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On Seeing Evil

Here’s the Horror Hamas Left in Its Wake at One Kibbutz

Eighty-five were murdered at Kibbutz Be’eri. This is how it looked when I visited three and a half weeks later.

Covered bodies are gathered at Kibbutz Be'eri
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty
Covered bodies are gathered at Kibbutz Be’eri near the border with Gaza on October 11.

The blue vase rests on a white lace doily on an antique end table, in the corner of the small living room. The roses droop. Embroidered throw pillows lie on the gray overstuffed love seat, which matches the couch. There are two recliners. An oval coffee table stands on a rug ornately patterned in burgundy arabesques. White and gray striped curtains are drawn back from the windows.

One window is shattered where a bullet struck.

On the white tile floor, next to the front door, lies a kitchen knife with a long triangular blade. It juts into a meter-wide stain on the floor, brown at the edges, black in the middle where the pool of blood was thickest. There was a great deal of blood.

A bloodied knife inside a home at the Kibbutz Be’eri on October 14

Outside the door, on the wooden deck, lie two knives, a cleaver, and a hammer, in another long splotch of blood that sprayed outward as it fell. The murderers used household utensils of the people who lived here or perhaps taken from an earlier house on their rampage.

I step back inside and turn to the reinforced room, built for shelter from the frequent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip three miles to the west. The lock of the heavy metal door shows bullet marks. The attackers shot their way in. Inside is a narrow child’s mattress, soaked through with blood.

I will need to make sense of this. Not now—later, when horror begins to leave room for thought and memory and understanding. 

The bodies have been cleared from Kibbutz Be’eri—bodies of residents murdered in the first hours of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and bodies of Hamas men killed by Israeli troops who belatedly arrived that day. I’m here on October 31, with a 70-year-old reservist who returned to uniform when the war broke out and took the initiative to bring small groups of journalists, academics, and others to Be’eri. Only his coordination with the army spokesman’s office got us past the military checkpoint that now blocks civilian access to the area.

The slightest scent of corpses, a whisper rather than a shout, remains in the air. Eighty-five residents of Be’eri were killed, out of just over 1,100 of the residents. Thirty more are either hostages in the web of Hamas tunnels in Gaza or are missing.

At the western edge of Be’eri, near the fence that attackers breached, the stucco wall of a house is riddled with bullet craters in close clusters—testimony to bursts of automatic fire, to someone happy with his long gun and feeling wealthy with ammunition.

The homes are small. Some are utterly dark inside, walls and ceilings black with soot. The attackers set the houses ablaze. Some of the people who hid inside climbed out of windows and were shot or taken hostage. Some were burned alive.

Many of the houses are open to the sky, floors now covered in broken tiles from roofs that collapsed in the fires. Gaps in shattered walls offer entry. In one house I see a banister without stairs; the wooden steps are now ash. In another, I see a computer table with a monitor that somehow remained intact. The keyboard lies in the ashes on the floor. The computer itself is gone, likely looted.

Next to a blackened wall lies a pile of bright red, green, and blue pickup sticks strangely intact as if waiting for children to return and play.

The door of the reinforced room is open. Often these rooms were children’s bedrooms, so they wouldn’t have to run for cover when rockets were fired from Gaza.

The child’s mattress is saturated with blood. So are the box springs.

In the living room, on the rubble, lies a single Hebrew page from the Book of Psalms burned around the edges. “Save me from my enemies, O my God, secure me against my assailants,” reads an intact verse.

A murmur in my mind tells me I am walking through people’s exposed lives, that I am a voyeur, out of place. A murmur tells me to bear witness to their deaths.

Outside, on the narrow roads of the kibbutz, are cars destroyed by fire or gunshots, a motorcycle used by the invaders, and one of their pickup trucks, with an iron stand on the truck bed that once held a machine gun.

I walk in the valley of the shadow of death. And I fear evil.

Evil. Let me start there, in trying to swim upward through the darkness toward air. Toward meaning.

I’ve heard people call the attackers “monsters,” “inhuman,” “animals.” This is too lazy a way out. They were entirely human. Human beings have the capacity for good and for evil. They are most capable of evil, it seems, when they’ve convinced themselves that they are serving the good.

