top
Palestine
Palestine
Indybay
Indybay
Indybay
Regions
Indybay Regions North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area North Coast Central Valley North Bay East Bay South Bay San Francisco Peninsula Santa Cruz IMC - Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area California United States International Americas Haiti Iraq Palestine Afghanistan
Topics
Newswire
Features
From the Open-Publishing Calendar
From the Open-Publishing Newswire
Indybay Feature

American Media Keep Citing "Zaka" — Though Its October 7 Atrocity Stories Are Discredited

by Arun Gupta & Tali Shapiro
Given its prominence, Zaka has been scrutinized by the Israeli press but not the U.S. media. A blockbuster Haaretz report found after October 7, senior military leaders sidelined Israel Defense Forces soldiers specializing in recovering bodies and preserving evidence and sent in untrained Zaka volunteers instead. Zaka reportedly turned massacre sites into a “war room for donations,” used corpses as fundraising props, “spread accounts of atrocities that never happened,” and botched forensics that are central to Israel’s claim that Hamas carried out a premeditated campaign of mass rape.
AMERICAN MEDIA KEEP CITING ZAKA — THOUGH ITS OCTOBER 7 ATROCITY STORIES ARE DISCREDITED IN ISRAEL
Israeli media has debunked the ultra-Orthodox group’s stories, but the New York Times won’t say so.
Arun Gupta
February 27 2024, 3:46 p.m.

YOSSI LANDAU IS the head of operations for the southern region at Zaka, an Israeli search-and-rescue organization. Assigned to collect human remains after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, Landau and his fellow Zaka members riveted media outlets worldwide with the horrific atrocities they saw.

Speaking through tears at the Jerusalem Press Club shortly after the attack, Landau described finding a pregnant woman in Kibbutz Be’eri in a “big puddle of blood, face down.”

“Her stomach was butchered open,” Landau said. “The baby that was connected to the cord was stabbed.”

In Be’eri, he said, he also found a family who was tied up, tortured, and executed with a bullet to the back of the head: father, mother, and two small children around 6 or 7 years old. An eye was missing, fingers chopped off. Landau later told CNN, “The terrorists were having a ball,” with Palestinian militants devouring a holiday meal set out by the family. Landau broke down recounting the tale, as a CNN reporter comforted him.

Long after Landau’s emotional recollections were replayed, repeated, cited, and quoted in the global media, a problem emerged: No one could find any evidence that the two massacres ever took place — in Be’eri or elsewhere.

In the case of the butchered mother and fetus, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded the killing “simply didn’t happen.” As for the tortured family, no one killed in Be’eri matches Landau’s account. The one brother and sister to die in the kibbutz were 12-year-old twins, killed when an Israeli general ordered a tank to fire on a house where Hamas militants were holding them hostage. Nevertheless, Landau told these stories unchecked in interviews and press conferences.

Landau spread his tales far and wide with little pushback — telling similar stories on camera to CNN, Fox News, and the Media Line, and at an outdoor press conference. Even after reporters showed his accounts lacked any substantiation, news organizations continued to let him off the hook. The New York Times recently interviewed Landau as part of a profile about Zaka, but it did not mention either of his atrocity stories.

Western Media Whitewash

Zaka stories have been essential to justifying Israel’s all-out war against Gaza, which has killed around 30,000 Palestinians in less than five months. Speaking at the United Nations in December, Zaka deputy commander Simcha Greiniman broke down while describing alleged atrocities. He later told the same stories to a meeting of British parliamentarians.

Given its prominence, Zaka has been scrutinized by the Israeli press but not the U.S. media. A blockbuster Haaretz report found after October 7, senior military leaders sidelined Israel Defense Forces soldiers specializing in recovering bodies and preserving evidence and sent in untrained Zaka volunteers instead. Zaka reportedly turned massacre sites into a “war room for donations,” used corpses as fundraising props, “spread accounts of atrocities that never happened,” and botched forensics that are central to Israel’s claim that Hamas carried out a premeditated campaign of mass rape.

