This Remembrance Day, we find ourselves in a world that cannot differentiate between civilians and soldiers in all its narrative battles around war. But do all the sordid tales we spin about the dead in Israel and Gaza truly honor their memory well?

Reading Time: 17 minutes

On October 16, Dr. Chen Kugel, the head of Israel’s national forensic institute, sat down with Dr. Nurit Bublil, the rest of his team, and the press to give their first international briefing about the people slaughtered on October 7 in Israel.

It was a challenging affair on a few fronts: English was not their first language, but by the time forensics was able to share empirical data, extreme rumors had spread across the internet, credulously amplified without verification by much of mainstream media. Some rumors were acts of complete denial: nothing had happened! everything was faked! Others presented events without evidence, wild claims bolstered by older footage or word of mouth run up the media chain.

Once a story reaches extraordinary proportions, any reality that fails to live up to the initial intensity and “moral” clarity of rumor is difficult for everyone to accept.

But there is value in seeking out that reality anyway.

And value in understanding why the search for it is so hard.

Which is where these forensic scientists came in: their job being to restore dignity in death by providing precise details to give families closure, and to help whole communities heal through a better understanding of what actually transpired. In Jewish culture especially, the body is supposed to be as fully preserved for burial as possible, so every blood stain from these crime scenes mattered. Care had to be taken with all the remains, and their stories.

That same level of care hasn’t been advanced by some journalists, though. Or politicians. Or us, as mostly average bystanders to the staggering weight of death in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks: over 11,000 in Gaza now, on top of the 1,400 killed in Israel on or after October 7, along with dozens of IDF dying in ground assault, and nearly 180 Palestinians in the West Bank.

Traditionally, Remembrance Day is a time for remembering military personnel who served and died in wars: a day treated as a patriotic chore. We’re told that those who wore a uniform died “for us”, and for our freedoms. Remembrance is tied to valor, duty, sacrifice, and above all else the entrenchment of national identity. We did this at Vimy Ridge. Our boys paid the price at Juno Beach.

What this singular form of memorial side-steps is civilian slaughter: how to talk about it, and how to reckon with the suffering in war endured by people not engaged in active combat. What we do not talk about is the soldiers who tortured and killed children and other civilians for sport. We do not talk about the rapes, the looting, the vindictive massacres and desecration of people’s homes.

And we rarely talk about civilians themselves, caught in these and other atrocities, as people who died “for us”, too. What lessons could we take from them, after all? Where’s the valor in the terror of their last moments? How were they anything more than a reminder of where our brave soldiers had failed?

But the consequences of this cultural oversight are now on sharp display.

In the last few weeks, we have watched people struggle to empathize with humans caught between a jihadist tyranny and an extreme right-wing government long in local disfavor for its anti-democratic and pro-expansionist policies. We have struggled, too, to remember what a democracy is, in our swiftness to blame everyone who lives under a given rule for the worst actions taken by the whole. For many, there doesn’t seem to be a difference between soldier and civilian anymore. Anyone who lives under a bad elected government without taking it down is culpable. Anyone who lives under a tyranny and doesn’t take it down is, too.

At times like this, the insufficiency of Remembrance Day becomes palpable.

Certainly, the deaths of people in combat roles matter. While there are always some who enlist simply because they’re enamored by the state sanction to do violence, most genuinely believe in the security mission to which they dedicate their lives. When they die in the name of that mission, they leave behind a question of how best to make their sacrifice mean something, going forward.

(Even if only as a lesson in how war strips meaning from us all.)

But the people killed simply for their geopolitical identity matter, too.

Maybe we need a Civilians’ Day, though, to grasp the importance of also telling the stories of their slaughter well.