One Hamas man phoned his father from another kibbutz to tell him he had killed 10 Jews. His father praised God.

This does not explain enough. Hamas decided on this attack. It was a strategic choice that seemingly makes no sense. Hamas had no chance of destroying Israel. Its leaders knew that they would ignite war and that Palestinians under their rule in Gaza would pay the price.

Away from the ruins of Be’eri, it’s easier to breathe, think, and remember. I close files of photographs. I reach for books. What Hamas did fits a history: the century-and-a-half history of terrorism as a doctrine. As the pioneering researcher of terrorism, political scientist David Rapoport, wrote after 9/11, Russian revolutionaries developed the strategy of extraordinary violence aimed against noncombatants. Their problem was that they’d failed to enlist wide support. Atrocities would solve this problem. “Terror would command the masses’ attention,” Rapoport explains their thinking. The government would respond “indiscriminately, undermining in the process its own credibility and legitimacy.” Reprisals would overshadow the initial acts of terror, and outraged masses would join the rebels.

Mark this: The deaths among the masses were part of the strategy. Lives were abstractions, to be erased in the name of the cause.

The method was a tool, a detonator, that could serve any ideology. It was picked up by anti-colonial rebels, by the far left and far right, secularists, and religious extremists. It can both work and backfire at the same time: Fatah terror attacks against Israel from Syria and Jordan brought Israeli counterattacks that helped detonate the Six-Day War in 1967—leading to the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza and bringing many more Palestinians under Israeli rule.

The Hamas assault on October 7 was the worst terror attack ever perpetrated against Israel. It came when Hamas leaders had reason to feel isolated. The United States was brokering a deal for yet another Arab country, Saudi Arabia, to normalize relations with Israel. Trust among Gazans in the Hamas government was terribly low, and a majority favored a two-state agreement with Israel—the opposite of Hamas’s program. 

Hamas reached for the detonator. It is likely expected to set off a regional war against Israel, including Hezbollah attacking Israel from Lebanon and the West Bank erupting. This danger remains real. Hamas leaders knew Israel would strike Gaza with overwhelming force—which they expected to produce greater support among Palestinians for their extreme politics.

To the arsenal of atrocity, Hamas added rape, which was nearly absent from past attacks against Israel. It took at least 241 Israeli and foreign hostages, including small children and the elderly.

More than that: Hamas made hostages of two million Palestinian civilians. Its military stronghold is a web of tunnels under the crowded communities of the Gaza Strip. For Israel to leave Hamas’s military intact would be to invite a repeat of October 7. No country would accept such a danger to its own citizens. But trying to defeat Hamas, Israel has brought ever-escalating death in Gaza on an intolerable scale. These deaths, too, are part of Hamas’s strategy of terror, meant both to force Israel to stop fighting and to isolate it internationally.

Even a superb Israeli leadership would face an impossible dilemma. Instead, we have Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist partners. Trusting him to set the boundaries of loss of Palestinian—or Israeli—lives in times of war is impossible. The prime minister wrist-slapped but failed to dismiss a far-right Cabinet minister who said in a radio interview that “there are no noncombatants in Gaza” and that a nuclear bomb would be “one way” to deal with the Hamas-ruled territory. Netanyahu offers no diplomatic alternative to war—even a proposal that Hamas surrender control of Gaza in order to end the suffering. His own statements, such as equating Hamas with the biblical enemy of the Israelites, Amalek, suggest he seeks vengeance rather than security. In this, he serves Hamas’s goal of making Israel a pariah.

And Hamas has other help, inadvertent and intentional. The media’s attention span is short; it reports on deaths in Gaza with no mention of what forced Israel to fight. And there are useful idiots in far countries who regard Hamas—just as an early theorist of terror predicted—as “noble, terrible, irresistibly fascinating.”

An accounting: Hamas has indeed undermined Israel’s “credibility and legitimacy.” And it has sacrificed Palestinians’ future and ever more of their lives.

Suddenly, finding meaning becomes unbearable. I am back in Be’eri, near dusk.

The shrubs along a path are leafless and scorched. A man I am with leans down and picks up an unfired bullet. “AK-47 ammunition,” he tells me. We pass a long line of burned houses and step inside one. The door of the reinforced room is open.

There are bloodstains on the floor.