newsIsrael at War

Death, destruction, debris mark borderline kibbutz communities near Gaza

Kibbutz Kfar Aza is a silent museum of human and physical destruction, whose tableau of carnage is testimony to the hours-long attack that gutted this once-serene place.

A single photograph of a couple remains on the wall of a bullet-riddled home in Kfar Aza in southern Israel after Hamas terrorists rampaged through the community on Oct. 7, murdering families and taking civilians hostage, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.
A single photograph of a couple remains on the wall of a bullet-riddled home in Kfar Aza in southern Israel after Hamas terrorists rampaged through the community on Oct. 7, murdering families and taking civilians hostage, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Israel—The stench of death fills the air.  The signs of carnage and destruction are all around.

Ten days after Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip carried out the most lethal assault on Israel in the last half-century, two border-area Israeli communities remain the scene of the wanton horror that struck on Oct. 7, a Shabbat morning and on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, indelibly changing the face of the modern-day State of Israel forever.  

The surprise attack led to the murders of at least 1,400 Israelis, wounding thousands and resulting in about 200 people being taken hostage and dragged into the Gaza Strip. It exhibited a colossal intelligence failure that many are comparing to the infamous Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Yet the attack on the crisp fall morning 10 days ago was entirely different in that it was directed primarily at civilians, who bore the brunt of a heretofore unimagined barbarity that remains on display in these borderline communities.

Remnants of a home in Kfar Aza in southern Israel after Hamas terrorists rampaged through the community on Oct. 7, murdering families and taking civilians hostage, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

A tableau of carnage

Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which means “Gaza village” in English, was previously a bucolic stretch of green in the southern desert with a school and a synagogue—home to about 1,000 residents. It is now a silent museum of destruction whose tableau of carnage is testimony to the hours-long attack that gutted this once-serene place.

An eerie silence filled the air on Tuesday, with residents now all gone, punctured only by the thunderous booms of explosions rocking the Gaza Strip.

Walking through the communal farm is a trial to the mind and eyes. There is a fallen paraglider and a bullet-filled half-demolished vehicle that the terrorists used in their attack, where they stopped right outside the kibbutz kindergarten. The doors of many of the stucco homes have been blown from their hinges by terrorists using rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles, while throughout the town torched cars are riddled with bullets, leading to an even worse path of destruction.

Doors and outer walls of what used to be a row of neatly kept homes of young couples are blasted wide open. Inside, complete and utter destruction: The blackened skeletal remains of the houses that were set afire, often to goad the residents out to be captured, are virtually all that remain. In others, mattresses and inner household walls spattered with blood. Everywhere is the omnipresent smell of death.

More horror to meet the eye: a baby’s stroller and children’s toys overturned in the courtyard; clothing strewn on the floor outside; plastic chairs turned upside down; burnt and blackened scooters, tractors and motorbikes laying as lifeless as the village itself minus the now-heavy military presence. In one house, all that remained was a picture of a smiling couple on the wall.

‘Nothing less than a genocide’

“I cannot express in words the scene of Jewish soldiers collecting the burnt bones of their own brothers and sisters,” said Col. Golan Vach, commander of the search-and-rescue team in a briefing to a group of foreign ambassadors and Israeli parliamentarians.

Vach, who has rescued people trapped around the world from earthquakes over the last two decades, including most recently 19 Turks after that country’s recent natural disaster, said he has never witnessed such barbarity in all his service. “In all my years, I have never witnessed such willful evil both to intentionally slaughter, massacre and humiliate,” he said. “It’s not a battlefield. It’s a massacre.”

He described young girls and boys shot in the head, girls raped—some concentrated in groups and burned.

In this kibbutz alone, about 70 people were killed in the hours-long onslaught, while others have been kidnapped to Gaza, according to tentative figures.

“When we say never again talking about the Holocaust, what we see here is nothing less than a genocide,” said Knesset member Sharren Haskel, who organized the cross-party visit of lawmakers, as well as the ambassadors from Chile and Paraguay; the deputy ambassador of Spain; and the Consul of the Czech Republic.

In the next block of homes, the chilling scene of destruction continues. Vach explained that the decapitated remains of a soldier were found in front of one of the destroyed homes with his head missing, taken by the terrorists as a trophy back to Gaza.

Just ahead, looking out at northern Gaza, the gate that once protected residents had been blasted open.

It was in these very fields that Ofir Libstein, mayor of the nearby Sha’ar HaNegev community, had dreamed of creating a joint industrial area with his Palestinian neighbors, Haskel said. On Saturday morning, he was gunned down outside his home—his dream and visions of peaceful relations obliterated, like his very life.

Israeli soldiers stand guard in Kfar Aza in southern Israel after Hamas terrorists rampaged through the community on Oct. 7, murdering families and taking civilians hostage, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

‘Children without parents, parents without children’

Aviva Fold, a 70-year-old survivor from another local community, Netiv Ha’asara, recounted how her daughter-in-law stuffed her grandchildren in the closet of the sealed room and put a blanket over them, instructing them only to come out when they heard their names called. Her other son was afraid that he would choke his 3-year-old son as he cupped his mouth from crying.

“We are trying to deal in a Western mindset with a Middle Eastern environment,” said Eran Casher, a 46-year first responder from Netiv HaAsara. “It is not a territorial dispute,” Haskel notes, “but a clash of civilizations.”

“I am not fully aware why I am still alive,” said Jaim Jellin, 65 of the nearby Kibbutz Be’eri, a 10-minute drive from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which lost an estimated 10% of its 1,000 residents.

A native of Argentina who moved to Israel in 1976, he briefed the dignitaries in Spanish. “I cannot describe what happened here: it is like the Shoah. “This is not [just] the Hamas we knew, this is ISIS.”

He said entire families were mowed down in the Oct. 7 terror spree.

“There are parents without children; children without parents,” he said. 

A 6-month-old baby was shot in the head as his father held him and then he too was killed, Jelin said, while a geriatric in a wheelchair was gunned down.

As tanks and APC carriers rolled down the narrow street with reserve soldiers dressed in full battle gear,  it seemed that it was often pure chance which homes were attacked, with some destroyed and charred and others, sometimes next door,  left untouched.  

A dental clinic, like the other buildings and homes, is now marked bomb-free and cleared of bodies by the IDF, as magazines of Kalashnikov weapons, and an overturned helmet lay on the ground outside. The kibbutz dining hall was a scene of carnage; the fate of 50 residents taken hostage is an account that is still to be told, he said.

On the front door of one completely gutted house at Kibbutz Kfar Aza there remains a picture of a flower and a root, along with the word “to grow.”

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