ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 292

Nirit Shalev-Khalifa places a flag on a stick next to the items she wants removed, in this case from the situation room of the security team at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Main image: Nirit Shalev-Khalifa places a flag on a stick next to the items she wants removed, in this case from the situation room of the security team at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Reporter's notebook

Under expert eyes, objects retrieved from rubble help document October 7’s horrors

Thousands of items, from deckchairs to a donkey’s skull, are being salvaged, cataloged and stored near the Gaza border by visual history researchers

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Main image: Nirit Shalev-Khalifa places a flag on a stick next to the items she wants removed, in this case from the situation room of the security team at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ KFAR AZA — For Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a piece of rubble can help to chronicle an event.

For the past seven weeks, she and a team of experts in artifact documentation and preservation have been sifting through the detritus of October 7 to find objects that can testify to that terrible day, when Hamas terrorists butchered some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, kidnapped around 240 to the Gaza Strip, and left many homes and buildings in ruin.

“It’s forensic. It’s evidence,” said Shalev-Khalifa, who heads the Visual History Department at Yad Ben-Zvi, the Jerusalem-based state research, culture, and education institution.

“Objects provide a lot of information, a visual language,” she explained. “In this case, we’re going to places where October 7 happened to look for things that reflect something that happened.”

The objects vary between locations, she noted. In the Thai workers’ quarters in Kibbutz Alumim, for example, there were utensils and goods that the Thais used for cooking.

Some artifacts were difficult to recognize. “You might look at a lump and only grasp after several days that it was once a filtered water machine,” she said.

Documentation and preservation team members check out a whiteboard carrying IDF lists at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to Gaza, January 2, 2023. Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa is 2nd from right. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The objects collected so far — thousands of them — include everything from a donkey’s skull, camping gear, bullet-ridden books, and a juice presser with the name of the Bibas family on it, to decorations from the temporary structures Jews erect during Sukkot — the Festival of Tabernacles.

Yarden Bibas, 34, his wife Shiri Bibas, 32, and their two children, Ariel, 4, and Kfir, 11 months, were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7 and their fate remains unknown. A Hamas claim that Shiri, Ariel and Kfir were dead has not been corroborated.

The Bibas family — father Yarden, four-year-old Ariel, mother Shiri and baby Kfir — were abducted by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. (Courtesy)

Why the Sukkot decorations? Because they anchor the events in time, Shalev-Khalifa explained. The gunmen went on their killing spree on Simchat Torah, immediately following the Sukkot holiday, when Jews celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings and the start of a new one.

Shalev-Khalifa selects what she wants extracted by placing a wooden skewer with a little red flag next to it. The objects are photographed in situ and given a GPS location and a catalog number.

Israel Antiquities Authority director of National Treasures, Dr. Miki Saban, writes a catalog number for an item found at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On the day this reporter visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s director of National Treasures, Dr. Miki Saban, was performing this task as a volunteer.

Shalev-Khalifa has spent decades collecting objects that can tell us about events from the past. One of her Yad Ben-Zvi projects is Land and Artifact, a database for objects relevant to the history of Israel gathered from hundreds of small museums, exhibitions, and private collections.

Rivka Calderon (right), a former director of artifact registration at the Eretz Israel Museum, uploads details about objects into a database, alongside Ruth Eitam Packtowitz of the Land and Artefact team, at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

So it was natural for the Heritage Ministry, which has been funding Land and Artifact, to ask Shalev-Khalifa and her partner Dina Grossman in the weeks following October 7 to head south to the Gaza border communities (mainly kibbutzim), to gather objects that cast light on the terrible events of that day.

Her core team from Yad Ben-Zvi has been boosted by dozens of experts from museums who know how to register artifacts in a database correctly, and how to conserve them.

Used to working indoors, they are currently sitting at ad hoc camping tables in the field, where all they need are laptops and internet access.

Assisting them with the careful removal of heavier items are male volunteers with the Israeli chapter of the international Blue Helmets heritage organization.

The evidence of what happened

Shalev-Khalifa is in a rush.

Kibbutzim such as Kfar Aza are attracting visitors — sometimes busloads of them — and she fears that important objects will be taken away as souvenirs. Once renovation work begins on the wrecked structures, crime scenes will be disturbed.

Reminders of the war were never far away when this reporter visited. IDF artillery booms exploded close by; Kfar Aza is just two kilometers (1.5 miles) from the Gaza border.

During the previous evening, one of Dina Grossman’s sons was injured in Gaza and rushed to hospital for surgery. Thankfully, he will be okay.

To date, the team has processed objects from seven kibbutzim. That leaves another five kibbutzim, including Kfar Aza, and one moshav still to cover.

Remains of the Hermesh family house at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

They started at Kfar Aza last week, at the situation room of the kibbutz security team, many of whose members were gunned down, and at the remains of the house of former Knesset member and regional council head Shai Hermesh.

Hermesh and his wife survived. Their son Omer was murdered elsewhere on the kibbutz. The IDF subsequently blew up the big family house after Hamas terrorists moved in.

