters, and what I was asked to bear witness to. My thinking is simply this: much of what I could tell you has been summarized elsewhere. The global media first saw this film, in Israel, two weeks ago; some of my Ottawa-based colleagues saw it last week. If you're looking for a summary of the contents, those exist already. I don't think you'd benefit from just another version of that, and I know I wouldn't enjoy writing one. So in the main, I'll avoid long, descriptive passages where I tell you what I saw. I'll try to offer something different.
But first, let's get this out of the way. I confess that I was afraid when the video started. Simple fear. Fear I'd crack, fear I'd have to look away, fear I'd somehow fail to meet the moment. I don’t know if that was a rational fear — what the hell does meeting the moment even mean? — but I was afraid. I was afraid from the moment I was asked to attend and said yes. As the film began, though, I found many of the videos less graphic than I'd feared, and actually less graphic than some of what I'd already seen and written about. No one should mistake me — the videos are graphic, some of them extremely so. But in many cases, the videos are taken from too far away or from an unsteady camera (particularly the body worn ones) and many of the worst gruesome details are thus obscured or missed.
Not all of them. Lord no, not all. But some. That helped.
There are exceptions. I'll get to them. But I chose to focus mainly on what else was happening in these videos, as the atrocities unfolded. You’ve already heard about the violence. What haven’t you heard much about?
What jumped out at me in many of these videos were the unsettlingly normal details depicting what looked like a pretty normal day, something I found instantly familiar, and suspect you would, too. Early in the presentation, there is footage of Hamas terrorists roaming through a kibbutz unopposed. It seems that many of the civilians have fled or are hiding; they're having a hard time finding anyone. And as they wander through the backyards, I was struck by how utterly banal a scene it was. If you didn’t know what was happening, it’d have been lovely. This truly was, to revive a grimly apt old phrase, the banality of evil.
You see nice gardens, well tended by the owners, something my mom and or my aunt would (for some reason) enjoy pouring countless hours and gallons of sweat into. You see patio furniture with books and newspapers left behind as the residents fled, but if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were inside, putting on the kettle for more tea. The tables are cluttered with mugs and other remnants of all the little details of a normal day in a normal life. The view was something I've seen a thousand times before while visiting friends or neighbours, and what people have seen a thousand times before when visiting me at my home or cottage — a bit of clutter, a few dishes that probably should have gone into the washer already, a garden hose tossed lazily aside instead of being properly coiled back up nice and tight and hung up on its hooks. It's just a pleasant, comfortable outdoor scene, filmed by the people who are hunting for civilians to kill.
They do eventually find some, and murder them in their homes. Other homes they simply set ablaze, patiently holding lighters up to ignite drapes and plants. They shoot a pet dog, too. It doesn't die right away, and seems surprised, more than anything, when it is shot with what looked like an AK-47. It reminded me of one of the dogs I'd had, a weird mutt named Tasha. The dog wasn't attacking the terrorists, it just seemed curious about the newcomers and was sauntering over to check them out when they shot it.
Later clips show further explicit acts of violence. In many instances, the terrorists take care to ensure their victims are dead by shooting them again even after they are down. I view these clips with something of a trained eye, and noted quickly that the shootings are methodical and efficient. The attack force was well-drilled and organized. The killers are mostly task-oriented and focused. They had objectives and stuck to them. But that doesn't mean they weren't having the time of their lives. The National Post's Sabrina Maddeaux was there on Monday as well, and in her column about the briefing, she made a point of flagging something I'd noticed too — glee. Pleasure. Delight. Whooping cheers, selfies with the boys (carefully framed to put dead or captured Jews in the background), huge grins. The attacks were efficient, but not joyless. The Hamas terrorists are thrilled to be doing what they're doing.
