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Why the Body Cams?



Many of the Israelis I’ve spoken do not differentiate between Hamas and the civilian population of Gaza, but the Biden Administration does. Who is right?


Along with the reasons for Israel’s military and intelligence failures of October 7, there is one question that keeps haunting me: why the body cams? The Hamas terrorists who broke through our border that nightmarish day and raped, burnt, mutilated, and massacred over a thousand civilians came armed not only with guns and grenades but also cameras to film their actions. A number of these were found after the attack, and the footage they contained extracted. Though Israel had a long-standing policy of never publishing the photos of the dead or even the injured, the need to remind the world of Hamas’s crimes resulted in the release of a forty-three-minute collection of body cam scenes. Screened for a select group of foreign correspondents, the video showed terrorists methodically shooting children under a table, chopping off the head of a Thai worker, and raiding the refrigerator right after butchering its owners. The images, the journalists later said, emotionally scarred them. So, I ask myself, why? What motivated these murderers to record their atrocities? Who was their intended audience?


Is the population that voted Hamas into power in 2006 and the following year cheered its violent takeover over Gaza, innocent of or complicit in its crimes? Determining that will impact both the conduct of this war as well as future prospects for peace.

The question of “why the body cams?” came back to me, searingly, while listening to Joe Biden’s speeches. Twice, on October 18 and 25, the president called on Israel to make every effort to avoid causing civilian casualties in Gaza. There was nothing new about his request; he and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made it almost daily. But then Biden made an extraordinary assertion. “The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” he declared.


I heard this and once again asked myself, “Why the body cams?” Who were their videos meant for but that same vast majority of Palestinians? Though the president adduced no evidence to back up his claim, a great many of Israelis might to doubt it. “Many Gazan civilians entered Israel,” former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told interviewer Piers Morgan. He added that they pointed out which girls to capture and which girls to rape and murder. “The notion that Hamas is totally divorced from the massive public support of Gazans is untrue.”


Still, no one in the Israeli government or military took issue with President Biden’s claim. On the contrary, officials continued to distinguish between combatants and civilians in Gaza, urging the latter to evacuate the northern battle zone for the relative safety of the south.

That sentiment was repeated in conversations I’ve held since the beginning of the war—at shivas, funerals, and in visits to the families of the hostages—in which Israelis call not only for vengeance against Hamas but against all the Palestinians of Gaza. “We have to eliminate them all,” one grieving brother told me, “Down to the last child.” Interviewed on Israeli TV, highly decorated IDF intelligence veteran, Eliyahu Yossian, an immigrant from Iran, urged Israelis to regard every Gazan as a Hamas terrorist. “We must respond with the utmost cruelty…Every first grader (in Gaza) learns to use an M-16 and a Kalashnikov. We must enter Gaza not to settle accounts but to decimate them, to bring them to their knees until they pray to God, ‘What have we done?’”


In contrast to the Nazis, who understood that the Holocaust was stressful work for its perpetrators and that images of its conduct might shock even the most Jew-hating Germans, Hamas and other Jihadist groups enjoy their job and assume that a great many others will applaud them.

Still, no one in the Israeli government or military took issue with President Biden’s claim. On the contrary, officials continued to distinguish between combatants and civilians in Gaza, urging the latter to evacuate the northern battle zone for the relative safety of the south. And along with the Israelis I encounter demanding revenge against every Gazan, terrorist and civilian alike, are others expressing empathy for the Palestinians’ plight. Most people I meet are less Manichean, feeling sorry for the Palestinians while insisting the Israel reject any call for ceasefire. Sympathetic or not, no Israeli is celebrating.


So what is the truth? Is the population that voted Hamas into power in 2006 and the following year cheered its violent takeover over Gaza, innocent of or complicit in its crimes? Determining that will impact both the conduct of this war as well as future prospects for peace. Above all, as a civilized country, a Jewish state, we must identify our enemy, whether a terrorist organization or a people. For the sake of our national soul, we must answer the question, “Why the body cams?”


My own search for that answer didn’t begin with President Biden’s speeches, but back in 2016, in a briefing from Meir Ben-Shabbat. The Israeli government had tasked me with exploring ways to improve the quality of life in Gaza, giving Hamas something to lose, and combating the already-popular image of the Strip as “the world’s biggest open-air prison.” Ben-Shabbat, who would later serve as Israel’s National Security Advisor, was then head of the Southern Region of the Internal Security Service, the Shabak. Far from the Fauda stereotype, diminutive, bespectacled, and religious, he was widely regarded as Israel’s number-one expert on Gaza and Hamas.