Israel’s War on Gaza

Even when Western media outlets have questioned Landau, the inquiries were half-hearted. The Times asked Landau “about reports, attributed to him, that children had been beheaded on Oct. 7.” It reported: “Mr. Landau denied making the claim, though he acknowledged sometimes misspeaking in the immediate aftermath of the attack. What he saw himself, he said, was a small, burned body with at least part of the head missing, perhaps severed by the force of a blast. It was unclear, he added, if it was the body of teenager or someone younger.”

While the Times said the statements had been “attributed” to Landau, there is no dispute he said them. He told the stories on camera, and the clips were posted widely online. He told CNN he found “a body, of a 14, 15-year-old. Head chopped off. We were looking around for the head. Couldn’t find it.” On India’s Republic TV, Landau said of beheaded children, “Yes, this occurred. This happened.” He made similar comments to Channel 14 Israel and CBS News. There is no evidence Hamas beheaded children or babies. As The Intercept reported at the time, the Israeli military said it couldn’t confirm the claims just four days after the attack.

The Times report on Zaka reads like a glowing portrait of selfless volunteers on a “holy mission” to honor the dead and give families closure in accordance with Jewish law. The article could also be read as a whitewash of an organization mired in sexual abuse and financial scandals for decades. The Times never notes that Landau appears to be a serial fabulist, and other Zaka volunteers tell stories that stretch credulity.

Landau has talked openly on four occasions of inventing stories: “When we go into a house, and we’re using our imagination. The bodies is telling us the stories that happened to them.” Another Zaka official said in an Israeli Foreign Ministry video, “The walls, the stone shouted: ‘I was raped.’”

“Fictional”

Zaka volunteers have become ubiquitous in media reports about the attacks of October 7. They have been quoted by Reuters, CNN, New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, NBC News, Politico, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many other outlets — with few, if any, mentions of past scandals or present controversies.

These outlets fail to scrutinize Zaka stories. Many volunteers describe extreme crimes that would leave extensive evidence yet aren’t corroborated by reporting. Greiniman, Zaka’s deputy commander, claimed naked women were tied to trees at the Supernova music festival. He said he found a toddler with a knife stuck through his head and that he discovered foreign fighters — they had left their IDs in their pockets. A Zaka spokesperson said he saw dozens of dead babies, and children bound together and burned. Another volunteer claimed they found a sexually mutilated woman’s corpse under rubble with her organs removed.

Media outlets, including Israeli television news programs, have debunked numerous stories about dead babies, calling them “fictional.”

No one else has corroborated Greiniman’s story of foreign fighters. Months later, another source did claim to find five dead women tied naked to trees: According to a new report from an Israeli group, a farmer who rescued attendees from the music festival alleged the five women’s organs were all slashed and made bizarre claims about sexual mutilation. In three previous interviews, the farmer never made such claims nor is there any forensic or photo evidence to back up his account.

Israel’s Ruthless Propaganda Campaign to Dehumanize Palestinians

Instead of offering verifiable evidence of war crimes, Zaka volunteers serve another purpose: They are an invaluable part of Israel’s propaganda machine. Israeli government officials, in pushing for a total war on Palestinians, portray Hamas as another Islamic State, the Iraq- and Syria-based terror group that shocked the world by making women sexual slaves and posting a spate of execution videos beginning around 2014.

In an interview with the Israeli news site Ynet, Eitan Schwartz, a volunteer consultant in the prime minister’s National Information Directorate, a public diplomacy office, explained how Zaka volunteers influenced news coverage.

“The testimonies of Zaka volunteers, as first responders on the ground, had a decisive impact in exposing the atrocities in the South to the foreign journalists covering the war,” Schwartz said. “The entire state of Israel was engaged in framing the narrative that Hamas is equal to ISIS and in deepening the legitimacy of the state to act with great force.”

“The entire state of Israel was engaged in framing the narrative that Hamas is equal to ISIS.”
“The first-hand testimonies of the organization’s amazing men of grace, who were exposed to the most difficult sights, had a tremendous impact on the reporters,” he went on. “These testimonies of Zaka people caused a horror and revealed to the reporters what kind of human-monsters we are talking about.”

