Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions that some may find distressing.
On 10 October 2023, reports of the discovery of bodies of beheaded babies among the casualties at the Kfar Aza kibbutz - a form of commune in Israel - near Gaza started circulating on international media.
The kibbutz was one of the locations that came under attack from Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, in the morning of Saturday 7 October, as part of its so-called ‘Operation al-Aqsa Flood’.
Fighters from within the Gaza strip infiltrated Israel after bypassing its defences. Armed groups attacked several towns, reportedly setting homes ablaze “to drive families out of locked shelters”. Amnesty International called the attack a flagrant violation of international law, as it collected and verified videos showing “Hamas fighters abducting, intentionally killing civilians” in residential communities, including in the Kfar Aza kibbutz.
By October 11, an official count of the casualties in Kfar Aza had not been made yet, as bodies were still being located, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. At that point in time, the overall death toll from the incursion into Southern Israel and subsequent fighting was at least 1200, according to the Israeli army.
According to the BBC, fighting between the Israeli army and Hamas fighters over control of the kibbutz was still ongoing until Tuesday morning.
Foreign journalists were, however, allowed to tour the kibbutz later that same day, and document what Israeli soldiers described as a “carnage”.
According to Haaretz’ Anshel Pfeffer, the killing in Kfar Aza “could be the biggest massacre to take place in a Jewish community in the Land of Israel since the start of the Zionist enterprise.”
Yet, out of all the reports of atrocities committed during the Hamas attack, the alleged beheading of “40 babies” in Kfar Aza seems to have caught the most attention from the public.
Versions of this claim have been shared extensively on social media and international outlets.
Origin of the claim
In the afternoon of October 10th, during a live broadcast for Israel-based i24News, correspondent Nicole Zedeck reported from the Kfar Aza Kibbutz after the Israeli army had recaptured it from Hamas fighters.
She stated that, according to Israeli soldiers she had spoken with, “babies, their heads cut off” were among the casualties. Parts of the broadcast were uploaded on X - formerly known as Twitter - on i24News’ page. Clips from this same broadcast were tweeted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the caption “40 babies murdered”.
In another clip from the broadcast, Army Unit 71 Deputy Commander David Ben Zion confirms that Hamas “terrorists” committed the beheading, stating “they are very bad, they cut head off children, cut head off women.” Unit 71 had been tasked with retaking the kibbutz after Hamas’ Saturday attack.
Other outlets reported similar claims, usually citing the Israeli army as their source. The BBC wrote that, according to Ben Zion, “some of the victims are decapitated.” Insider - formerly Business Insider - quoted Major Nir Dinar, head of the Israeli military’s International Press Department, who stated that, while “he hadn't seen images or videos himself, ‘soldiers on the ground who are there told me this.’”
However, the Turkish state-run Anadolu agency was able to speak with the Israeli Army spokesperson who denied any information on allegations of beheadings. When asked about it, the spokesperson stated that “we have seen the news, but we do not have any details or confirmation about that.”
No confirmation from local media
According to Times of Israel, the Israeli army did not allow local media to enter the area near the Gaza strip where the Kfar Aza kibbutz is located, but decided to take the foreign press on an escort there. Israeli news outlet Ynet called the decision of allowing foreign journalists into Kfar Aza first “an unusual step”. According to Times of Israel Diplomatic Reporter Lazar Berman, this showed “how strongly the country is prioritizing world opinion.”
Indeed, footage from the army-organised tour showed foreign press being given access to the kibbutz, accompanied by at least one company of soldiers. Of the hundreds of soldiers reportedly on site, only Deputy Commander David Ben Zion reported Hamas committing beheadings.
Local media had been previously reporting about the fighting happening in Kfar Aza, as well as other kibbutzim near Gaza.
On 8 October, Ynet published detailed testimonies from residents of Kfar Aza, while the fighting was still ongoing. A civilian evacuated during the night of October 7 spoke of “wounded people who have not been evacuated yet.”
Survivors in other towns near Kfar Aza reported using WhatsApp groups to communicate during the siege, while “terrorists [were] going through the houses and burning them.” None of the interviews would make references to Hamas fighters committing beheadings on babies.
Other harrowing accounts from other towns in the area, this time from Haaretz, did not reveal any reports of beheadings either.
The New Arab (TNA) was unable to independently confirm that Israeli media had been excluded from the foreign press tour. Many Israeli journalists who report for local outlets were present at the tour.
A second eyewitness
On the night of 10 October, the news of the massacres in Southern Israel reached the US.
All major US news outlets reported the news of “butchered” children from Israel. These reports came from correspondents on the ground that were part of the army-organised tour.
CBS was able to speak with Yossi Landau, head of operations at Zaka, Israel’s volunteer emergency response organisation. According to CBS, “[Landau] saw with his own eyes children and babies who had been beheaded.”
When the New Arab contacted the Israeli army for comments on the information contained in the CBS report, they responded: “We can neither confirm nor deny those testimonies.”
What about material evidence?
TNA examined Telegram channels popular with Hamas supporters, for evidence of beheadings committed by Palestinian fighters, as well as channels used by Israeli first responders in areas near Gaza.
It found multiple instances of photos showing beheaded individuals in military attire, most likely Israeli soldiers.
TNA also found a video showing two individuals, attempting to decapitate a barely conscious man, on the ground, using a garden hoe. The first assailant, speaking in Arabic, proclaims: “Let history bear witness. The first [person] slain, I killed him”. It is not clear from the video whether they succeeded in beheading the victim.