The first forensics briefing

On October 16, in rough English, Dr. Kugel and Dr. Bublil explained their team’s work. They outlined identification processes for the “easy” cases, and what made identification hard for other bodies in their under-staffed facility. Charred bodies, in particular, made positive IDs challenging. The team also shared complex stories: not of people individually doused with accelerant, but of people left to burn with their houses, in their safe rooms, so that soot filled their respiratory tracts as they died. One particularly haunting story has come up in multiple interviews since: a parent and a child fused together as they burned, their spinal cords entwined, with wire wrapped around them.

But by the time of this briefing, there was also a sensational rumor of 40 beheaded babies, which had been reported as secondhand testimony by Israel’s i24 news channel, and which had spread rapidly to other networks despite the IDF stating that it could not corroborate the claim. None of the major networks did due diligence either, though; they repeated that first report credulously until it ended up being echoed by US President Joe Biden, only for the White House to have to amend that Biden had seen no proof, and had also been going off media reports.

It wasn’t the only extreme claim to have emerged, though. There was a story of a pregnant woman with her baby cut out and stabbed: in part based on an account by Yossi Landau, a ZAKA search and rescue volunteer; in part based on a widely circulating video from a 2018 Mexican cartel brutality. Claims of mass rape at the music festival, women raped amid the bodies of their friends or carted off as sex slaves, were similarly “supported” in those early days by videos from other events.

Skepticism surged as these stories grew in intensity and detail without corroboration, and as videos and images were debunked one by one. On October 12, Israel’s government responded by posting two photos of dead babies: one bloodied, the other charred. Not proof of ritual beheadings, but upsetting enough to turn outrage against those asking questions. How many dead babies did one need to see before accepting that Hamas is horrible? For what sick fantasy did one need to see more?

But for most, accepting that Hamas is horrible wasn’t the issue.

Most wanted to know what happened so they could grieve the events that did.

And so it fell to the forensics team, a few days later, to offer meaningful data.

Dr. Kugel tried to put empiricism first. As this video notes, starting from 25:21, the effort went as follows:

Reporter: Is there any evidence of babies or children being mutilated?

Kugel: No, I see charred babies, I can’t say that— [He pauses while another team representative translates in Hebrew that the reporter is asking about decapitation.]

Kugel: Oh! Like, like, beheaded? No, we see people without their heads but I cannot say, to be honest, that they were beheaded. I didn’t see all the bodies, but I don’t know what is the reason that there is no head. I can’t say it is a knife, or maybe projectile or something. I cannot say now for sure. … We will continue the examination and then we’ll probably have more answers about the reason why these people are beheaded. Maybe it is missile or something. I cannot say because the bodies are charred.

Another Reporter: How many babies among the dead?

Kugel: I don’t have the statistic now, because it’s new, you know. Guys, you [ask] “How many babies without head?” I don’t know, because—

AR: How many babies among the dead?

Kugel: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s, it’s still… it’s a lot of bodies.

By this point, many in the room are talking over each other, with the first reporter pressing for confirmation that he’s seen babies without heads, and Kugel trying to explain again that there are many medical reasons for a beheaded body in situations with explosions.

Kugel: When there is a projectile or a missile, it can take off your head easily. And if the body is charred, I cannot see the edges of the wound and say why it is beheaded. So, I don’t want to say that people were beheaded deliberately. I cannot say. I can say that I saw people without heads. And you, too.

Here, Kugel turns to a member of his team for corroboration, but another, Dr. Hagar Mizrahi, interjects to share the latest body count, 959, with 297 at that point unidentified. She emphasizes that this institution has received the most difficult cases, then veers from the science:

Mizrahi: The team here has not seen all the cases. I must confess, I personally have spoken to one of the ladies who came out from Kfar Aza and she told me, she was four days after the horrific event when she spoke with me, and she told me personally, she actually had to take all her friends and family into a container, into a body case… a body area in the kibbutz Kfar Aza and she told me herself she saw people her words they were beheaded. … I hugged her and she was very strong and she told me I must be strong for my kibbutz and for other people who are left behind and I heard her say that people were beheaded. So not all the cases came here, and…

In the video, you can see the two forensic pathologists at the table sit quietly, heads bowed, through this secondhand account, until a moment arises when one can interject to say that all the DNA samples came to their lab, and with lightness and poise try to move the meeting back to a conversation around the facts.

