Reporter's notebookWarning: Graphic images

Once an artery of thriving southern region, Route 232 transformed into road of death

Times of Israel reporters drive along Negev highway used by Hamas during brutal Saturday invasion and discover a hellish landscape stained by blood and fire

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The body of a Hamas terrorist lies near Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
The body of a Hamas terrorist lies near Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

It was relatively quiet on Wednesday morning as fellow Times of Israel reporter Canaan Lidor and I drove up Route 232, the road that cuts through agricultural fields and desert river beds as it connects the kibbutzim of the western Negev.

Despite the pastoral surroundings, signs of war were everywhere. Plumes of smoke rose from the Gaza Strip only kilometers to the west. Green IDF vehicles zoomed by in small convoys.

A few hundred yards before an army checkpoint, a white Toyota pick-up truck – similar to the model favored by the Islamic State in their propaganda videos – lay in a ditch, the passenger side smashed in.

The truck, bearing a white and green Gaza license plate, was used by Hamas terrorists as they stormed across the border on Saturday morning.

With no bullet holes in the truck and no cartridges or blood on the ground, it is not clear what happened to its occupants. But the equipment inside and strewn about on the white rocks nearby made clear its intended use.

A large, metal gas canister sat in a metal box in the truck’s bed, a homemade bomb that could have caused frightful damage had it been detonated. The improvised device to initiate a blast lay on the ground. A piece of a home alarm system, which enabled the bomb to be activated by phone, was attached to a white cable.

A Toyota pick-up truck used by Hamas terrorists lies in a ditch on Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

From the equipment they brought, the terrorists seemed prepared to spend days hiding out in the bushes. They had urine collection apparati to allow them to relieve themselves without having to leave their hiding spots.

Their backpacks, filled with changes of clothes and shoes, were open on the ground.

A black, Russian-made ammunition drum was filled with 7.62 mm caliber bullets.

Most chillingly, a plastic bag filled with car and house keys sat on the back seat, trophies from the procession of slaughter that they and their collaborators carried out in Israel. On the other side of Besor Stream, dozens of cars were parked in rows, some of them burnt husks containing charred bodies of young festival-goers who were shot and burned alive.

There were no bodies in the Toyota. A yellow X within a circle on the windshield indicated that the Zaka search and rescue service had checked and found none.

Around a bend in the road toward Re’im, the fate of a different group of terrorists was clearer.

In a field along the fence of the Re’im military base, dark wet patches stained the brown dirt. Flies buzzed around the drying purple blood. Two pairs of boots indicate that two attackers lost their lives here as they tried to infiltrate the base.

A Quran belonging to Hamas terrorists on Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Though their bodies were gone, the stench of death lingered heavy in the field.

Along the base’s perimeter fence, blackened vegetation pointed to a vicious firefight on Saturday morning.

Inside, two vigilant and slightly jumpy soldiers shouted at us not to come any closer to the base.

The terrorists’ personal effects lay along the road. Under a Eucalyptus tree, a maroon pocket Quran lay near a high-quality padded sniper case. Cans of XL energy drinks were strewn around clothes and a blue University of Palestine backpack.

A notebook used by Hamas terrorists lies in a ditch on Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

A notebook used by one of the terrorists featured Elsa from the Disney film “Frozen” on the cover. A tool pouch lay open — a screwdriver, pliers, wrench, and jack on top.

Those scenes, harrowing as they were, didn’t compare to the apocalyptic ones we encountered after the sun went down.

After visiting the remains of Kibbutz Be’eri, where almost ten percent of the community was murdered, we headed north in the dark to try to get back home. The road was dark and nearly empty, the only light coming from an occasional tank crossing or flare drifting down. Explosions from mortar and rocket fire from Gaza shook the car windows every minute or so.

To the east of a sharp bend in Route 232, a string of small fires illuminated a copse of trees. There was no immediate way to know what started the fire – a recent rocket strike? An IDF flare?

As we approached the fire, a tree burst into flames, hissing and crackling as orange tendrils snaked up its thin trunk.

“Stop!” exclaimed Canaan, and I looked down instinctively. The bloated body of a terrorist lay sprawled at my feet, his right arm reaching toward his combat vest. His face was burned beyond recognition.

Ten feet away, it was a hellscape. The remains of another terrorist were in flames, his flexed left arm sticking out of the inferno as if to push himself up. The ground beyond glowed orange, dark branches silhouetted against the blaze like the arms of a skeleton.

The scenario didn’t make any immediate sense, but one could surmise from spent bullet shells that the two Hamas invaders were cut down in a firefight, their bodies abandoned next to the road. They were two of the roughly 1,500 bodies of Hamas terrorists that the IDF says it has uncovered inside Israel since the Saturday onslaught.

The body of a Hamas terrorist catches fire along Route 232, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Whatever struck the forest shortly before our arrival likely caused the bodies of the terrorists to ignite. White phosphorus, a useful illumination agent, could have been the culprit, though it would be unorthodox, to say the least, for a military to use the highly flammable substance in its own territory.

It will take many long weeks for Israel to remove all the gory remains of the bloody Hamas assault from Route 232 and years for the communities, for whom the road was a lifeline to neighbors and the rest of the country, to begin to rebuild.

For now, the land is stained with the blood of innocents and that of their tormentors, the tools of the crimes lying along the side of the road, telling a ghastly tale that will be etched into Jewish memory for centuries to come.

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