TNA was not able to verify that the footage was recorded during the Hamas offensive. The victim, most likely a Southeast Asian national, is seen wearing a yellow shirt with the words “Dimona Race” in Hebrew. Dimona is a city in the Israeli Negev, some 70 km southeast of Gaza.
According to CNN, the video was determined to be authentic, though it was not possible to geolocate it.
Two Filipino and 21 Thai nationals have been confirmed dead in the Hamas attack, according to their respective governments.
TNA was not able to find any material showing Hamas beheading babies.
‘Hamas = ISIS’
While fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas gunmen over control of many kibbutzim in Southern Israel was still raging, the official account of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs started sharing posts on X equating Hamas to the Islamic State (IS) jihadist organisation.
Less than 24 hours after the start of the Hamas offensive, the account posted on X a video allegedly showing “Hamas terrorists kidnapping an Israeli young woman”. The caption also mentions the line “Hamas = ISIS”, before suggesting that the Palestinian militant organisation shares the same ideology as IS.
TNA has been able to confirm that the video is from the Hamas attack. We were not able to confirm whether the gunmen taking the woman away are affiliated with Hamas though.
The Ministry has been continually publishing posts with a similar narrative on its feed.
These include: a video montage mixing footage from an IS beheading with that of the Southeast Asian national victim, pictures of a child’s blood-soaked bed allegedly taken in the Kerem Shalom kibbutz and an illustration lining up the words “Hamas IS ISIS”.
This constant stream of posts seems to be coordinated by the Digital Diplomacy Bureau within the ministry. The first post with the video of the kidnapping was posted with the same exact caption under the account of David Saranga, about 10 minutes later. Saranga was appointed in August 2022 as head of the bureau.
Another post by the Ministry - now deleted - was fact-checked by X’s Community Notes, its newest service that allows users to “add context to potentially misleading posts”. The note suggests a link to a Times of Israel article from 2019, which explains why “the two Islamist groups consider each other enemies".
Shock, anger and disbelief
While it remains to be seen whether the Israeli narrative associating Hamas with IS will succeed in buying up support for the upcoming ground offensive, it seems to have already caught on with one of Israel’s most important allies, the United States.
On 11 October, US president Joe Biden stated on his official X account: “The brutality of Hamas, the blood-thirstiness, brings to mind the worst rampages of ISIS.”
The US president also remarked on the horrific accounts coming out of Kfar Aza.
Late in the night of 11 October, while speaking to Jewish Community leaders at the White House, the US president remarked: “I never really thought that I would see, have confirmed pictures of terrorists, beheading children.”
Later that same night, the White House would clarify to the Washington Post that “President Joe Biden and other US officials have not seen or independently confirmed that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli children.” The comments were based, it added, “on the claims from Netanyahu’s spokesman and media reports from Israel".
The New Arab (TNA) contacted the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment on its posts, its stance of equating Hamas to IS, and other sources it might have had access to to confirm the claim. No reply was received in time for publication.
The Israeli army, for its part, considered the case closed. Speaking to Insider on 11 October, it stated that “the military won't seek further evidence for its claim that Hamas decapitated babies in Israel”, explaining that “it would be ‘disrespectful for the dead” to do so.
On 12 October, however, the office of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu overrode such concerns by publishing on its X account three photos that purported to show bodies of dead babies.
Out of the three pictures, two show what seems to be small bodies burned beyond recognition. A third picture shows an infant, with blood stains covering parts of his abdomen, a blur covering his head. The caption of the post explains that the pictured babies were “murdered and burned by Hamas monsters”. It does not mention their beheading.
TNA asked a senior forensic expert to comment on the photos. In reference to the first image with blood stains, he said: “Because it's blurred, I cannot see in the picture that the head is missing.” As for the other two photos of charred remains, he commented that “without a forensic pathologist's investigation, it is very hard to tell whether they are humans or not.”
The photos were however sufficient for the Jerusalem Post to conclude that “babies [were] burnt and decapitated in Hamas’ assault on Kfar Aza”. According to the Israeli newspaper, these photos were among the ones shown to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Israel on 12 October.
Asked about what he saw, Blinken stated in a press conference: “A baby, an infant, riddled with bullets. Soldiers beheaded.” The depravity, according to him, “hearkens back to ISIS and some of the very things we saw when it was on its rampage that, thankfully, was stopped”.
The inability of Israel’s army to confirm a claim made by one of its soldiers does not seem to have deterred its government from publicising it further. This suggests that, as Israel gears up for a ground offensive, the number of unsubstantiated claims is only expected to go higher.
October 23 update: On October 16, after the publication of this article, a number of journalists were invited to review forensic evidence of the October 7 Hamas attack at Israel’s National Center for Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv. Israeli online daily The Times of Israel and US news agency The Media Line published graphic reports of their visits to the forensic centre. The Times of Israel quoted Dr. Chen Kugel, the head of the centre, as saying: “We also have bodies [including of babies] coming in without heads, but we can’t definitely say it was from beheadings. Heads can also be blown off due to explosive devices, missiles, and the like.”
While Israeli forensic evidence indicates that some of the bodies of the victims are indeed decapitated, The New Arab Investigative Unit stands by its findings that initial claims of intentional beheadings of babies were unsubstantiated and widely circulated to push a narrative that would equate Hamas with the Islamic State.
2 February 2024 correction: US President Biden made his statement to Jewish community leaders on 11 October 2023, not on October 12, as stated in the original version of this article.
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