But the whole exchange speaks to the profound challenge for those attempting to understand what happened on October 7. We are awash in a wide, traumatizing range of material evidence and emotional truth.

And in the throes of active conflict, emotional truth will win out every time.

Disembodied grief, overlapping traumas

A common articulation of grief among Israelis in the aftermath of October 7, along with Jewish people elsewhere, is the idea that the world was “with them” for a fleeting moment, and then support for their horrific loss vanished into a sea of opposing support for Palestinians instead.

READ: Antisemitism for me, but not for thee

Why was the world not sitting longer with them, in their grief and anger and horror, while they awaited the return of mutilated bodies for the funerals that would finally allow them to begin to sit Shiva for their own dead?

Although global media quickly drew a comparison between 10/7 and 9/11, Israelis had an experience very different from the one in the US in 2001. After 9/11, there was no mass kidnapping, so even though borders had been breached, it was easier for a furious US to wait until October 7, 2001 to start bombing Afghanistan, after making strident demands for al-Qaeda to be turned over by the Taliban.

But in Israel, where some 240 people were taken captive, war was announced the same day, and retaliatory attacks began at once. Even though the early days were filled with reports that Hamas had taken hostages expressly to trade for Palestinian prisoners, Netanyahu’s war council was always of the opinion that the only way to get hostages back was to embark on a “complete siege”: to cut off all water and access to supplies to civilians in Gaza, and to bomb the strip to eliminate Hamas.

NB: Netanyahu might have been better off sticking to George W. Bush’s line, that “we do not negotiate with terrorists”, instead of claiming that this bombing was primarily for the hostages’ safe return. Families have been furious with Netanyahu’s failure to bring their loved ones home, and when local news has to say that IDF thinks many hostages are still alive amid the shelling, you begin to understand the pain.

The sudden overlap of violence in Israel and Gaza split global loyalties, though, which in turn exacerbated the despair and isolation of a grieving Israeli populace, along with Jewish people the world over. Yes, average world citizens were horrified by the slaughter of Israeli citizens. And they were horrified by the rising death toll for Palestinians, in a territory where half the population is children.

Many could not sit with the broken hearts of Israel’s grief-stricken, the people so shattered that retributive fury was a natural first response, and also accept that anything that happened to Palestinian civilians was now fair game.

On the other hand, though, many could, and did, and still do. Many would quickly come to rage or scoff or argue at the mere sight of a dead Palestinian civilian, as if such images existed solely to undermine the grief of October 7 survivors. As if all footage of active horror in Gaza was mere terrorist propaganda, not documentation of other families enduring their own worst days.

Likewise, some had no sympathy for Israelis from the outset. Furious at the actions of settlers in the West Bank, or at the impoverished state of Palestinian lives for decades—or simply thrilled at the opportunity to protest against a nation-state—some mocked the slaughter of Israelis on October 7 outright. Some then went on to mock the hostages, and to tear down posters calling for their safe return.

READ: From Oslo to October 7, and beyond

And this is where the landscape of “emotional truth” still finds us: fractured along competing ideas of collective culpability. When sifting these days through reporting on forums for both “sides” (pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel), you can find every extreme imaginable. For Islamic examples of permission to rape and kill infidels, there are rabbinical extremists saying the same about non-Jews. For homes burned in a kibbutz, there are counter-stories of Israeli settlers burning Palestinian homes with families in them, too. For every invocation of exodus on one side, an invocation of the same on the other. For every video of Palestinians celebrating Hamas or the slaughter of Israelis, a video of Israelis celebrating the slaughter of Palestinians, and the righteous return of Gaza to them soon.

Everything a competition. Everything a matter of flattening whole peoples to simple labels, and trying to prove one’s righteousness not through better conduct so much as better accusations as to the other side’s greater depravity.