A child’s seat can be seen in a car that was attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. The car is one of hundreds being stored at a Moshav Tkuma lot close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Grossman and Shalev-Khalifa have also trawled through personal belongings still in the hundreds of cars that were shot at, set on fire, or otherwise badly damaged during the Hamas onslaught. The cars, a trailer, and — in a separate section — the trucks and motorcycles used by the Hamas terrorists are lined up in grim order on a field belonging to Moshav Tkuma, which the terrorists, mercifully, didn’t touch.

One doesn’t need much imagination to understand what happened. Here is a car whose front windscreen is pocked with bullet holes. There, the back window has been shot through and shattered and is hanging off. Sometimes the bullet holes have gone through the driver’s door. Pieces of plastic have melted where there was fire.

Camping equipment next to a car that was attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. The car is one of hundreds being stored at a Moshav Tkuma lot close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Where human remains were found, the cars carry labels from Zaka, the volunteer body that removes human remains after disasters. When Shalev-Khalifa and Grossman first visited, two weeks ago, Zaka workers were still sifting through dirt in the hope of being able to identify a victim through DNA.

The two women found plentiful camping equipment and scores of deckchairs belonging to those who tried to escape the Supernova party near Kibbutz Re’im, when the ecstasy of sunrise for which they’d come turned into a terrorist hell. Some 360 people were murdered.

Why did she need to collect so many deckchairs? Because the quantity is a testament to what happened, she said.

The team, she went on, was still taking anything with potential, much as the early Victorian archaeologists did, when they took everything and then gradually learned what they wanted to highlight. “We don’t want to miss anything,” she said.

The parents and relatives of those who died in the cars and wanted to visit the parking lot had already taken what they wanted. This reporter visited just before the Blue Helmets went in on Shalev-Khalifa’s behalf.

A fridge and various personal items were seen in a caravan that was attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. The vehicle is one of hundreds being stored at a Moshav Tkuma lot close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Many personal items were still visible — shoes, a single army boot, water bottles, baby seats, and all that camping equipment.

Objects of a different kind were yielded by a massive pile of loot from Kibbutz Nir Oz, which the army failed to reach until the Hamas machine guns had finished their work, and regular Gazans had caught taxis back and forth over the border to plunder whatever they could find.

When the army finally arrived, it shot at the looters, who dropped the goods as they fell or ran.

Army bulldozers subsequently retrieved whatever they could.

The donkey’s skull came from that pile — still with its bridle on. Shalev-Khalifa assumes the animal was shot dead by the IDF as it carried a cart full of stolen items back to Gaza.

A collaborative effort

Yad Ben-Zvi’s work forms part of a massive, multi-pronged attempt by many institutions to record what happened on October 7 that also includes taking verbal testimony (Shoah Foundation) and collecting visual evidence from the internet (the National Library).

The army was first into the kibbutzim, to flush out remaining terrorists and check that everything was secure. Zaka was next, to carry out the grim task of removing corpses and searching for DNA where no body parts could be found.

Blue Helmet volunteers help to shift heavy objects, in this case the drum of a washing machine, at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Defense Ministry then sent teams into homes to help families pack and move their belongings to the hotels or other facilities to which they had been evacuated.

Before Shalev-Khalifa got going, the Heritage Ministry found the architects who had created kibbutz masterplans and asked them to carry out surveys to ensure some continuity when homes and public buildings are renovated or replaced.

The Israel Antiquities Authority carried out photogrammetry — a process by which multiple images are combined to create three-dimensional digital models of physical things both outside and inside damaged buildings. Think Google Street View.

Shalev-Khalifa has only good things to say about both the Heritage Ministry’s professionals and the Tekuma (Revival) Administration set up by the government to manage the rehabilitation of the Gaza border area.

A piece of art pockmarked with bullet holes and partly destroyed by Hamas gunmen on October 7, is mounted on a surface in a hall being used to store objects connected to that day at Kibbutz Kfar Aza close to the Gaza border, January 2, 2023. ((Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Tekuma enabled the team to coordinate with the IDF, the Defense Ministry, and the local authorities, Shalev-Khalifa explained. “From the moment it was set up, it’s been working fantastically, taking care of everything. We’re working with a young female captain who arranges our meetings because she’s in contact with all the people who’ve come back to the communities.”

This project not only documents what happened through artifacts.

Shalev-Khalifa said it helped people whose homes had been damaged — not all of whom have come back since October 7 — to let go, to move on, or to renovate, in the knowledge that the evidence of what happened will be preserved.

The team works closely with each kibbutz, which allocates space for an archive where the objects can be temporarily stored.

The next stage will be to conserve the objects and either to return them to their owners or give them to the relevant kibbutz.

“When I create an exhibition, I choose things. Here, I gather as many things as possible. I don’t know what they’ll be used for,” Shalev-Khalifa said, noting wryly that with so much evidence, the historians of October 7 will be busy.

She added, “I’m glad I’ll no longer be around.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
image
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure: example@domain.com
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.