In the search for the hostages in Gaza

Article by Noa Burstein Hadad 

Translated by Shahaf Ida

Lieutenant Colonel N, an architect aged 42, sat in his Sukkah at his home in Haifa on October 7th. "There was a wonderful Cremeschnitte cake in the fridge, and my parents were supposed to come," he says. At eight in the morning, he was called to join his unit in Brigade 98, an elite commando brigade, which included the EITAN unit, whose mission was to gather data on hostages and missing persons.

"As someone who planned hundreds of fortified spaces, I never thought of the option that a safe room would’ve to function as a shelter from a face-to-face attack. That the door needs to be locked so you won't be kidnapped, that it needs to be bulletproof, fireproof."

N' arrived at the base, organized his equipment and weapons. "Then we sat for several good hours doing nothing," he says. "People are massacred and we just sat there. Only in the evening did we receive the first mission and went to the field. On the way, terrified civilians looked at us from their vehicles, cheering us as we passed in military vehicles. I couldn't look them in the eyes. I realized there was a huge failure here."

N's unit accompanies the combat forces during routine days and assesses options for preventing the abduction of forces. In the event of an attempted kidnap, the unit is responsible for either preventing it or providing relevant information for rescue. "In the worst-case scenario, we are supposed to determine a status, to know what price Israel will have to pay for their return."

N's unit was established to prevent mass and prolonged kidnap events, just like the one we are currently experiencing, for more than 200 days. It is an elite unit, composed of combat officers with relevant academic backgrounds. The unit consists mostly of family people who during routine days are in the shadows, learning the work of the forces in the field and improving their methods of operation for a real event.

"Before October 7th, kidnap events were very rare. That’s why, from the moment that happened, our first mission was the military captives because we hadn't yet understood the extent of this event. So we went around the area and searched for soldiers who were on leave, at home. After some time, we realized that the number of civilian captives was huge. And the mission changed."

For over five months, N searched for information on captives and missing persons in Gaza. This is his story.

My Skin is Tearing

Saving Mom

You're driving on the roads of the Gaza Envelope on the night of October 7th. A beautiful, pastoral area, with nature and wonderful people, and you see burnt cars, bodies, and the smell… We're all in the military hummer in deathly silence. I went into shock. I was sure it wasn't real, it wasn't logical, it was a Hollywood movie, it was surreal. I've never seen anything like it in my life. It's incomprehensible. Suddenly, we came across a pile of vehicles at an intersection, with the bodies of terrorists. These are terrorists who slaughtered civilians, pulled them out of their cars, and waited inside them as an ambush for the army. There was very active fighting there, and we circled around, under fire, shocked.

We arrived. We received a list with dozens of names. We had to understand who was kidnapped, who was hiding, who was found alive, and who was in hospital. Suddenly, you realize that the captured soldiers are a small part of the story, that there is a mass kidnapping event here of hundreds of civilians. We start intelligence and operational investigation. All means are at our disposal. Our goal is to clear the uncertainty.

We reached Be’eri. There were still battles there. We saw burned jeeps with soldiers burned alive, they didn't even have a chance to fight. It wasn't death, it was a massacre. Practices from another era in history. Slitting, rape, slaughter, murder… These are things that don't exist in your system and suddenly you see them like this before your eyes.

On the following night, a group of new soldiers entered Be’eri, the place was still under fire. They were trembling with fear. My heart went out to them. We waited at the entrance to the kibbutz until we could enter, and suddenly – a woman approached us. We raised our weapons and got ready. When she got closer, we realized it was an old woman. Half-naked, injured, sobbing. We gave her water, moved her to medical personnel, and asked her what happened to her.

An 85-year-old woman, living alone. Her son installed an internal lock in the safe room two years ago. For 48 hours, she sat there alone, with five biscuits and a cup of water. She asked her son to come and get her, and at some point, she lost contact with him. She didn't open to the terrorists who knocked on the door. When she heard that the area was calmer, she opened the window of the safe room, jumped through it, and ran away, filled with glass cuts. She was afraid her son was on his way; she was sure her request for him to come and get her would lead to his death. She found a mobility scooter and drove straight to us. She was so afraid for her son. Afraid he was murdered on his way to save her. We called him, heard him crying. For 48 hours, he didn't know what happened to his mother".

טבח בדרום

Closure

"In Be’eri, we deciphered several cases, but there was still heavy fighting there, so we moved to Kfar Aza, where the IDF had already managed to gain control. A beautiful spring day. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and all around, death. Suddenly, above the kibbutz, I see hundreds of black vultures and then I smelt it. The stench of rotting. You smell it and your entire body freezes, it's evolutionary. There I understood that within all this beautiful greenery, the gate to hell had opened.

