ZAKA personnel and Israeli soldiers at the forensic center in the Shura military base near Ramle, where hundreds of dead bodies arrived after Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre, Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
ZAKA personnel and Israeli soldiers at the forensic center in the Shura military base near Ramle, where hundreds of dead bodies arrived after Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre, Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
featureOctober 7

‘They unloaded bodies from the car, like in the Holocaust’

Dr. Gedalya Fandel, who set up a medical station in southern Israel on Oct. 7, recalls dramatic moments from the massacre.

The background sounds of this interview are mind-boggling. The constant chirping of birds in the air, the parrots in the large cage at the front door singing and a kind of silence that you can actually hear, only occasionally interrupted by a distant explosion. It is hard to imagine that in the courtyard of the quiet house in Moshav Shuva, the Fandel family ran a private rescue operation, which became the first stop where survivors of the Oct. 7 massacre met kind eyes, a game of rummy, toast and flip-flops.

While the mother of the family, Merav, managed the home command—in the front, on the road leading to the moshav, the father of the family, doctor Gedalya Fandel, set up and managed an improvised emergency room. He called me, a childhood friend from Sderot, to tell the untold story, six months after the events, and described in great detail the bodies, the wounded, the shell-shocked soldiers and the children of the Idan family, whom he met moments after they were rescued from Kfar Aza.

“6:30, I woke up to the sound of Tzeva Adom (the Red Alert siren) and an insane number of booms. By chance, the whole family was sleeping in our room that night. I dressed in my nicer clothes because I was sure that they were going down to the safe room, and from there to pray in the synagogue. We ran downstairs, and Sushi (our German shepherd) was already inside. We had just returned to live in Shuva, after 18 months in Eilat. Our younger children did not remember the sirens and the older ones were still traumatized from the previous attacks. After 10 minutes of being in the safe room, I went out to the patio and saw the entire display in front of me, in a direct line to Gaza. I saw the missiles that were fired towards the center of the country and Sderot and the Iron Dome. I realized that this time the situation was serious. Then I started hearing non-stop gunfire as if it was from our garden, and rockets whistled over the house. I took our children outside and told them, ‘Look, these are our planes. Don’t be afraid.'”

At this point, WhatsApp messages started giving fragments of information from the attack. The images from Sderot looked like science fiction to him. His brother-in-law called and offered his family to travel to Samaria. In retrospect, they were saved from driving on the bloody road connecting Sderot to the otef communities [those surrounding the Gaza Strip], where Hamas terrorists were running rampant. Later in the morning, when the pace of alarms allowed, Fandel went outside.

“I am a member of the moshav’s first-response team, but I haven’t got a weapon,” he said. “Because they were more afraid of burglaries than of the security risk. I went out to the main road and met two other friends who had guns. They were leaning on a Tesla. I offered them cake and a drink [this was Simchat Torah morning] and then I realized that they had not been updated and did not know what was happening. They were just guarding the gate of the moshav from afar.

“I told them that villages here had been invaded. They looked at me in shock and disbelief. I told them that they had no reason to be on the road. ‘You’ll die first,’ I said. ‘You have to go up to the roofs.’ Then I joined the team that was hiding in the orchards at the end of the moshav, towards Alumim, to detect if anyone was coming. I told Merav, ‘You lock yourself in the safe room. No one goes in or out, and you hold the handle securely.’

“Rumors of the battles and the massacre that took place only minutes away from our moshav, at Re’im, Be’eri, Kfar Azza and Sderot, started coming in, and members of our first-response team tightened their guard. There were rumors that they were coming to Zimrat (the moshav next to us) and that there was a clash near Tekuma. They were also on the road on their way to us, but were unable to get that far. While we were hiding in the trees in the orchards, one of the guys told me that he was going to have the holiday dinner with his family and gave me his gun. He didn’t understand what was going on.”

Gedalya repeats his understanding at that time of the sense of emergency, unlike the others who were with him.

