It is the morning of Oct. 7, and the sounds of gunfire ring through the air. A man rushes his 8- and 12-year-old sons — still in their pajamas — through a side door, and they crowd into a backyard shed. Within seconds, someone tosses in a grenade. The father leaps to absorb the blast, then crumples to the floor.
“Why am I alive?” one of the boys howls, screaming for his father in Hebrew. Stunned, he looks to his brother, who is covered in blood and appears to have lost an eye. “Itay, I think we are going to die.”
The horrific scene was among dozens compiled by the Israel Defense Forces and shown to journalists on Tuesday morning at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, exactly one month after Hamas’ attacks on citizens across southern Israel. The footage, pulled from the body cameras, social media accounts and mobile phones of the attackers, Israeli responders and victims themselves, was assembled to document the carnage of that day — and to reinvigorate support as outrage mounts over the death and devastation in Gaza from Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes.
“The decision to go into Gaza did not happen on its own,” said Tyler Gregory, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area. “And now that we’re three and a half weeks removed from the (Oct. 7) attacks, that’s not the footage on TV anymore. I think Israel wants to remind the world why we have to do this.”
The disturbing scenes spilled from a television in a small conference room: There were bodies torched to cinders, a set of teeth in a pile of ash. Bloodied corpses in their bedrooms, lying contorted in hallways, highways and yards. A woman’s body, naked from the waist down, charred black by fire. A young hostage clutching his arm, torn to bloody tatters, as he’s loaded into a truck. A man being struck in the neck, over and over again, with the metal edge of a garden hoe. And children — so many children — with their bodies bloated by death.
Every few clips, there was a rallying cry from groups of Hamas terrorists, with boastful, wide-smiled documentation of what they had done.
“Dad, I killed 10 Jews with my bare hands!” said one man over the phone, in a recording obtained by the Israel Defense Forces. “Mom, your son is a hero!”
More than 1,400 Israeli lives were lost in the attack, while about 240 more people were taken hostage. A day later and every day since, Israel has slammed back with airstrikes — killing over 10,000 residents of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, according to the territory’s Ministry of Health.
Across the world, that mounting death toll — displayed in TV images of bodies buried in rubble and anguished parents holding their bloodied children — has shaken public support for Israel, with the country’s ground troops now plunged into a ground invasion in Gaza.
“There is an enormous amount of criticism for the way Israel is responding in Gaza right now, and they’re trying to remind the world that they didn’t start this,” said Janine Zacharia, a lecturer at Stanford University and a former bureau chief for the Washington Post in Jerusalem. “They don’t want to show children being butchered; they don’t want to show a guy who is getting his head beaten in. But that’s how desperate they are to make their case.”
The 43-minute compilation, which consulate staff said was pulled from hundreds of hours of collected material, has been shown three times in the United States and in cities across the world, including Berlin, New Delhi and Tel Aviv. The ground rules for each screening have been clear: Out of respect for the families, consulate staff said, no recording devices were allowed. After going through airport-style security, journalists were given a pen, paper and a 10-page document, which provided time stamps and translations from Arabic to English.
Still, some of the harrowing scenes have been circulated across the internet, especially those recorded by Hamas and forwarded through their social media channels.
Both sides are using the footage with very different goals in mind, Zacharia explained — with Hamas hoping it will spark dominance, pride and psychological terror, and Israel hoping for a shift in sympathy and an uptick of public support. For Israel, it’s also a chance to keep their 1,400 victims and 240 hostages in the public eye and ward off misinformation that the massacre in Israel didn’t actually happen — conspiracies that consulate staff said have already begun to pick up pace across the globe.
“There were no two sides when the world was fighting ISIS. There were no two sides when the world was fighting Al Qaeda. Nobody was talking about two sides after 9/11,” said Marco Sermoneta, Israel’s Consul General of the Pacific Northwest. “They started this war … and now we are going to have to finish it. And we’ll finish it on our own terms.”
Such a strategy is not new for wartime messaging. So-called atrocity propaganda, which documents horrific images, has been around since World War I, said San Jose State professor of rhetoric and writing Ryan Skinnell. Despite technology changes — which have swapped out plane-dropped leaflets for live-streamed GoPro footage — the intent is much the same: to document a war alongside a narrative that can push it forward.
“(These screenings) will make it more difficult for people to say, surely Hamas is reasonable, surely you can negotiate with them, and surely this is a political organization that has the best interests of Palestinians in mind. I don’t think that this will survive that scrutiny,” said Ron Hassner, a professor of Israel Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Still, many others are less convinced. Just two journalists attended the screening in San Francisco on Tuesday, despite the consulate inviting news agencies from across the Bay Area. And as the images of broken, burned and tortured Israelis flashed across the screen inside the consulate, on the sidewalk outside, a lone protester flanked its entryway. “Shame on Israel,” the woman shouted. “Stop murdering children.”
“This is basically propaganda to deflect attention away from the brutal bombing and, frankly, the genocide that is going on in Gaza right now,” said Ellen Brotsky, a volunteer and leader of Jewish Voices for Peace in the Bay Area, an anti-Zionist organization. “Israel doesn’t want a ceasefire. They want to be able to continue to bomb the people in Gaza.”