I went inside and saw the tracks of tanks inside houses and on the lawns… and everything is surreal. Little rubber ducks, children's bikes, completely dismantled, baby strollers with bloody piles… Countless bodies scattered all over the kibbutz. Civilians. The entire kibbutz’s security group, slaughtered. Rotting. Bodies of three days in the heat.

We were divided into sections – first, we went to the houses of soldiers who were at home, on leave, mostly female soldiers. There we identified Yam Goldstein. You enter the house. See a cake, breakfast, Whole lives. Magnets on the fridge with appointments for the kids with the doctor. Heartbroken.

Then we opened the house of the Kutz family, where everyone was slaughtered in the safe room. Between their house and the Goldstein family's house, we found a neighbor lying on the path, apparently trying to help. We picked geraniums from their garden, asked them for forgiveness, and put them inside our masks because the smell was so graphic… Our unit commander, Yuval Hirschberg, who was later killed, broke down in tears there.

We opened the door. At first, you don't fully recognize and then you understand. You understand because you’re a father as well and what else can you do in such a terrible situation? You’re with your family in the safe room, unarmed. In the background, you hear how your neighbors are being slaughtered. You know what's going to happen. What do you do at that moment? We found the entire Kutz family huddled under the father, who had his hands raised above them all. Shielding them and murdered together with them.

After identifying the people, we moved the bodies. We didn't have to, but I wanted to come full circle from start to finish. I worked with ZAKA ('Disaster Victim Identification'), and I finished lining up bodies with them. I think, in hindsight, that it helped me not to develop post-traumatic stress disorder – because I didn't detach from the situation but had some closure".

הקרב על הידית

Women in the Battlefield

"During my service, I encountered many difficult situations. I never asked for, nor was I forced to meet with mental health professionals, and I have friends who are scarred for life. In this war, the IDF changed its attitude impressively. We had five meetings forced upon us with mental health professionals. Tough people breaking down in tears… I too called my wife and burst into tears on the phone. I couldn’t bear the sights I’ve seen. Months after that, every time I saw children with parents, I would run aside and cry uncontrollably. It still hurts me deeply.

I've always envied women, who know how to talk about emotions and have support networks. Throughout my combat service, I never encountered women on the battlefield and this time – they were there, and it helped me. In the past, I was very afraid of integrating women into combat roles. As a soldier, you're trained to protect the weak – women and children. So, I was afraid of the presence of women on the battlefield, afraid it would elicit a defensive response.

A Battlefield is brutal, and you want to protect others from taking part in it. But in this war, meeting them there, just felt right. In every interaction I had with women in this war, I saw how they brought to the table things we didn't have. Officers, tank drivers, combat fighters… every interaction with them was professional, responsible, and emotionally balanced. It was wonderful. I take my hat off to them. There are women there who did what a thousand men wouldn't do".

תמונה באדיבות סרן נ'
N's picture from Gaza

A Puzzle of a Million Pieces

"In the end, Hamas managed to improvise an air force, surveillance, and drones. They sprayed heavy fire from all directions, created fire from above, from the sides – and they took their time to enjoy it. More accurately, we allowed them the time to enjoy it. My family was deported from Spain, and we’re Holocaust survivors as well. How many times can you say 'no more'? If you have to say it more than once, you've failed, big time.

When the IDF entered Gaza, our brigade went in with them. We received a tsunami of missing people cases – an immense, uncontrollable amount. We went from a unit supposed to act in real-time to a unit searching within Gaza for those kidnapped on October 7th. Our work was based on intelligence from external sources and then action. We went into targeted raids of 24-48 hours, and it was extremely risky. Unlike the forces stationed inside, you're constantly inside and outside, in hummers, in trucks, in armored vehicles. You're passive, you're unprotected. Trembling with fear that something will explode nearby, that something will harm you.

Our activity was based on intelligence indications and what the forces found on field. We searched for the hostages, and I must explain: it's like a puzzle of a million pieces, but unlike a puzzle where you have the final picture on the box, here you don't have a final picture to aim for. It's a collective military task that everyone works on together, and no one knows if the piece they found now is the right one. If it's even a relevant piece. You don't know the value of each piece of information and what it contributes to the big picture, so you bring everything.

We searched for evidence for halts, we learned to look at documents and understand their context even though we don't speak Arabic. We started providing very high-quality intelligence that helped the IDF piece together the puzzle.

Sometimes we managed to have closure. We found bodies that had been hidden behind walls, in refrigerators, in closets, in graves… Sometimes certain units found unmistakable human remains. You can tell from them that they died. It's hard, but it at least allows you to bring the family closure".

תמונה באדיבות סרן נ'
N's picture from Gaza

Three hostages

"It's important to remember that in Gaza, there's a bustling routine every day where tens of thousands of people enter Israel. Israeli items are prevalent there regardless of October 7th. Shirts, sweatshirts with Hebrew writing… and that's very confusing.

