A room in a Hamas-sacked house in Be’eri, Israel.PHOTO: AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES
This is about describing and showing and making things clear. In the fog of war these things are never more essential.
Here is some first-rate describing, from Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker, in a piece called “The Devastation of Be’eri.” Be’eri is a kibbutz three miles from Israel’s border with Gaza. Hamas terrorists came there as Oct. 7 dawned. There were more than 100 of them, wearing camouflage and green Hamas bandannas. Many came on motorcycles, and all were heavily armed. Many cried “Allahu Akbar!”
Ms. Margolit wanted to know what the individual attackers looked like. She quotes an eyewitness description: “Like they had just come out of the gym. With crazy joy in their eyes, like they were high on something.” It’s the kind of statement you read and immediately know it was true. They were sleek young men, hopped up and murderous.
It tells you a lot about their purported cause. It tells you who they are.
This week we learned more about their actions. We learned it in large part because it wasn’t enough that the terrorists did it; they had to memorialize it. Some of them wore body cameras and took cellphone videos. The Israel Defense Forces compiled a video record, which also included footage from Israeli security cameras and dash cams, and showed it at a military base near Tel Aviv. Hundreds of journalists came. They were asked not to reproduce the 43-minute video but were free to describe what they saw.
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From Graeme Wood in the Atlantic: “Men, women and children are shot, blown up, hunted, tortured, burned, and generally murdered in any horrible manner you could predict, and some that you might not.”
A man and his young sons are in their pajamas: “A terrorist throws a grenade into their hiding place, and the father is killed. The boys are covered in blood, and one appears to have lost an eye. They go to their kitchen and cry for their mother. One of the boys howls, ‘Why am I alive?’ and ‘Daddy, daddy.’ One says, ‘I think we’re going to die.’ The terrorist who killed their father comes in, and while they weep he raids their fridge.”
An IDF spokesman at the screening was unable to say whether the boys survived.
A terrorist uses a phone to call his family in Gaza. “I killed 10 Jews with my own hands,” he tells his father. “Put on Mom! Your son is a hero!” He tells them to open WhatsApp to see his pictures.
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Andrew Neil of the Spectator wrote on social media: “Other footage shows IDF soldiers beheaded with their lifeless corpses left splayed in the streets.” The BBC noted the “stark detail” of the “sheer horror.” Hamas gunmen cheered with joy as they shot unarmed civilians on the road. There was “an attempt to decapitate someone who appeared to be still alive using a garden hoe.”
described a litany of images: “An emergency medical worker pouring mineral water from a bottle to douse the smoldering remains of charred bodies. . . . Brutalized young women, one of them naked. . . . Victims are seen gagged. . . . Faces are frozen in shock and agony. Women’s bones are broken, their legs twisted in impossible angles.”
Later, the Twitter account of the Israeli government showed clips of their interrogation of Hamas prisoners. One is asked what his mission was in Be’eri. “To conquer,” he replied. (The warriors now prisoners seem to be admitting people were murdered but denying they did it, blaming the other guy in the battalion. Interestingly, a few of them expressed resentment toward the leaders of Hamas, who live in luxury while they fought in the field. This managed to sound both rehearsed and genuine.)
Why did Israel put together these pictures and sounds and show them to reporters? There is already copious testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors. Hamas has never bothered to deny what it did. But the world needs proof it can’t forget or sweep away. This includes Hamas’s supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere.
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But also: It happened. If it happened, you have to show it. Big history is coming, in which Israel will be saved or not saved, and you owe it to history to tell what tipped the world into this moment.
Anyway, the IDF did a first-class job of telling. Here is one way it can continue. All wars are of course now propaganda wars, and maybe always have been—“Bleeding Belgium” was more than a century ago. But now the propaganda is instantaneous, worldwide and expertly produced. The Israelis lost a big propaganda battle in the story of the Gaza hospital. By the time they and American intelligence were able to counter Hamas’s accusations, the Arab street had exploded. And yet Israel did the right thing: It didn’t immediately deny Hamas’s claims, it said it was investigating, gathered the data, presented it to the world, and its explanation—that it was an errant terrorist missile—was in the end widely accepted.
The Israelis played it straight. They should keep playing it straight, adopt it as a strategy. If they do, it will be understood in time that Israel’s communications apparatus is the only one that can be trusted. This will matter a great deal down the road. There will be temptations along the way to lie, fudge or dodge because nations at war make mistakes and blunders. There are misjudgments, accidents and failures. But something tells me that in this war you won’t be able to fight propaganda with propaganda, only truth.
I end with the observation that we are seeing a fairly stark generational divide over all that’s happening. Speaking generally, if you are middle-aged or older, chances are good you feel sympathy for and old loyalty toward Israel. The young are more prone to antipathy toward Israel, sometimes accompanied by rage, sometimes by almost violent accusations against the colonialist oppressor state. At the bottom of today’s progressive politics there is blood lust. They speak of justice and equity but that’s not what they want, they want dominance. It’s all about the will to power. Progressive students have absorbed the idea it’s good to be militant in your views, it shows you’re authentic. No, it shows you got the talking points.
I was with a more peaceable group the other night at the Al Smith dinner, the big annual bipartisan dinner of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. One of the speakers, Mary Erdoes, told the audience that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise and our friends need to know who’s with them. There was an envelope at each plate, she said, and if you open it you’ll find a blue lapel button. Wearing it is meant to show identification and affiliation with our brothers and sisters. Suddenly at that madly noisy dinner, all you could hear was one sound, envelopes being torn open, and the sight of buttons being affixed.