Maybe there was no choice but to launch an immediate counterattack, under Israel’s unique circumstances of being so thoroughly stolen from on October 7.

Maybe there was no choice but to throw the country into fuller war right away, giving the world a daily stream of horrors visited upon Palestinians instead.

But oh, how much proper grief-work this war has taken from everyone involved.

Beheading stories, and survivor trauma

Be’eri kibbutz is a site of massacre haunted by speculation. Some of the dead after Hamas seized the compound were possibly from crossfire: a difficult consequence of IDF shelling houses to take out Hamas, days after the original attack.

One survivor of that siege, Yasmin Porat, has a complex tale to tell. She described being among 12 hostages who were “treated very humanely”, until Israeli forces launched a gun battle in which one Hamas operative decided to surrender, using her as a shield. He stripped down, she called out to Israelis to stop shooting, and when they emerged she saw civilian bodies dead between Israeli fighters and Hamas, which she says were killed amid “very, very heavy crossfire.” Another survivor, Tuval, similarly noted in an interview with Haaretz that Monday’s shelling of civilian homes had contributed to the region’s brutal human outcomes.

Then there were accounts from soldiers themselves, of the hard decisions made in that first, frantic scramble: stories including the possibility that Apache helicopters had killed civilians near the music festival, at times when it was difficult to differentiate between Hamas and noncombatants; and also military personnel, when it bombed its own base at the Erez Crossing to repulse attackers. Sadly, these upfront statements from military feed into the biggest conspiracy theory of them all: that clearly all civilian deaths were by IDF; that Hamas only killed soldiers.

Patently untrue, of course—but the existence of such wild counter-narratives helps to explain the defensive claims from rescue workers in Be’eri. Reserve Col. Golan Vach, for instance, told reporters that he had found a baby with its head cut off, and that members of his team had also found decapitated children.

Then Vach went on to say, in the wake of IDF operations there, “I don’t think a baby with its head cut off is an accident, a rocket doesn’t do that.” Now, Dr. Kugel would disagree, but Vach is not giving expert opinion here: just a feeling, and hope.

Therein lies the challenge, though, when sifting through stories from volunteers. These were humans taking in charred remains, bodies in pieces, and doing what any human would do: try to make sense of what they were seeing, in light of what they knew. Col. Rabbi Haim Weisberg, for instance, claimed a chronology of events clearly building on the pregnancy story that Yossi Landau had mentioned. In Weisberg’s version, Hamas “disembowels her, takes out the foetus, and in front of her, he comes out and massacres the baby, before killing her”. His story showed up in sensational news like Daily Mail, which also reported that another aid worker, Moshe Melayev, had found a family around a table, elaborately tortured.

Melayev explained in another interview that he and his team had needed training in how to remove bodies, and how to work for forensics instead of as a first-responder, highlighting how different this work has been from experiences to date. When he suggests a timeline of events for the dismembered bodies he saw, he sometimes speaks beyond the limits of his or any forensic expertise. In the process, though, he illustrates how our pattern-seeking minds build stories long before the data can catch up, or corroborating video can be disclosed.

Details also grow erratic when we face trauma directly. One paramedic wept on camera, while describing the last moments of a child whose arm had been cut off. The age of the child wavered over the course of the telling: 8, 9, 10, 12. That kind of variance sets off conspiracy theorists. It’s also the kind of fuzziness that emerges when one is gripped with horror by other aspects of so terrible a scene.

Even forensic pathologists are not immune to speculation.

Dr. Bublil would later lean into hyperbole, when she described Hamas to reporters as such: “These are monsters. They’re not human… They weren’t merciful to anyone. No one who was alive and encountered them remained alive. No one.”

Dr. Bublil was speaking out of the immense trauma of sitting every day with the severely disfigured dead, trying to get their remains to “speak” well enough to give families closure. That is her emotional truth.

