KIBBUTZ BE’ERI, Israel—Hours after Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel, Col. Golan Vach arrived at the Be’eri kibbutz to evacuate residents.
“What I saw here was not only murder,” he said Saturday as he returned to the heavily damaged community near the Gaza border a week later.
“It was humiliation.”
A collection of bungalows and farmland in the Negev Desert, Be’eri was the site of one of worst massacres of the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion.
Among the more than 100 dead Israelis were white-haired elders, whom Col. Vach said were shot in the street and then smashed in the face with heavy objects.
To Col. Vach, who showed Global News photos he took on his phone to back up his account, the excess of the Hamas violence was telling.
It was evidence that what happened was not just an armed incursion by resistance fighters, as Hamas and its supporters have said. Rather, it was a statement.
The same was apparent elsewhere in Be’eri, and has been reported in other areas that Hamas targeted, including the Nir Oz kibbutz 30 kilometres away.
After Nir Oz came under attack, Shay Shimoni began exchanging messages with her mother, a kibbutz resident. The last message came at 6:50 a.m.
Ten minutes later, a video appeared on her mother’s Facebook page. It showed Shimoni’s mother lying on her back in her living room with blood around her head.
A gunman stood over her, pointing his rifle down at her. The family showed the video to Global News on the grounds it was only for verification purposes and would not to be aired.
The screams the video elicited were captured on a phone call recording, which she replayed to Global News to convey the horror of the moment.
The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Shimoni said her mother, Bracha Levinson, believed in peace with Palestinians. She interpreted the video as a sign that Hamas was not trying to capture territory from Israel; its aim was to terrify Israelis.
“I think that means that they wanted to hurt not only the people they were killing, but the community,” she said in an interview at her apartment in Tel Aviv.
“It’s a terrorist attack,” she said. “They were as cruel as the worst terrorists around the world.”
Hamas leaders said Friday their fighters had been instructed not to kill women and children but that Gaza civilians had crossed the border and “clashed with Israel colonial settlers.”
But CCTV video shot at Be’eri’s main gate showed what appeared to be uniformed Hamas gunmen opening fire on a civilian vehicle as it approached the kibbutz.
Video footage then showed them breaking into homes and taking women away with their hands bound behind their backs. Among those missing is Canadian Vivian Silver, 74.
She is among 120 missing, the Israeli forces said. At least some of them are believed to have been taken to Gaza, where Hamas has threatened to execute them.
On Saturday, an Israeli flag was wedged into entrance gate at Be’eri, a kibbutz founded almost 80 years ago and known for its left-leaning, pro-peace politics.
“Folks, this is still an active scene,” a soldier warned reporters waiting to enter. “There are still pieces of explosives all over the kibbutz.”
Nearby, soldiers in white chemical suits were sorting through a pile of bodies of Hamas fighters, lifting them onto stretchers and loading them into a truck.
A Hamas gunman had been found hiding inside the kibbutz just the night before, said Col. Vach, who commands the search and rescue team of the Israel Defence Forces.
A 31-year veteran of the armed forces, wearing army fatigues and a yarmulke, the colonel has worked in disaster zones, such as Turkey, following the earthquake, as well as in Lebanon and Hebron, he said.
“What we do is rescue life,” he said.
He was supposed to be speaking at a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces conference in Toronto at this very moment, he said, but the Hamas attack put an end to his travel plans.
Instead, he was revisiting Be’eri’s main street, which was lined with the wrecked vehicles of Israeli police who had come to confront Hamas but ran out of ammunition and were killed.
While Hamas had planned to lay siege to the kibbutz, the officers who lost their lives held them off long enough for troops to arrive, Col. Vach said.
Hamas gunmen took about 40 hostages to a dining hall, he said. He said he did not know if any of the captives were taken to Gaza.
The kibbutz was eventually retaken, but the civilian death toll was heavy, with about 10 per cent of the population of 1,100 killed.
Hamas may have had informants inside the kibbutz, possibly day workers, the colonel said. He said a woman told him the attackers knew where she hid her jewelry, suggesting they had inside information.
Homes in Be’eri were fire-blackened ruins, with collapsed roofs, shattered windows and walls covered with bullet holes.
Stopping outside one house, the colonel said when he arrived to evacuate the occupants, he found a woman and a baby, both dead.
The woman had been shot in the back as she tried to protect her child.
“And the baby was beheaded,” he said. “The stories of beheaded babies are true.”
He carried on through streets littered with bullet casings and stopped outside another destroyed house. A magazine cartridge lay on the ground.
He said the bodies of two couples with their hands bound were found outside the home. Another 15 bodies were inside. Eight were children, he said.
As in other sites attacked by Hamas, the bodies were grouped together and set on fire. “They concentrated them, they killed them, and they burned them,” the colonel said.
“No one survived from this house.”
Asked by a reporter if any of the victims in the house were beheaded, he responded: “Here, they were only murdered and burned.”
The colonel acknowledged the Israeli military had failed in its mission to protect its citizens but said those responsible would be held to account at the right time.
For now, he said, Israel needed to bring long-term security to the region so families could return to their homes without fear of future attacks.
He would not discuss the plans to take on Hamas in Gaza City, its base, but said those were being worked up, and he hoped it would take a long time.
“You can’t solve difficult problems fast,” he said.
Israel was expected to launch a major assault on Gaza as early as Saturday night, but the colonel pushed back against those concerned Palestinian civilians would suffer.
The IDF has been warning civilians to leave Gaza City for the south. The sound of explosions likely caused by Israeli bombardment of Gaza could be heard from the kibbutz, a reminder of mounting Palestinian civilian casualties.
“I think Israel is the most moral country in the world,” Col. Vach said. “We are attacking accurate targets. From time to time, people are injured, and we are sorry for that.”
But he said it had to be done, there was no other good option for the country. “We need to secure this region.”
The colonel walked out of the kibbutz late in the afternoon and climbed into the front passenger seat of a military SUV.
Swiping at his phone, he scrolled through the photos he had taken a week earlier, which documented how his fellow Israelis were killed.
“We will get pictures from the other side in a few weeks,” he said.