And they did so with the benefit of having achieved complete surprise. That’s something else I noticed when I took the time to look past the visceral horror of the murder spree. The Israeli official at the consulate on Monday said, I think correctly, that a full accounting for the failures that made October 7th possible will have to wait until after the war. But there were indeed major failures. Something that jumped out at me over and over in those videos was that the Israeli public had not been alerted and was caught utterly unprepared. There was no warning. They had not had time to take any defensive action. In video after video, I saw people killed after walking or driving into ambushes, or while simply out and about on the streets going about their morning routine. Over and over there is some variation of someone driving toward a few parked cars, oblivious to the danger, and being killed when the Hamas terrorists open fire on them from the side of the road. The murdered Israelis, whom I hope died before really understanding what was happening, are then dragged out of their cars, shot again just to be sure, and often have their phones and other valuables taken. In at least one instance, the Hamas men get into one of the cars and drive away with it. I don’t know if that’s to replace a damaged Hamas vehicle or simply because it was a nice enough car.
It's hard to state how total the surprise seems to have been. I've promised you to mostly spare you blow-by-blow descriptions of what I saw, but I feel as though I have to make an exception here. One video shows a large number of young Israeli women, dressed (barely dressed, to be blunt) in bed clothes and pyjamas, being confined in a large room. Some of them seem to have kept their cellphones and are recording or texting. There are sounds of explosions nearby and the women are terrified, but mostly keeping it together, providing each other comfort and support. A single terrorist is visible in the doorway, cradling a rifle and keeping an eye on the women, who are huddled all together in the far opposite corner. The Israeli official at the briefing explained that these were female soldiers, taken captive when the headquarters they were assigned to was captured early in the attack.
Taken captive in their bed clothes. Tiny shorts and tank tops, light PJs with colourful patterns. A few were in uniform, but most seem to have been asleep when Hamas hit their base, catching them unarmed and barely even dressed. I don't know what became of these women. I don't know why there were no male Israeli POWs in the video, though I can hazard a guess. I do know that someone will have to answer for that kind of failure when this is all over. Those girls never had a chance. How the hell does that happen?
The Israeli official at the briefing explained that these were female soldiers, taken captive when the headquarters they were assigned to was captured early in the attack. Taken captive in their bed clothes. Tiny shorts and tank tops, light PJs with colourful patterns.
Many of the videos shown for us on Monday depict the attack on the music festival. These videos were not the most graphic, but I found them among the most upsetting. Many of the attendees were able to capture and share some videos of what they went through. The events there seemed to have moved slowly, probably due to the sprawling size of the venue, meaning they had time to take and send the videos, but also to realize what was happening and become afraid.
They were right to be afraid. It was a killing field. There wasn't much shelter to be found. The terrain was flat, with not many natural obstacles to hide behind. There was a row of porta-potties, and a Hamas terrorist took time to punch one rifle round through each door; a later photo shows what appears to be those same porta-potties, the doors now open, and one of them splattered with blood, with more pooled on the floor. I guess someone had been hiding inside that one.
Some people escaped by running early enough and fast enough, but many were wounded or slowed by helping the wounded, and a great many seem to have been either gunned down as they ran or were captured trying to hide amid what little cover was available. In one of the most gutting moments of the presentation, a wounded man seems close to escaping, hiding behind a car. (The scene was captured by a dashboard camera in the parking lot.) Hamas terrorists find a different man and march him off and out of the frame, but our wounded man pulls himself slowly almost out of sight. Just when you think he may have escaped notice, a terrorist walks into the frame, casually walks up to the man and shoots him twice with a rifle at point-blank range. Then he wanders off.
There's more. A dumpster seems to have been turned into an improvised shelter by many of the young adults present, and they had time to realize they were in trouble. Many are hurt and bloody. Some are calling out to their mothers and fathers. Then Hamas men find them, and start dragging them away to pickup trucks. They shove as many into the beds as possible and leave with them. Many of them were wounded, all of them were shocked. And as I wrote in an earlier column about this, you don't need to know that much history to know that the sight of Jews being packed tightly into vehicles that will carry them off to their likely deaths is going to ring an awfully grim bell for Jewish people all over the world.