“discard any notion you have of human decency and civilized behavior"

“First off,” Ben Shabbat advised me, “discard any notion you have of human decency and civilized behavior.” In Gaza, he said, Iran is willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will fight Hamas to the last Israeli. Hamas uses—and loses—hundreds of Palestinian children each year digging its tunnels. In addition to taking a big cut of all the goods entering Gaza, Hamas limits their flow to keep the population angry and dependent. To make a point, Hamas blows up the pipes that bring fuel into Gaza and bombs the border crossings through which aid and aid workers pass. With each round of fighting, Ben-Shabbat assured me, irrespective of the price Gaza pays, Hamas considers itself victorious.


Unlike the corrupt and “collaborationist” Palestinian Authority, Hamas championed the armed struggle against Israel and upheld Islamic law.

But the most astonishing insight Ben-Shabbat supplied me was the nature of Hamas’s relationship with the people. Despite all of the misery it inflicted on them, Hamas remained exceedingly popular among the people. Unlike the corrupt and “collaborationist” Palestinian Authority, Hamas championed the armed struggle against Israel and upheld Islamic law. It took care of the sick and the poor. “In any fair election, Hamas would win by a landslide,” Ben-Shabbat told me. Knowing that, Mahmoud Abbas was in the eleventh (now eighteenth) year of his four-year term.


Seven years have passed since Ben-Shabbat’s briefing and Hamas’s popularity seems to have dimmed. Many Palestinians have apparently tired of its costly conflicts with Israel, its rising corruption, and brutal suppression of critics. Under the banner, “We Want to Live,” protests broke out in Gaza 2019, only to be mercilessly dispersed. An online discussion expressing frustration with Hamas, “They kidnapped Gaza,” appeared on Twitter in 2022. A poll conducted the following year by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that support for Hamas in Gaza had fallen to 57%. A Palestinian survey taken since the outbreak of the war determined that trust in Hamas had plummeted even further, with nearly 70% of Gazans expressing dissatisfaction with their government.


even this decline in popular enthusiasm for Hamas could not fully substantiate President Biden’s claim that “the vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas.”

Yet even this decline in popular enthusiasm for Hamas could not fully substantiate President Biden’s claim that “the vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas.” Perhaps he was referring to the fact that of the more than two million Gazans, only an estimated 150,000 were actual Hamas members. But, then again, perhaps the president and the polls are all missing the point. It’s not what Hamas is but rather what it does.


Palestinians may well be disillusioned with Hamas governance, but they remain overwhelmingly approving of terror

Palestinians may well be disillusioned with Hamas governance, but they remain overwhelmingly approving of terror. The same Washington Institute poll indicated that three-quarters of Gazans support both the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Lion’s Den. The latter, an anti-Fatah terrorist group founded in Nablus in 2022, is affiliated with PIJ, reportedly funded by Hamas, and heavily influenced by Iran. To date, the Lion’s Den has killed several Israelis as well as a suspected Palestinian collaborator. The esteemed Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, in December 2022, found that 72% of the Palestinians favored the formation of additional “armed groups”—read: terrorist organizations.


Palestinian terror against Jews predates the creation of the state by nearly a century

Such statistics are reflexively ascribed to what the world views as Israel’s harsh occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. But Palestinian terror against Jews predates the creation of the state by nearly a century, claiming its first fatality, Shlomo Tzorif, killed by a sword-blow to the head in Jerusalem in 1851. Major massacres of Jews took place in Hebron in 1929 and in the Etzion Bloc on the eve of Israel’s independence in 1948. In both cases, the Palestinians mutilated their victims’ bodies.


The suicide bombers of restaurants, buses, and a Passover seder were beatified as martyrs by the Palestinian public.

The same Israelis who consider “innocent Palestinians” oxymoronic would also regard “Palestinian terror” as redundant. Lod, Munich, Ma’alot, Kiryat Shmona, the Coast Road—the list of massacres is relentless. The Second Intifada, alone, claimed the lives of a thousand Israelis. The suicide bombers of restaurants, buses, and a Passover seder were beatified as martyrs by the Palestinian public. Israelis of my generation will never forget the Palestinians who, after lynching and dismembering two Israeli men who took a wrong turn in Ramallah, held up their gory hands to the cameras. Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority continue to pay many millions of dollars in stipends to the families of those “martyrs” and salaries to the terrorists in Israeli jails. The carnage of October 7, killing almost as many Israelis as all previous attacks combined, was shocking but not surprising. The terrorists were merely reverting to form.


Yet even that form is being justified by the occupation and blockade. Lacking tanks and planes, apologists explain, the Palestinians have no other means of resisting Israel and achieving independence. "There will continue to be resistance to oppression as long as apartheid, occupation, ethnic cleansing, genocide continue to exist,” Nerdeen Kiswani, co-founder of Within Our Lifetime Palestine, told Piers Morgan. “As long as oppression against the Palestinian people exists we will continue to resist.” Terror, advocates for the Palestinians claim, is the only resort of the powerless.