In the same Ynet article, Nitzan Chen, director of the government press office, said, “It’s hard for me to imagine Israeli hasbara advocacy vis-a-vis the foreign press without the amazing, effective activity of Zaka people.” (Hasbara is usually translated as explanation or diplomacy, but in practice it’s sophisticated information warfare to mold public opinion to serve Israel’s strategic ends.)

Western media lapped up Zaka stories. An Israeli government video of Landau telling his tortured family story is emblazoned with “HAMAS = ISIS.”

The political response after October 7 played out like a coordinated campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the way, proclaiming “Hamas is ISIS” on October 9. Netanyahu’s rival and ruling partner Benny Gantz rallied behind the slogan, as did Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other Israeli officials. Within days, top American officials lined up too. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin both echoed the sentiment. Even President Joe Biden said, “The brutality of Hamas — this bloodthirstiness — brings to mind the worst rampages of ISIS.”

Fundraising on the Scene

Israeli news outlets — in particular Haaretz’s investigation into Zaka — have called into question credulous media reports repeating Israeli claims that religious concerns and chaos prevented gathering of forensic evidence in the aftermath of the attack.

After Zaka personnel and soldiers from the IDF’s Military Rabbinate were deployed to recover remains, much of the collection was bungled, according to Haaretz. When soldiers trained in recovery were finally let in the second week after the attack, they were alarmed by Zaka’s actions.

An ultra-Orthodox organization made up of male volunteers, the precursor to Zaka, was founded by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav in 1989, formally becoming Zaka in 1995. The group relies on donations and government tenders for its budget, and after October 7 it made the most of both, according to Haaretz. The Israeli newspaper published a photo of Zaka members carrying out fundraising activities near a dead body; sources from other rescue groups observed Zaka volunteers make fundraising calls and videos with corpses in the background. The second week after the attacks, the Defense Ministry began paying Zaka for its work on the ground.

All available evidence suggests Zaka needed a cash infusion. The group was nearly insolvent on October 7. According to a 2022 Haaretz investigation, Zaka netted millions of dollars in public funds over the last five years by claiming more than three times the number of volunteers than it had, a timespan that includes the tenure of the current CEO, Duby Weissenstern, who was featured in the New York Times profile. Even as Zaka was under threat of bankruptcy in 2021, according to the Times of Israel, it used “shadow organizations” to divert millions of dollars to Meshi-Zahav and his family, allegedly spending it on groceries, plane tickets, luxury hotels, “and a multi-million dollar villa.” Zaka’s schemes, reported the Israeli news site NRG, included hitting up donors for money to buy the same motorcycle and changing a plaque to reflect the new donor’s name.

All available evidence suggests Zaka needed a cash infusion. The group was nearly insolvent on October 7.

Under Meshi-Zahav, the organization was beset by financial and abuse scandals. Despite knowing of “at least 20 cases” where Meshi-Zahav allegedly sexually assaulted minors, police failed to investigate him and closed the case without charging him in 2014. More than a dozen people came forward in 2021 claiming Meshi-Zahav raped, assaulted, and threatened them. “He allegedly exploited his status, power, money and even the organization he heads [Zaka] to assault teenagers and … boys and girls” as young as 5 years old, Haaretz reported. The abuse was a family affair: One brother was imprisoned for raping a female relative and a second fled abroad after being investigated, along with Yehuda, for lavishing gifts on seven teenaged girls in distress and then sexually abusing them, sometimes in Zaka vehicles.

One teenaged victim said Meshi-Zahav effectively turned him into a “prostitute” and rewarded the teen with “a Zaka beeper” and a coveted certificate of volunteer work. A young woman alleged that after being raped by Meshi-Zahav, he threatened: “If you say anything to anyone, a Zaka van will run you over.” Police suspected that top Zaka officials and figures in the ultra-Orthodox community knew of the abuse but helped silence the criticisms. Meshi-Zahav attempted suicide shortly after the abuse allegations were reported and died a year later.

No mention of this history made it into the Times profile, or that of any other U.S. media outlet that has featured Zaka volunteers. Meanwhile, the positive reports have been a boon to Zaka’s image and bankroll.

