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The IDF reservists in charge of gathering information on those killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7. Photo: Eric Sultan.
The IDF reservists in charge of gathering information on those killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7. Photo: Eric Sultan.
featureIsrael at War

‘I only cried when I felt we let down families who were waiting for an answer’

Four young female IDF reservists were tasked with making sense of the chaotic data on the Oct. 7 murder and kidnapping of Israelis.

During our interview, Lt. N. received a notification on her phone. A glance was enough to see that it was another psychological warfare video from the Hamas terror organization. The footage showed hostages Noa Argamani, Yossi Sharabi and Itay Svirsky, who were kidnapped on Oct. 7. It was later announced that Sharabi and Svirsky were murdered in captivity.

The phone passes around the room and Master Sgt. Class R. exclaims, “Playing mind games with the families of the hostages. These videos are psychological warfare and an attempt to convey a message to the government, but our job is to get some more information out of them, to understand when and where the video was taken. Like with Channa Katzir—Hamas said she was dead, but she was not.”

Four women in their mid-20s are in charge of researching intelligence information about the Oct. 7 victims. Due to the classified nature of their work, their full names and photographs are prohibited from publication.

Each had finished her regular military service, but when the Gaza war broke out in the wake of the Hamas assault on Israel on Oct. 7, they were called up to new positions: They were tasked with determining the fate of the missing, whether they were alive, killed or kidnapped.

“When we were called up into reserve duty, we expected to do what we did in our regular service,” Master Sgt. H. said. “Only we very quickly realized that we were dealing with hostages and the missing. We didn’t know what the role was, it was developed and refined in the process, because this is an event that the country had not yet encountered.”

Immediately after the outbreak of the war, when chaos reigned, there was a list of 3,000 people whose fate was unclear.

The reservists visit the Gaza periphery. IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Making sense of the chaos

Master Sgt. R., 26, was preparing for the start of the school year at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva when she was called up for reserve duty. Master Sgt. H., 26, too, was preparing to study computer science and neuroscience. Capt. S., 25, was on a trip in Italy, days before she was scheduled to fly to the U.S. to study at Columbia University. Lt. N., 24, was in the U.S. with her family, celebrating completing her military service, and upon return was going to begin studying medicine.

The team first had to deal with a list of names of Israelis with whom contact had been lost.

“There was chaos,” R. recalled. “There were a lot of missing people, some of them alive, but they couldn’t be found. We had to make sure those who were alive were removed from the list. In some cases, it took a while to identify those murdered. The main focus was to find out who was taken captive.”

The team used footage from the GoPro cameras used by Hamas terrorists to document the massacre and body remnants collected by volunteers of the ZAKA Search and Rescue organization.

All four young women understood that to complete their task, they would need to not only watch but closely examine the horrific footage of the massacre. They were asked whether they would be able to cope mentally with the task, and although each agreed, they were given the possibility of stopping and assigned a mental health professional to consult.

“I had never seen a dead body before,” H. said. “I was the most scared person in the world. But I understood that this was the mission. You are doing the most important thing in the world and know that a family is waiting for an answer. We put our feelings aside and tried to look at it the way we look at any other information. One of the reasons I could handle it is because a part of me still could not grasp or believe that such a terrible thing occurred.”

R. said, “You watch the videos because you need to identify a certain person. Sometimes it’s part of the story of what happened to the hostage.”

Q: It affects one’s soul, doesn’t it? 

N.: “I focused on the fact that this was my mission, and that gave some sense of protection. You go there and dive the deepest, and you forget yourself in a way because, in the end, that is what needs to be done. We still feel the crazy dissonance between ‘I’m on the job’ and ‘I’m also a human being,’ and, of course, there are moments of breakdowns and tears.

“We worked continuously, didn’t take breaks, and in the second week, I went over material that was particularly difficult for me to watch. It was the first time I said, ‘I need air.’ And so, I stepped outside. It just hit me hard.”

Emily and Thomas Hand
Emily Hand with her father, Thomas Hand, an Irish immigrant to Israel, in Ramat Gan after being freed from nearly two months of captivity in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 25, 2023. Credit: IDF.

Nine-year-old Emily Hand

N. remembers the emotional story of Emily Hand, 9, who for a long time was thought to have been killed on Oct. 7, and whose father said, when being told Emily was dead, that it was preferable to being held captive by Hamas. Emily was eventually revealed to have been taken hostage in Gaza and was released as part of the November hostage deal.

N. broke down when she realized that Emily was in fact alive and had to inform her father. “This is the first time I remember crying.”

Most of the announcements relating to Israelis who were murdered or taken hostage were based on the hard work of the four young women.

H. “As soon as the ground operation began, a lot of physical material arrived that had been collected from inside the Gaza Strip. We went through everything. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. In some cases, we knew about hostages, but would only learn of their death weeks later.

Q: How did it feel finding out that a hostage was killed?

H.: “From the moment you realize that the person is probably dead until you can prove it with certainty—you feel the need for the issue to be concluded as quickly as possible. And when you provide the information, there is a sense of relief that now the family also knows and not just you.”

N.: “On the one hand, you feel a sense of relief and even success in the mission, but I felt at the end of every death announcement a kind of personal grief, certainly when you already know so much about the hostage. When we know for sure that someone is dead and although we don’t hold a ceremony, the team honors the murdered.”

The death of a hostage is determined by a committee of experts from the Health Ministry and the L. Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv’s Abu Kabir neighborhood and approved by the Chief Rabbinate. 

H.: “We are not authorized to determine death, but rather gather information that can testify to a hostage’s death. Some cases have been approved by the committee, while others have not.”

R.: “There are times when you understand that the person is probably dead but it is not brought to the committee if there is even the slightest doubt. Only after every possible scenario has been examined and every extra test done, to rule out a mistake, does it happen.”

When necessary, the team traveled physically to the site of the massacres. A few weeks after the outbreak of the war, they toured the ravaged communities with an IDF escort and saw with their own eyes the sites that they had seen on video.

“There was so much value to the tour,” S. said. “The soldiers walked with us on the paths, entered the homes, remembered and shared things, showed pictures they took—and that helped with our conclusions.”

What began as chaos has turned into an organized and detailed archive of information about each victim.

Some came back

November was an emotional month as several of the hostages in the archive, held in Gaza, were released as part of the captives-for-terrorists deal with Hamas.

“On the one hand, it was incredible. On the other, you knew some hostages would receive tragic news. For instance, a wife returned and we needed to inform her that her husband had been killed,” S. said.

H.: “It was a strange feeling. People who are names and images on the computer, that we know everything about, suddenly get off the bus and they are real. Every time I see Agam Goldstein-Almog [aged 17] being interviewed—I feel I know her. She is a part of me. It’s crazy.”

For N., the return of Yarden Roman-Gat [aged 35] was particularly exciting. During the period of captivity, N. met with Alon, Roman-Gat’s husband, who related what happened on Oct. 7.

“While we were talking, 3-year-old Gefen arrived, their daughter. I heard from Alon that he told her that mom got lost and they are looking for her, and you can’t help but be affected. For me, there was no way that the girl wouldn’t get her mom back, and when Yarden returned, I cried. I didn’t get to meet them, and I have a dream to meet some of the freed hostages.”

R.: “The emotional connection is inevitable. Many times, I ask if the connection aids or harms my work. If the connection gives motivation and strength—it’s good, but if it doesn’t—one needs to find a balance.”

S.: “I only cried at times when I felt we let down families who were waiting for a final answer. That we failed to give them enough. You see intelligence material in front of your eyes and cannot say with 100% certainty that it is the specific hostage.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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