There’s more from the music festival, but the point is made, I think. Many of the clips that follow show what emergency responders found when they began arriving at the sites that had been attacked, after the army had secured the area. There is no pleasant way to say what I'm about to tell you, so I'll just have to say it: you can tell that many of these videos are a number of hours or even days after these people died because the bodies are beginning to change colour and bloat as decomposition begins. (Recent coverage from Israel has recounted how Israeli medical examiners are still working through the carnage of a month ago, due to the sheer number of bodies and body parts that need examination.) Some of these scenes are full of truly appalling sights, including, I sincerely hate having to report, the bodies of women that are nude below the waist and with shirts pulled up, exposing their chests, their legs left spread apart. Many other bodies, including some very small ones, have been burned, sometimes not completely.
These scenes are being documented for the evidence. And a series of photos shows some of the medical examinations, including of more children than I wish to recount. In some cases the bodies are so destroyed it's hard to really tell what they had been. All that’s left is a mass of pulverized viscera or remains burnt into little more than carbonized ash. But sometimes you can tell they were kids because of the pyjamas. I saw a pair of Mickey Mouse PJs wrapped around something that was otherwise pretty unrecognizable and that was probably the hardest moment for me on Monday. My kids used to have PJs a lot like those.
There was also a moment during the briefing on Monday where I felt a strange kind of kinship with the cameraman. He's identified only as a first responder, and the footage is from his body worn camera. (You can tell by his shadow that he was armed with a rifle, so I assume he was a police officer.) It depicts him arriving at the scene of the music festival. He's approaching what looks like a pretty standard beer tent — a place to get a cold drink, a meal and some shade. As the first responder is approaching, he's talking, presumably into a radio, relaying information back to someone unidentified. He reports that he sees a body. And another body. And then another and another and another. Then many. It's a terrible scene, and you can hear tension and fear in his voice, but he's calm. Collected. On-mission. He's doing his job and relaying the info back to his colleagues or commanders. He's also quietly calling out to anyone who might be there. Asking for signs of life. Offering help. Begging people to show him they're alive and need rescue.
But when he gets to the edge of the tent and peers over the counter of the bar, he lets out this little strangled noise. I've been thinking about it for hours and I don't really know how to describe it. He starts rattling off what he's seeing and, just for a moment, his composure broke and he lets out the sound. A sigh? A gasp? A curse? Some tortured combination of all three?
You have to remember, because the camera is body worn, we're seeing it as he sees it. And the sound he makes is in reaction to what he sees when he gets to the beer tent and finds the bodies. So many bodies. A dozen? Twenty? More? It was more than I could take in, everywhere. So many of them that they are stacked in piles. I don't know if they were gunned down in a group and landed that way, or if Hamas fastidiously stacked the corpses of their victims, but it's bodies. Corpses, laying where they fell. It's all that he can see. "Everyone is dead," he reports, or words to that effect. "The stage is full of dead people," he yells — again, that might not be exact, but words close to that. I couldn't take down notes fast enough to get the words precisely right, but the sound I remember perfectly, because even though I basically held it together for the entire presentation, I'm pretty sure that at the moment he gets to the beer tent and sees the corpses piled up in huge pools of congealed blood, I made the exact same sound that he did. The poor man regains his composure and begins checking the bodies before him, moving from victim to victim, looking to render aid. But there’s no one to help.. "She's dead,” he says, almost to himself. “She's dead ... she's dead too ... " You can hear his despair.
There's more I could tell you. But again, you've probably read summaries already, and I think that if I tried to go much further, I'd just be repeating what you’ve already read elsewhere. I've tried above to include details that I hadn't seen in other reports — littler things, more subtle things, that drove home the horror in ways that the sheer violence didn't always manage to do. The barrage of death and murder was relentless and impossible to take in. It was easier, at least for me, to focus on the other details: the total surprise, the night clothes worn by the captured women, the cups on the patio tables. The dog that reminded me of my long-dead mutt. These details, for me, didn't distract from the violence. It amplified it. It made it more real. They were all the tiny details your mind can't imagine and that you'd be forgiven for forgetting. That's why I tried to take as many notes as I could. It was too much, too fast. I hope the details help make it more real for you. They did for me.
To end, I want to make two points.