Secondly, anything that looks like a body or a human remains in the field – we immediately suspect it's one of ours, and Hamas knows how to exploit this sentiment very well: they rig bodies with explosives, they place dolls dressed in Israeli clothes, and children's backpacks with a speaker playing the cries of babies. They use what they have to confuse us and exploit our search for the hostages. We understood this a few days before the shooting incident with the three hostages. After searching several places for evidence of their presence, such as Hebrew graffiti indicating hostages, lists of terrorists' shifts, shaven hair, utility buckets…

And then we began to understand that there were decoy events, deliberately left with Hebrew markings by Hamas. And Shuja'iyya… is the worst place in the world. The smells, the soil, nothing is good there. You go there and lose the will to live. There are so many dangers around you, that you must always stay alert. The entire Gaza strip is full of tunnels and holes, and you're constantly aware that a terrorist could jump at you from any corner. Your sense and desire to find hostages become a trap and a death threat. The three hostages who were shot in Shuja'iyya were victims of this".

הצילו, שלושה חטופים

Advancing the investigation

"In certain places, we found shirts belonging to children from October 7th. We also found piles of hair. We realized they shaved their heads, removed their clothes with Hebrew writing, and changed their appearance. When we entered, there were piles of items from UNRWA, we searched and found things that advanced our investigations. We collected testimonies about graves. During a war, it's strange to invest time in burial, but for the captors, bodies are assets, so they invest time in that.

The tragedy of the hostages is also linked to the Entebbe myth – which is, after all, a miracle. No army in the world has succeeded in such a task. Missions to rescue hostages almost always end badly, and we grew up with the thought that it's possible. Not sure if it's possible. Especially not without losing many lives along the way.

The three captives (Ori Megidish, Fernando Marman, Louis Har) who were rescued alive are the exception. I fear there will be many captives whose fate we will never know. We will have many "Ron Arads", and maybe we will commemorate a memorial day for them. It will be a scar in the nation’s heart forever."

תמונה באדיבות סרן נ'
N's picture from Gaza

Existential Anxiety

"After two days of wandering around the Gaza envelope, I felt a sensation I had never felt before. Existential anxiety. Anxiety about my children, about my wife. That I left them all alone in the north. We were sure that a missile attack would come from Lebanon and they were there, alone. I panicked, I felt helpless. You have a responsibility to your country, and you have a responsibility to your family – and now you have to choose.

My youngest son is three years old; he doesn't understand. He says, 'Daddy will kill Hamas.' It's hard to explain the situation to them. In the first week, I dreamed I was in a hotel with my daughter, and I was rescuing her from fire, from a mob of terrorists. In another dream, I saw myself with a friend in Haifa, and suddenly Hezbollah surfers arrived from the sea and stormed the city.

I want to be an active father. But we didn't have such a model growing up. Our generation invented this model on the go. And the war changed my priorities in life. The country is at a crossroads and so am I. When I returned, I relieved my wife of all this responsibility, everything she did while I was away for five months. She was on duty no less than I was.

Since I returned, I find myself inviting children in playgrounds to play with us, saying hello to more people. I'm more loving. I've seen entire families gone and I started asking myself, what are these lives worth if you don't love the people around you?

I feel more compassionate. Something in me softened – and on the other hand, sharpened. Compassion and toughness, that's our way to succeed, also as a nation – to hold both opposing qualities together. Knowing when to switch gears at the right moment. Every time I came home, I sat in the car for ten minutes before I went in and told myself, 'You're not in the army now. You're coming to your family. You leave all the military talk aside. You're tender, you're embracing. You don't shut out.' Only then did I enter the house".

תמונה באדיבות סרן נ'
N's picture from Gaza

A Pendulum's Movement

"After the Yom Kippur War, it took four years for the Mapai government to fall. Four years until the 1977 revolution. It's a pendulum’s movement. One of the things this war emphasized for us is the sentiment of hatred towards us in the world. And today, I find it very difficult to explain Israel as well, because we did not conduct ourselves properly over the years, with the Palestinians. For various reasons, we tried to have our cake and eat it too.

I’m not at ease. I am afraid that the previous discourse will return. The incitement, the hate. It was important for me to speak with Politically Corret because I think we need to know what happened there. What happened to us. What they inflicted on us – and what we are dealing with. Understanding what happened to us is an inseparable part of our healing process. Since the war, I haven't been sleeping well. I think about the hostages, I think about the soldiers, I think about the grieving families… I feel personal responsibility.

During the five months I was there, we didn't dismantle our sukkah. Even when I returned for a few days, I couldn't bring myself to dismantle it. I only took it down when I was discharged. I felt like I was dismantling a mourning tent".

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