“We were actually watching the road from outside the moshav, opposite a round mirror,” he continued. “When we saw a vehicle coming, we tried to spot it first, and you must understand, every vehicle had drawn weapons. Soldiers in private cars. We were all wearing Shabbat clothes, so it was easy to identify.”

Meeting point

Considering a possible infiltration, members of the first response team received a report of two terrorists approaching the moshav, and they were ready.

“I messaged a friend from Moshav Shokeda and asked for weapons. He replied, ‘Bro, we are without anything.’ The same happened with a friend from Kfar Maimon. There was a crazy sense of helplessness. A moment later, a car with soldiers passed by. We heard gunshots and realized that there had been a shooting encounter and that the threat had been removed. Then I got a phone call: ‘Gedalya, we are coming to get you. The wounded and dead have started arriving at the junction.'”

Q: Who called?

“A member of the first-response team. Together with another doctor, we left the moshav and drove to the junction. It was scary, but we still didn’t understand the magnitude of the event.”

Q: Why were the wounded sent specifically to you?

A: “We were actually the first intersection that was free of terrorists. There were clashes in Sa’ad, Re’im and Be’eri; Alumim was in the middle. They started arriving in ambulances and private vehicles, and they didn’t stop coming. The dead, wounded, shell-shocked. We started treating them even though we did not have enough equipment, with an unorganized military force, on the road outside the moshav. At some point, my wife took out all my medical equipment, and I asked one of the neighbors to bring me my stethoscope. Later, the Ihud Hatzala [United Hatzala] team arrived and brought more equipment, and a military force also joined our location.”

Q: So you actually became the first-response emergency room for the kibbutzim and moshavim?

A: “I don’t know what to call it. A field hospital. There is just no definition. We are doctors, and a nurse came from the moshav and we started treating everyone who came to us. At first, there were mostly soldiers with all kinds of injuries. There was a young soldier who was shot in the testicles and was considered lightly wounded, and Thais with injuries and bruises. They were insanely thin and you could see a broken rib from the outside. It was crazy. There was an immense number of gunshot wounds, abdominal injuries, and the dead. A badly burned body was brought from Alumim. A vehicle arrived with a trailer with corpses on it. They dumped the bodies next to us in piles, just like in the Holocaust.”

Q: What do you mean? They just unloaded bodies near you?

A: “Dozens of bodies. I couldn’t count, but we moved them all to the ditch next to the road, considering two options: that we needed the place on the road to treat the casualties, and also that there were many shell-shocked soldiers and we didn’t want them to see the bodies. At some point, people understood that I was managing the intersection and people turned to me. There was someone from the army who was managing the soldiers and became a registrar for them, registering who was coming and with what injuries. In the early evening, a bus full of soldiers arrived at the intersection, and when they opened the trunk, we started pulling out the bodies. It was unbelievable!”

Local election signs were hanging on the sides of the intersection, on the fences. Fandel picked them up and covered the bodies piled up on the sides of the road with them.

Q: Were all the injured and dead young?

A: “Yes. Young soldiers. Do you want me to tell you to what extent we didn’t understand the magnitude of the event? In the beginning, the wounded soldiers arrived, and I was still trying to joke with them—’Oh, you 800 fools [a nickname for the 890th paratroopers’ battalion], if you were the 101 battalion, you would have managed to finish.’ But I couldn’t make them smile. I could generally break the ice with my sense of humor, but I only saw frozen faces and I didn’t understand what was going on. A severely injured man arrived who needed to be evacuated with a doctor, and I accompanied him. We boarded the ambulance with three other seriously wounded people, one of them was on a respirator, and they told me, ‘Don’t treat us; treat him.’ We got to the Heletz intersection via Sderot, where I met more ambulances and a doctor who evacuated them to hospitals. Then I returned to Shuva.”

Q: Didn’t you know that the roads were full of terrorists?

A: “The roads were open and the scenes were terrible. Bodies on the road, burned vehicles, an overturned baby carriage, booster seats thrown out of the cars. There were very difficult sights at the Sha’ar HaNegev intersection. Further down, there were wounded people lying on the road. I tried to work out if they were ours or Hamas’s, but I just told the ambulance driver, ‘Go, go.’ I received reports of a police car that had been hijacked and was driving on the roads, and I started understanding the scenario a little more. I arrived at the intersection with an anesthetist. I told them that we had a bigger place at Shuva and that they should move there. It was already 4:00 p.m.