Still, it’s not accurate to say that “no one” survived. On top of Porat’s complex account, we have footage that adds nuance to Hamas interactions with children in these civilian spaces: both videos released by IDF as part of a self-described “narrative battle” to win hearts and minds within a brutal war.

In one video, a Hamas operative throws a grenade into a shelter, killing a father fleeing there. He then passes two distraught children to get a cold drink. They are sobbing and consoling each other, and they leave, alive, after Hamas departs.

In another, we see Hamas kill civilians in their moving car. The car comes to a stop and Hamas approaches to confirm the kill. At such close proximity, the children in back, a girl and her infant sibling, must surely be visible or audible, but they are not harmed. They stay there for hours (brave sister!) until saved by Israeli officers.

The problem with nuance, though, is that it’s morally suspect in times of war, even as its alternative can be used to undermine the authority of the original speaker, like the hardworking Dr. Bublil. The mess of footage emerging from October 7 illustrates that Hamas operatives, being individuals, acted differently as they moved through their mission parameters. Some killed children. That is a fact: either as collateral damage, burned up with their parents in safe rooms, or directly. And some did not, at least on some occasions. (And thank goodness for that, for every person saved.)

The real cost of embellishment, though, is paid by the survivors. The actual stories of their traumatized loved ones, the genuine atrocities that transpired amid the world’s largest slaughter of Jewish people since the Holocaust (along with Thai, Nepali, and other foreign nationals), are currently lost to the bitter politics of weaponized rumor-mongering, and of course amid the general fog of war.

One recent example is that of Shani Louk, a music festival attendee who first became known through a video of her limp body being paraded about by Hamas. Dr. Kugel’s team sometimes has to identify bone fragments and confirm whether or not someone could have survived with that piece of them gone. Louk was one such case for forensics: without a body found, just a skull fragment suggesting a wound difficult to survive, she was declared dead at the end of October.

But soon after, Israeli President Isaac Herzog told a press crew that her whole skull had been found, from which he concluded and told them Louk had been beheaded.

Meanwhile, amid all this relentless leaping to sensationalism in the “narrative battle” between Israel and Palestine, there is so much real loss to sit with: plenty of stories far too easily bypassed, in our rush to use every death as a prop in war.

The dead we know

For the last few weeks, little Omer Siman Tov has had the terrible honor of being the youngest child on Israel’s published list of October 7 dead.

There are 1,152 names thus far, 764 civilians. Among them, 27 are between 4 and 17. Omer is the only four-year-old: a child with the goofy smile of someone who was clearly loved. Omer is joined next by two five-year-olds. Eitan Kapshitter’s Spiderman jumpsuit leaps out from his place on the list of the dead. Yazan Zakaria Abu-Jama has no picture yet: just a name that speaks to a different story of life in Israel. Omer’s siblings, Arbel and Sachar, both age six, are among the murdered, too.

Because of the released photo of a bloody baby on October 12, we know that the absence of children three and under from the official list of Israel’s dead doesn’t simply come from a failure to identify the bodies. The charred body might take longer, but there would be plenty of DNA for the other one to compare with hospital records kept up to five years after birth.

On October 27, the official account for Israel on X also posted a photo of a group of little ones, stating that “each and every one of these toddlers from Be’eri was butchered by Hamas terrorists.” The post came just as Israel was launching its ground invasion in Gaza. If the photo exists, and if the government claims that it can be tied to proof of death, then it follows that the names of these children are available, too. Just, not released to the public yet.

There are two possible reasons for a weeks-long lack of formal disclosure. One is the fount of many conspiracy theories online: maybe it’s all fake! maybe no babies died!

But the other possibility is far more important.

Simply put, the grieving families of any babies and toddlers killed on October 7 have now become huge targets for harassment, thanks to both media and government bandying about extreme claims of ritual beheadings. North Americans surely remember how the families after Sandy Hook were harassed by false flaggers stirred on by Alex Jones and his ilk. Similarly, to avoid families being hounded in grief, there is at least one good humanitarian reason to protect their identities for now.