Zaka fundraises on Facebook and buys Google ads for donations. Days after October 7, with specialized fundraising efforts popping up, money began flowing to different Zaka outfits. The group was showered with some of the $242 million disbursed by the Jewish Federation of North America. It shared in a $15 million donation from chip-making giant Nvidia. Billionaire Roman Abramovich pledged $2.2 million to Zaka. At a November 19 “Unity Concert for Israel” in Manhattan, with Yossi Landau on stage, a sign displayed $1,000,430 raised for Zaka. The Zakaworld website has a campaign that has topped $3.5 million, and apparently a separate post-October 7 fundraiser totaled nearly $2.1 million. Haaretz calculated that Zaka has raked in at least $13.7 million since the attacks.

Zaka volunteers seemed less intent on bagging bodies than grabbing money. According to Haaretz, Zaka failed to document remains, put parts from different bodies in the same bag, and did not collect all the remains in homes and the field. Zaka volunteers apparently did find time to rewrap already bagged remains in material that “prominently displayed the Zaka logo.”

“Not Pathology Experts”

The New York Times’s Zaka profile came after the paper’s controversial December 28 article titled “Screams Without Words” about allegations of sexual assault during the October 7 attack. The report was widely criticized for weak sourcing and citing cases that lacked physical evidence. The Times, The Intercept reported in January, pulled a related episode of its podcast “The Daily” over issues with the article, stoking internal worries it could be another “‘Caliphate’-level journalistic debacle.”

New York Times Puts “Daily” Episode on Ice Amid Internal Firestorm Over Hamas Sexual Violence Article

In the “Screams Without Words” story, the Times quoted two Zaka figures, one being Landau. “I did not take pictures because we are not allowed to take pictures,” Landau said. “In retrospect, I regret it.”

The Times beatific portrait of Zaka from January 15 seems to take an approach of blind trust in Zaka statements, suggesting that perhaps Landau did not say children were beheaded; that he “worries about getting details right”; that he diligently gathers human remains; that Zaka isn’t trained in forensics; and, finally, that women were subjected to sexual violence.

Yet these are Landau’s assertions, as is his claim that Zaka volunteers can’t take pictures of the dead. Haaretz reported that Zaka “released sensitive and graphic photos” from massacre sites. There is news footage, showing remains being carried on stretchers, labeled “Videos taken onsite by Zaka volunteers.” And Greiniman, the Zaka deputy commander, has bragged at least three times of “all the pictures and all the evidence, we have everything to prove it” — but nothing has ever been publicly produced.

Zaka always seemed ill-suited for the task of forensics. In the 1980s, Meshi-Zahav led an extremist ultra-Orthodox movement called Keshet, which protested archaeological digs and autopsies as religious desecration. Keshet members reportedly terrorized doctors and pathologists by planting fake explosives at their homes and sending them bullets with a note “this time it’s only in the mail.”

The group has also operated a legal department “for decades” whose purpose was to block police and pathologists from conducting medical examinations on dead bodies, which has hampered criminal investigations. No Western media outlet has asked why an organization hostile to forensic pathology was allowed to bungle the most significant forensic evidence in Israel’s history.

Zaka acknowledges the shortcomings of testimony from its own members. Haaretz debunked Landau’s tale of the pregnant woman’s corpse in Kibbutz Be’eri whose fetus was cut out by Hamas attackers. There is no independent corroboration of Landau’s claim, Kibbutz Bee’ri denied that the incident occurred there, police said they have no record of the case, and a “pathology source” at the main morgue did not know of the case.

In a statement to Haaretz on the lack of supporting evidence for its volunteers’ accounts, Zaka said: “The volunteers are not pathology experts and do not have the professional tools to identify a murdered person and his age, or declare how he was murdered, except for eyewitness testimony.”

Tali Shapiro contributed research to this story.
Add Your Comments
We are 100% volunteer and depend on your participation to sustain our efforts!

Donate

$140.00 donated
in the past month

Get Involved

If you'd like to help with maintaining or developing the website, contact us.

Publish

Publish your stories and upcoming events on Indybay.

IMC Network