‘The first eyes I saw’

Gedalya is the son of Rabbi David Fandel, head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Sderot, but he did not speak to his family throughout the day.

“I didn’t call them, but I was very worried. My sister-in-law was there a week after giving birth, with a baby I had personally circumcised. They were all at the yeshiva. If the terrorists had arrived an hour later, it would have been disastrous. There would have been parades with families and strollers and children running around. Do you remember what it’s like? It could have been a crazy massacre. They didn’t even get to the yeshiva. Maybe they thought they were on vacation. The IDF also called me sometime during the day, and I told them, ‘Listen, there’s what to do here. There is no reason for me to come to you.”

Fandel describes the events of that bloody day in the first person, naturally, but he had many partners in the assistance that he provided.

“I remember there was a shell-shocked man, who was completely frozen. He looked at me and couldn’t talk. I didn’t know what to do with him. I picked up the phone and called my brother-in-law, who is a mental-health officer at the Ir Habahadim IDF base in the Negev. I gave my phone to the soldier. I put it on speaker, and from his house, he started treating soldiers suffering from shell shock. In retrospect, I found out that it was very important to try to get them treatment as quickly as possible. He gave them instructions—sit on the road, check that there are no terrorists, all sorts of irrelevant tasks. I clearly remember my feeling of helplessness in dealing with them. And no one could give them attention, because there were other injured soldiers, with bleeding wounds.”

Throughout the day there were three to four doctors at the intersection, including Gedalya, nurse Shira from the moshav, a military team, Ihud Hatzala and paramedics who came and went in ambulances. The entire area was a moving stage setting of wounded and dead bodies. An ambulance arrived, stopped at the entrance to the moshav, made a turn inside Shuva and returned to find more wounded.

Q: Where did the wounded come from?

A: “From Kfar Aza, from Alumim, from the roads. During the evening, different types of injured started coming to us. Now they were civilians, injured and not-injured. I remember six undercover policemen who came to the intersection; they were scared. These were Ministry of Defense personnel who worked in Kfar Azza. They were locked in the safe room for the entire event and they were very frustrated. They were top combat fighters and they were locked up and couldn’t get out. One of them said to me, ‘Gedalya, you don’t understand what is going on there. You’ve got nothing here. You are not keeping up with it. Get more equipment. You have no idea what’s going on there. You have no idea what’s going on there … .’ Throughout the day the injured were evacuated from the intersection by ambulance, or in urgent cases, by evacuation helicopters that constantly landed in the field nearby.

“In the evening, residents from Be’eri started coming. I remember the first man who came, Yitzhak. In retrospect, this was the most exciting event I had that day. He told me he was from Be’eri, and I responded, ‘I’m so happy to see you; I was sure you were all murdered. To see a citizen leaving Be’eri healthy, in one piece and without an injury was crazy. I gave him a hug and water. He was 72 years old. He came with his wife, Aliza. They were both barefoot. They had nothing with them. I took one of the guys aside and told him to take them to my house.”

I took a gun from one of the dead

This was the stage when the Fandel family home became a rear-guard station under Merav’s command. More and more survivors from Be’eri poured into the house—soldiers who needed rest and two children, shortly after their parents were murdered and their sister was taken hostage to Gaza. Gedalya, who was still at the entrance to the moshav, screened who would go to hospital and who would go to rest and recover at his home.

“A woman who was shot in the upper body arrived in one of the ambulances. Two months later, I met her in a hotel and she told me, ‘You were the first eyes that noticed me, that looked into my eyes.’ She wanted to go with her friend in the ambulance, but the driver refused. Finally, we managed to convince him.

“She told me, ‘My husband was killed right in front of me, and my girlfriend is the only person I have left. I’m not leaving her.'”