Saleh al-Raqab, a professor of religion at Gaza’s Islamic University and former Hamas minister, declared on October 8. “O Allah, destroy the Jews completely. Paralyze their limbs and freeze the blood in their veins.”


That might be true if Hamas was a national liberation movement. It is not. In place of a secular ideology, Hamas espouses a Jihadist theology similar to that of ISIS, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Common to all these movements is the millennial Muslim vision of recreating the medieval caliphate in the Middle East and then across the world. Hamas differs only in viewing Israel’s destruction as the essential first step in that process. “O Allah, grant victory to the fighters in Palestine,” Saleh al-Raqab, a professor of religion at Gaza’s Islamic University and former Hamas minister, declared on October 8. “O Allah, destroy the Jews completely. Paralyze their limbs and freeze the blood in their veins.”


The Nazis sought to hide the evidence of their genocide; Hamas posted it on Facebook and Telegram.

And like ISIS, which festively filmed decapitations, Hamas revels in recording its savagery. There is ritual to it, bloodlust, and theater. In contrast to the Nazis, who understood that the Holocaust was stressful work for its perpetrators and that images of its conduct might shock even the most Jew-hating Germans, Hamas and other Jihadist groups enjoy their job and assume that a great many others will applaud them. The Nazis sought to hide the evidence of their genocide; Hamas posted it on Facebook and Telegram. It’s difficult to imagine the citizens of Dresden, say, handing out candy and setting off fireworks after the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in 1944. Not so the residents of Gaza after virtually every major terrorist attack, their celebrations reaching a frenzy on October 7. Hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, followed Hamas terrorists through the breaks in Israel’s fence and carried out atrocities no less horrific.


Hence, the body cams. They were worn to preserve Hamas’s handiwork for posterity, to document with pride

Hence, the body cams. They were worn to preserve Hamas’s handiwork for posterity, to document with pride. The videos they captured were intended for viewers throughout Gaza and well beyond—to cities and villages across the Middle East and portions of the Muslim world. They were designed not to delegitimize Israel internationally or weaken it internally—just the opposite has happened—but to fortify support for Hamas and the Jihadist idea. The foreign correspondents who saw clips from the terrorists’ body cams were permanently scarred. Hamas’s audiences were delighted.


Such rejoicing is perhaps to be expected in Gaza, where, from the earliest age, children are taught the supreme value and various methods of killing Jews.

Such rejoicing is perhaps to be expected in Gaza, where, from the earliest age, children are taught the supreme value and various methods of killing Jews. In summer camps, UNWRA schools, mosques, and madrassas, they learn to nurture hatred and glorify violence. “I killed ten Jews with my own hands!” one of the terrorists, phoning his parents from a freshly-ravaged kibbutz, exulted. But enthusiasm for the slaughter of October 7 is far from confined to Gaza. With very few exceptions, Arab leaders refrained from denouncing the mass killing of Jews, while condemning any Israeli military response. Antisemitism, even in a strategically friendly state such as Egypt, is officially promoted. According to al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon, 80% of the country’s population supported the Hamas attack. Similar statistics could no doubt be compiled elsewhere in the Middle East—and not just there. The countless thousands protesting against Israel in capitals and on campuses around the world make no distinction between Hamas and the Palestinians. “Resistance,” they chant “is justified when people are occupied.”


Antisemitism, even in a strategically friendly state such as Egypt, is officially promoted

No amount of military ordinance or ground action will alter this, unfortunately. While some Palestinians may renounce Hamas for its ruinous aggression, others might rally to the organization. Writing in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Amaney A. Jamal and Michael Robbins warned that military solutions, alone, will “likely drive Gazans into the arms of Hamas, guaranteeing renewed violence in the years ahead.” Preventing that outcome will require a fundamental change in Palestinian education and popular culture effected over the course of decades. In the interim, we in Israel—and the civilization we represent—must do the utmost to defend ourselves.


But does that mean Israelis should continue to distinguish between the terrorists and civilians? Should we accept President Biden’s pronouncement that “The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas”? My answer to those questions is a difficult but unequivocal “yes.” Despite the candy and the fireworks, despite the body cams, we will act as though Hamas and the Palestinian public are not one in the same. We will do this out of respect for the United States and our other allies. We will do this to honor the many Muslims, among them our fellow Israelis, who condemned the slaughter of October 7 and stood up to Hamas. We will do this to recall the Palestinian woman who, in the courageous Whispered in Gaza series, said, “If I saw a hostage or knew where they were…I’d take them and hide them. I’d bring them back home.” But most of all, we will do this not because of what Hamas does but because of who we are. We are the citizens and soldiers of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.


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