At the same time, though, that humanitarian reason is sorely tested by Netanyahu’s government, which is comfortable using such “disembodied” images of atrocity (the unnamed toddlers, the unnamed charred baby, the unnamed bloodied baby) to fortify a nation in its outrage, and to defend against an international community that for the last few weeks has been overwhelmingly in favor of a ceasefire or humanitarian pause to protect more babies (many more babies) from dying, too.

Since the rumor of 40 beheaded babies, others have also risen in its political place. At a recent meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, emergency worker Eli Beer repeated the story of a pregnant mother and a plucked fetus stabbed before her eyes, claiming that he’d seen this and also a baby in an oven (perhaps expanding from conclusions drawn by first responder Asher Moskowitz, at the sight of a burned and swollen baby with marks suggesting proximity to a heating element).

Beer later walked back having seen this baby firsthand, but by then the story had done its rounds on right wing media, to further stoke up outrage. This was an especially fraught claim because Israeli-Palestinian history does contain an infamous story of a baby thrown into an oven, as first recounted by Othman Akel in Dawud Assad’s Palestine Rising (2010) and more recent documentaries. In that version, an infant was tossed into a bakery oven by Zionists at the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948.

So these are not allegations to be thrown around lightly. They inflame in many ways.

Most critically, though: what respect do they show to the dead?

Now, thanks to this whole, cruel media circus, even if and when the names of infants are released, these children will have been put to a military purpose, and a clickbait news purpose, long before the world had a chance to grieve them properly, as individuals whose lives should have mattered more.

How do we confront the mess we’ve made of our remembrance?

We are awash in a wide, traumatizing range of material evidence and emotional truth.
And in the throes of active conflict, emotional truth will win out every time.

Re-centering the grief that matters

At a different juncture in that October 16 press conference, when journalists pressed to know in which kibbutz the burned parent-child pair had been found, another member of the forensics team stepped in to shut down the whole line of questioning:

“No personal questions,” she said, “because we don’t want the families to hear from you what happened to their loved ones.”

This is a very important principle in forensics, but one difficult to sustain in real life.

For Israel’s dead, we have seen zip-ties and other restraints on charred and blistered corpses, sometimes binding family members to one another. We’ve seen dismemberment, bodies found in grim states of undress, and heaps of bone fragments. But mostly, barring the grand rumors and horrific tales from field workers, families have been given their privacy to grieve.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, families rarely have any privacy at all. While journalists do their work in the ruins, the grieving clutch their latest dead, weep over them, stroke their little heads to try to wake them, claw through the rubble and howl in agony as they try to find the rest. An orphaned boy, the last of his family, is sent to walk a line of body bags to find his kin, while someone records him. Communities gather to read and pay tribute to a seemingly endless scroll of names, or witness long lines of shrouded dead, as the press snaps photos.

It should be enough that people were killed in Israel on October 7.

It should be enough that civilians in Gaza have been killed every day since.

And it should be enough that many hostages have yet to come home.

No sordid details should be necessary to make all this theft of life unacceptable.

It’s not a game of who got killed worse.

But still, so many act like there must be a hierarchy to these horrors—because we are much more used to talking about our war dead in service to a greater cause.

On Remembrance Day, that’s what soldiers’ lives reduce to, isn’t it? The mission? What they gave to their countries, and to this nebulous notion of “us” and “our freedoms”? All other aspects of their lives are secondary. They lie “row on row” for us today, monument and monolith. National symbols first. Humans second.

And how ill-prepared this whole approach seems to have left us, when facing the most important war fact of all: that in combat many will see no difference between civilians and soldiers; those who don the uniform, and those who persevere at home.

Instead, as these last few weeks have reminded us, in times of war a common first instinct is to think that all civilians are culpable, too… or else that they can be made as good as soldiers, even and especially in their deaths—depending on how willing we are to put such precious, stolen memories to far more dehumanizing work.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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