A bit later, Sapir, 40 weeks pregnant, and Ofir, her concerned partner, came to him, both after hours in the safe room in Be’eri, without food or water.

“She said, ‘I haven’t felt movement since this morning, almost 12 hours. We had half a bottle of Sprite for six people. I need to get to hospital.’ It was her first child, and she was suffering from anxiety. There was a big argument between me and the ambulance crew. I told them that she was not leaving and that she needed chocolate and a warm bed.”

Q: Actually, why not evacuate her?

A: “She was healthy, and I understood what was going on in the hospitals at that time. There was overload and difficult scenes. She was already in the ambulance when I told her that if she were my wife, this is what I would offer her. She immediately got out of the ambulance and I sent them to my house. My four children were amazing and helped Merav treat everyone who came there. They served water and food we had prepared for Simchat Torah. Two soldiers whose vehicle was shot at also arrived. They were basically dysfunctional, and they slept at us for three or four nights until they regained their strength. Sapir and Ofir later had a daughter, and they named her Arbel. Our two families, whose destinies were linked, became friends, as we did with Yitzhak and Aliza.”

Later in the evening, journalist Ilana Curiel came to the Shuva Junction with the two children of the Idan family, who witnessed the murder of their parents. An episode in the TV news-feature series “Uvda” told of their experiences that day, but here, for the first time, Gedalya describes what happened during their first hours at his family’s home.

“Sometime later, two sweet children, 9-year-old Michael and 6-year-old Amalia, came to me at the intersection, together with Ilana Curiel. I got into the car and asked them, ‘How are you?’ They said, ‘We are hungry.’ I immediately shouted out, ‘Bring some candy!’ I also asked Ilana if she knew if they were allowed candy at night.

“But then they said, ‘We’re hungry. We didn’t eat dinner because our Mom and Dad died, and we don’t know how to make dinner by ourselves. We were supposed to go to Grandma and Grandpa, but our Mom and Dad died and we don’t know how to drive,'” he recalls, choking back tears. “It was the first time I cried that day. I also sent them to Merav and the children. I thought it was a correct decision that they should not travel on the roads, and that it would be good for them to meet other children. Amalia’s dress was totally stained with blood.

“When they got to us, the children were sure that their sister, Avigail, had been killed. They went into the safe room here. Together with another neighbor who came to help, our children made them tell the story again and again, because that is what should be done. To this day, they can’t hear it again. But in real-time, the adults played rummy and cards with them, and my daughter, Ahava, put polish on Amalia’s nails.”

Gedaliah recalls the story of a family that became Israeli heroes in the massacre of that black day. He fills in the missing details from the hours that passed until the children’s uncle came to pick them up.

“We quickly sent messages on the moshav groups that we were looking for the most beautiful dress because Ilana said that Amalia wouldn’t wear anything less than perfect. We brought a dress from the neighbors that she liked, clothes for Michael, and size 46 shoes for 72-year-old Yitzhak and his wife. We brought someone to talk to Sapir, who was pregnant. Michael and Amelia left here during the night, and the two couples stayed with us until morning.”

Only at around 1 a.m., the medical staff at the intersection began to feel that the pressure was easing, and Gedalya and another doctor named Shlomo went to help at Be’eri.

“We arrived in Be’eri, and there the disaster continued: wounded people coming out of houses and gunshots all the time. We evacuated the wounded and brought out two corpses of soldiers. Just before that, the army criticized me for walking around without a flak jacket and gun. I took a gun from one of the dead people. I used that same gun during my reserve duty in Gaza, for almost 150 days.

“From there we returned to Shuva, and dead bodies and wounded continued to arrive, as well as helicopters to evacuate them. I saw that Ihud Hatzala had started to close things up, and I asked Shlomo where he was going. I did not feel safe staying there alone. I didn’t know what was due to come. He told me that the army had left and that they couldn’t stay without an army. It was 2:30 in the morning, and I decided to look for the army. Someone said that there were many soldiers at the Sa’ad junction. I searched for the deputy brigade commander. I was very angry, and shouted at him, ‘You brought me the wounded and left, I can’t work like this. He told me that if I find a place where there is no risk of being run over, and there is somewhere to hide from Qassams, without being exposed to the public eye, he would send a force.”