The first thing might seem like a complete curveball, so please bear with me a moment. Today is not only one month since the attack in Israel, it's also one week since Halloween in North America. Halloween was supposed to be a day when The Line published two columns, one each by Jen Gerson and myself, marking one of our favourite holidays. We did this last year and had a lot of fun with them — and the readers seemed to like them, too. But as Halloween approached this year, the very idea seemed ghastly. How the hell could we talk about scary movies and cheap thrills against the backdrop of these real-life horror shows? The footage from Israel, in many cases, so closely tracks with scenes from many horror films because both tap into a very primal fear: the monster is in the house. That's basically the structure of half of the horror movies you've ever seen, right? The terror of an enemy that can't be negotiated with, or bargained with or reasoned with, that will laugh while they hurt you, because it's fun. And that enemy isn't far away, he's right there, in your garden or your living room, coming through the windows to get you, dragging you out to die. This is a very primal, visceral kind of terror, and while I've traditionally enjoyed a good slasher flick with a bag of popcorn, especially around Halloween, I think it's going to be a long time, a very long time before I can ever look at one as entertainment again. The screams I heard on Monday weren't fake. The monsters at the door weren't actors in a lot of latex. These monsters were real.
The second point I want to make is about bravery. I shared some of my early reactions to what I saw on Twitter on Monday, and many people very kindly and generously commended me for my bravery in subjecting myself to that awful video. And I know that's meant well. I really do. And I appreciate it, as the kindness it is intended as. But I showed up in a room in a nice downtown building and I got a briefing. A lot of what I saw was awful, and yes, this stuff absolutely takes a toll on a person. These horrors are just part of me now; it’s poison in my soul that will never go away. But … I just showed up and watched and listened. I knew I was going home at the end. So don’t rush to pin any medals on me, friends. Any bravery I showed on Monday is the very lowest rung on the ladder of courage, and I can say this because a lot of what I saw in those films, though awful, was brave. It was courageous.
I saw people dragging their wounded friends to safety, often being killed in the attempt. I watched captured female soldiers hugging each other, keeping each other calm and safe, fighting to keep contagious panic at bay. I saw a man fleeing the music fest along with a badly wounded woman, keeping his voice calm and soothing as he reassured her that he’d find her help.
And I saw a dad carrying his youngest son into a shelter, his final act before he's killed by a grenade and then shot a few times for good measure.
I want to end by talking about this family. I've left it until now on purpose. If you'd read anything about the media briefing, you'd probably read about this section of the video, because it's probably the most viscerally shocking. It's a dad and two young boys. The dad gets the boys into a shelter but he can't get the door closed and he's killed by a tossed grenade and then shot when he crumples to the ground. The boys wander out. One of them, the smaller one, is badly wounded. He seems to have lost an eye to the grenade's shrapnel — the video is mercifully not clear enough to show that in too much detail, but he's telling his older brother that he can't see out of that eye. They discuss their father being dead while a Hamas terrorist stands in their kitchen, a few feet away, pilfering their fridge for a cold drink. The terrorist casually offers them some food and drink, and leaves when they decline. The boys talk to each other about how their father is dead. "It's not a prank, he's dead," one says to the other. “I know, I saw,” the other agrees.
Seeing that moment was the part of Monday's briefing that I had most feared. That's what I was afraid would break me. I'd read all about it in basically every account of the presentation. And good God, it was awful. I had to take a break writing this part of the column to have myself a good sobbing fit because this is just about the worst thing I have ever seen.
But there was something I hadn't read anywhere else: after their father’s killer stops raiding the fridge and leaves, the older brother grabs a bottle of water and tries to give his younger brother first aid. He tries cleaning out his bloody shrapnel wounds with what supplies he has on hand.
That is bravery. That is courage. Not showing up to watch a video. But being a kid, standing there in your underwear, keeping your wits about you just moments after your dad is murdered before your eyes, and having the presence of mind to grab a bottle of water and do what you can to help your injured little brother.
I hope those kids are okay. They'll go onto great things, I think. So long as Hamas didn't kill come back later and kill them. I’d love to tell you that didn’t happen, but as of this time, the fate of those two young boys isn’t publicly known.
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