Dashcam footage shows Israel caught completely unawares

Through fog of war

First casualty is the truth. Paul Demarty says Al Jazeera should be congratulated for presenting what is probably a fair and accurate account of the October 7 events

The viewer of Al Jazeera’s hour-long documentary on the October 7 attacks1 is warned, in the usual way, that “this film includes scenes that some viewers may find disturbing”. Frankly, the idea that any viewer would find nothing in it disturbing is not pleasant to contemplate.

Whatever else it is, this film - produced by the admirable AJ investigative unit, or I-unit - is a lean and unsparing portrait of the events of that day, and also the immediate production of increasingly lurid tall tales about what went on. At first, I was irritated by the flashiness of the production - transitions between bodycam footage of the carnage and CGI maps, the appearance of a giant digital clock as a continuity device. But before long I had to admit that these were no mere fripperies. Cheesy as they were, these techniques imposed order on the first half of the film, which might otherwise have devolved into an incomprehensible snuff montage.

Much of the discussion of the film has focused, understandably, on the I-unit’s dissection of the various salacious pieces of atrocity propaganda that circulated widely after the events. Yet it is worth covering its account of the attacks themselves. As of the beginning of last year, the Palestinian cause was in a perilous state. A series of peaceful demonstrations from 2018‑19, the marches of return, had been met with sniper fire (the film does not mention the deliberate targeting of limbs by the snipers). Meanwhile, the administrations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden pursued a policy of relative withdrawal from the Middle East, a key part of which was the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf states.

The October 7 Hamas plan was hatched to upend this process, and ensure that the Palestinians could not be ignored in such negotiations. The film interviews Hamas official Basem Naim, who confirms this rationale, although he notes that only a very few people within the organisation had any real view of the overall plan.

Preparations were nonetheless necessary. Hamas and its allies made no attempt to conceal its rehearsals and experiments - impossible in any case in as comprehensively surveilled a tract of land as Gaza. Videos circulated online of fighters blowing holes in dummy fences, mucking about with paragliders, and so forth. How can the Israelis not have noticed? One Israeli historian quoted, Uri Bar-Joseph, calls it the most severe intelligence failure in modern history, which seems a little harsh, but the fact remains that this activity was noticed by lower-ranking individuals, who were ignored. Their bosses just could not believe that Hamas could have the capability of making a serious attack on Israel.

Even early on the morning of October 7, Israelis noticed the sudden hubbub of Hamas fighters assembling at their posts. No attempt was made to put IDF border posts on high alert. Israeli troops were - literally in some cases - caught napping.

This is an important feature of the overall picture. According to the film, the plan was to attack military bases, cause a lively panic, give the occupiers a bloody nose, and signal to the world that Hamas and Palestine could not be ignored. An 80%-90% casualty rate was expected (and no doubt a revenge exercise that would cost the usual 100 or so Palestinian lives for each Israeli killed).

What took place instead was a stunning and total victory. With cheap drones, Hamas succeeded in cutting communications between IDF bases. Each one was taken by surprise. Soldiers were slaughtered in their dozens. In the space of an hour, the entire military cordon around Gaza was utterly destroyed.


It is here that things started to turn really nasty. The militants had no orders to follow after that. There was no clear command structure that could have improvised a coordinated follow-up attack. What happened instead was that squads of militants continued into Israel, where they found a series of kibbutzes and a music festival. Large massacres of civilians ensued. Meanwhile, hundreds of Gazan civilians followed the militants through the broken security fences, and travelled to nearby Israeli settlements, which were looted, with further hostages taken. The footage assembled by the I-unit of all this - mostly from Hamas bodycams - leaves no doubt that large numbers of unarmed civilians were deliberately killed.

Yet they were not the only people doing the killing. The film argues persuasively that Israel had revived some variant of the infamous ‘Hannibal directive’, whereby a fatal casualty is preferred to a living hostage. Footage of Israeli attack-helicopters indiscriminately blasting at vehicles that plausibly contained hostages is added to evidence that in one kibbutz tanks deliberately destroyed buildings full of people. It was, ironically, one of these buildings where babies were supposedly discovered in an oven; not for the first time in human history, a real atrocity was hidden under a fake one. The film says that 18 civilians are known to have been killed by Israeli security forces, but that a large number of bodies discovered in the rubble of destroyed buildings were very plausibly victims of ‘friendly fire’.

