‘Post’ takes a look inside Hamas’s Jabalya tunnels that hid hostage bodies

 ‘The enemy placed explosives and prepared ambushes and waited for us,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Almog tells us as we stand outside a ruined house in the Jebalya refugee camp.  ‘We found explosive devices and booby traps in each of the houses.  But the 202nd battalion has been fighting for eight months in Gaza.  The weaponry and means of combat we found here weren’t any different.  There was an enemy here.  A stubborn enemy. They fought for his place.  And died in it.”

Almog, 36, from Kibbutz Neot Mordechai in the Upper Galilee, is the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade’s 202nd Battalion. 

 It’s a regular formation, one of the three battalions of this most storied of  IDF infantry brigades.  The 202nd has spent the last two weeks in the heart of Jabalya in northern Gaza. The area is still not completely pacified.  We can hear small arms and tank fire close by.

In the course of its operations in Jebalya, the 202nd recovered the bodies of four Israelis murdered by Hamas on October 7th – Yitzhak Gelernter, Amit Buskila, Ron Benjamin and Shani Louk.

Discovering how the IDF was able to return the bodies of hostages

I attended the funeral of Shani Louk, in her home village of Moshav Srigin in the Valley of Ela last week.  So now I am here to discover what I can about the process whereby her body was discovered and brought home, and about the people who achieved this. 

The reporter captures picture of IDF troops recovering the bodies of the hostages that were held in Hamas captivity. (credit: JONATHAN SPYER)

“The intelligence we had on this place came from the brigade and battalion intelligence level,’ Almog continues, ‘and we came to the conclusion that something was unusual here…It’s a combination of a number of factors, intelligence at the brigade level, the tactical force that locates the site, and then the force from the Yahalom unit which carried out its specialized work.’

The paratroopers’ tactical force, which entered the house and located the shaft in which the bodies were located, was led by Lieutenant Roi Beit-Yaacov, 22, from Eli. 

Beit Yaacov’s section captured the house as part of the 202nd’s battle with Hamas fighters in Jebalya.  

‘Something seemed to Roi to be unusual in this house,’  Almog tells us.  ‘so he started to investigate, moving furniture around, shifting rugs, and they found an opening in one of the rooms, leading to a shaft.’ 

Beit-Yaacov reported the finding of  the shaft to his company commander, Major Gal Shabbat.  Shabbat then set in motion the process of searching the shaft. A unit from the elite force of the IDF Combat Engineers Brigade, Yahalom (Diamond) was called in. 

‘And they reached the bodies themselves, and they were identified, and in the end, it became clear that they were the bodies of the four people that you were aware of.’ 

Entering the house through the rubble

We enter the house, moving carefully over the rubble.  Through the darkness, we find our way to the room where the shaft is located.  It’s still open.  We approach it carefully, shining flashlights in the darkness.  

A nondescript hole in the floor. The opening is narrow, perhaps a meter by a meter.  There is a metal ladder leading down.  The shaft is about ten meters deep and leads to a tunnel further in.  It had been concealed by a rug when Roi Beit-Yaacov’s force entered.  The atmosphere in the house is close and fetid. 

Outside the house again and enjoying the air, we meet with a member of the unit that searched and secured the shaft. ‘We were able to identify elements which were unusual, and these, in the end, led us to find the bodies,’ says Major ‘A’ of Yahalom, his face covered with a black balaclava.  He is carefully avoiding any discussion of the precise methods used by his force.  

Yahalom, unlike the 202nd, is a ‘classified’ unit.  Hence, the major’s black balaclava, which we all nonchalantly pretend not to notice.   ‘When we entered the shaft, we didn’t know that there were bodies down there.’ 

A Channel 13 reporter asks if there is a dilemma related to risking the lives of living soldiers in order to extricate the corpses of the dead. 

JPost’s Jonathan Spyer embeds in with IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip, May 23, 2024 (credit: JONATHAN SPYER)

‘No dilemma.  We’re committed to hunting the Hamas tunnels and to bringing all the people who were kidnapped home to Israel.  Also, there are those who are no longer alive. Everyone.’

‘It’s enough for a commander to miss something, and it might never be found,’  reflects Almog later as we sit in his improvised command post in another of the ruined houses of Jebalya. 

‘Its about the instincts, and the field knowledge of the commander, who in this case chose to go that little bit further.  To move a rug, which he could have ignored.  But he didn’t. 

So he found a shaft. We’ve found many in the past.  But Roi decided to stay and search the house.  He could have kept going.’ 

‘Roi was a squad commander on the highest level, and his memory will be with us forever, like all the fallen of this war and all the wars of the past,’   

He is speaking about his soldier in the past tense because two days after the discovery of the body of Shani Louk and the three other murdered Israelis, Lieutenant Roi Beit Yaacov was killed along with four of his comrades, in a friendly fire incident in the heat and confusion of the battle in Jebalya. 

On the same day, Major Gal Shabbat, from Katzir, Roi’s company commander to whom he reported the discovery of the shaft, was killed by an enemy sniper. 

The fight for Jebalya continues, and of course, the main battle in Gaza is now further south, in Rafah.  The politicians continue to squabble and maneuver for position.  

Much of what used to be called the Free World apparently finds it difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong in the fight between Israel and the jihadis of Hamas. 

It’s difficult to spend any amount of time with the fighters on the ground in Gaza and not conclude that they deserve better than all that.  Not that this seems to affect the starkness and strength of their own commitment. 

‘There is an organization here that had a long time to prepare,’ Almog tells us by way of conclusion.  ‘And war isn’t a matter of a few months, and we’re done.  War, as the cliché has it, is the kingdom of the unknown. And we’ll return to places where we were before because the enemy doesn’t always cooperate, and intelligence improves and sharpens. That’s legitimate.  It’s a long war. No one thought it would finish quickly.  We started in winter; now it’s summer, and if we have to fight again in winter, that’s fine, and in the end, we’ll bring security for Israel.’ 

And Yosef, one of his paratroopers, a Jerusalemite from an Ultra-Orthodox family in Bayit Ve’gan, standing in the rubble outside the building where the bodies of the murdered Israelis were found:  ‘We keep on going.  It’s hard work but satisfying.’  Then, reaching for an appropriate metaphor, he concludes:  ‘It’s an extraordinary feeling to be here, you know.  Like Samson, in a way.’ 

At Shani Louk’s funeral in Srigim, her father, Nissim Louk, told the assembled mourners that ‘the blood of the murdered ones, and Shani among them, was not abandoned, and cried out from the ground.’  This is the story of those who heard.  And those who brought her home.