Gedalya was on his feet, functioning for hours and hours, until Sunday morning, thanks to what he calls “hyperactivity,” which also served him well inside Gaza during the first weeks of the war. He used that innate energy during the middle of the night to transfer stretchers and medical equipment, and also to bring coffee and cakes, a contribution from the local residents, to the inner road leading to the moshav, where today stands a station providing food and drink for soldiers going to and returning from Gaza. It wasn’t long before the military force arrived and with it also Ihud Hatzala volunteers.

As we pass the intersection, after Gedalya shows me the trench where they laid the murdered and the place where the stretchers for the dozens of wounded were placed for hours on Oct. 7, we also pass the station providing food and drink for soldiers. There is nothing left there of the emergency room, the stretchers and dead bodies, but he promises to establish a commemorative site for those who were murdered, and in memory of the rescue operations that were carried out there for the many whose lives were saved.

Q: Do you see the situation from the outside during your working day?

A: “No. Everyone says I need therapy and to this day I haven’t had time to process what I experienced. I say I didn’t experience it, and it’s annoying to say that. Maybe it’s not true either. Towards morning, the injured stopped coming and it became safer on the roads. I came home and everyone was in the living room. Merav packed up some stuff, and we left. Everyone got into our car—Sapir and Ofir, Yitzhak and Aliza, four children, Merav and Sushi the dog. Yahel, the 11-year-old, prepared a hospital bag for Sapir on his own.”

And now, to Gaza

9 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 8. The Fandel family and Be’eri survivors left for Timna. On the way, Gedalya’s phone rang.

“They said to me, ‘Gedalya, I understand that you were in charge of the intersection. You left bodies here. What do we do with them?’ It was surreal. I said, ‘Call Zaka? How should I know?’ I even called the Military Rabbinate afterwards to find out.”

They dropped off their travel companions at the train station in Beersheva and proceeded to a particularly warm welcome that awaited them in Timna. Gedalya, as a member of the first response team, had plans to return to Shuva, but not before loading his car with food, courtesy of the kibbutz, who sent food for the soldiers he would meet on the way.

“I stayed here until I was drafted and kept watch on the roof with night-vision equipment that I got from the army. I slept here on the roof at night. I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and process everything until that moment. To this day, even Merav doesn’t know what happened. After that, when I would occasionally return from Gaza and see the stories on TV, I would say, ‘What is my story compared to theirs? During the first weeks, we were really in ‘survival mode,’ and there was no time to talk. Then, I participated in a two-day military doctor’s course, and I went into Gaza.

As if the first weeks were not intense enough, Gedalya rushed forward into battle in the Gaza Strip.

“I asked to go in, to be inside as much as possible. I was offered a Golani Merkava tank and I said it wasn’t enough. I was sent to tanks. I saw the tank. It’s almost impossible to be in a tank corridor. They told me that seven doctors were already here and backed out. It gave me a push and I said, ‘I’m small and compact. I can do it.’ We were among the first forces to enter northern Gaza.

“The first days of fighting were the most intense. The company commander was hit by mortar shrapnel that penetrated his jaw. Within 30 seconds, we were next to him, and another soldier managed to pull him into the tank. I gave him first aid. Then there was more mortar fire, with Yedidya Eliyahu who was killed and two wounded soldiers from the engineering unit that we treated.”

Q: Wasn’t there a point at which Merav told you to come home, or rather, to the hotel where the evacuees were sent?

A: “All the time. But then, every time just before I was about to leave Gaza, she called and said, ‘Keep going. We can cope.'”

Gedalya wants the story of the intersection and the rescue to be part of the battle legacy of the Otef communities: “Just as people come to hear the story of Be’eri and Sderot, we must all know the story of the Shuva intersection.” This interview is the first step, and in the coming months, he will continue to spread his personal story, and that of the others who participated in the rescue of so many on that Shabbat, in order to incorporate it into Israeli heritage.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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