Having mentioned the fake atrocities, the film goes on to undertake a survey of the most widely retailed stories, and unsurprisingly finds the evidence wanting. Not much of this material is new. Most notably, the accusation that Hamas deliberately committed systematic rape - given prime billing in The New York Times - has been debunked repeatedly, by outlets as diverse as the tankie-leaning The Grayzone and the more-or-less respectable Intercept. None of the eyewitness statements of rape have been corroborated, never mind the most lurid ones.

The film concludes, as reasonable people familiar with how wars are actually fought must, that it is vanishingly unlikely that no women were raped amidst the general carnage. (Naim did specifically deny it, but then he also denied in earlier interviews that Hamas fighters had killed civilians, which is obviously and comically false.) Yet to declare that rape was deliberately used as a weapon of war is to lay claim to a casus belli for which there is no real warrant. Perhaps a serious investigation would find real evidence, but Israel refuses to allow one, considering all plausibly competent authorities - the UN, for instance - to be enemies.

As for the butchered babies, sworn to largely by overexcited activists for a state-backed Orthodox ‘charity’ called Zaka, the matter is almost embarrassingly straightforward. Not only were these reports rejected by the governments of the kibbutzim, where the crimes allegedly took place: one can simply check the records and discover that not nearly enough infants were reported dead to account for them. It seems to be a lie spun out of wholecloth.

Yet these and other fantasies have continued endlessly. The grisly truth is simply not grisly enough, as one interviewee notes, to justify the scale of retaliation. Ruthlessly shooting hundreds of civilians to death is one thing, but how can that justify an onslaught that has killed tens of thousands, mostly women and children? Something more is needed: something that will paint the victims as little better than animals. The willingness of ‘good liberals’ in America (like Anthony Blinken, Hillary Clinton and the NYT) to retail these blood libels will be remembered, we hope, for a long, long time.


The film concludes by asking the question: did it work? Was the operation a strategic success, as well as a tactical masterstroke? The opinion of the filmmakers appears to be: yes, it was. Chuck Freilich - a former Israeli intelligence official, who is now an academic in America - mournfully asserts that, by destroying all the careful diplomacy between Israel and the Arab states, Hamas has dealt a serious blow. Naim, rather more happily, agrees. There is also the loss of Israel’s sense of invulnerability. The scale of the devastation inflicted upon Gaza is interpreted as a way of warning off any repeat: sure, you can do it, but would you want to?

That is all true enough, but oddly missing from the film is the alternative interpretation of Israel’s retaliation: that the endgame of all this slaughter is to empty the Gaza Strip of Palestinians, by killing as many as possible through fire and famine, and forcing the majority of the survivors into the Sinai. Already there is word of land in Gaza being parcelled up and sold, including to the family of Jared Kushner, who ran Trump’s Middle East diplomacy. The cramming of millions into Rafah, the endlessly touted assault on that city, strongly suggests that that is the aim, but it was already discernible months ago, and quite predictable from the historic behaviour and elementary Staatsraison of Israel. Endless provocations against Iran and Hezbollah - most recently the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Damascus - are senseless except as attempts to draw the US in fully, therefore providing unassailable cover for ending the Gaza ‘problem’ for good.

October 7 was a tactical masterclass in irregular warfare. But such warfare has enabling conditions. Mao Zedong famously said that the guerrilla must swim like a fish in the sea of peasants; but what if your adversary does not need the peasants? What if it is happy to poison the ocean altogether? Bleak as it is, the film does not go there. The word, ‘genocide’, is not used once.

All this helps demonstrate that the appalling possibilities currently unfolding put even greater responsibility on the solidarity movement - both in the neighbouring countries and further afield: in the heartlands of the imperial system.

  1. The film can be watched on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0atzea-mPY.↩︎