News

We Do Not Know if Israeli Babies Were Beheaded by Hamas Militants in Kfar Aza

What we know about the viral rumor spread by media, the U.S president, Israeli officials and more, in October 2023.

Published Oct. 23, 2023

 (Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons

When the militant group Hamas attacked Israeli territory in early October 2023, killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians, rumors abounded about the exact nature of their crimes, leading to unproven accusations that they beheaded up to 40 Israeli babies in their attack. When violence subsequently escalated in Israel and Palestine, politicians, news media, and activists in the U.S. and around the world spread this rumor far and wide.

As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.

U.S. President Joe Biden was among those who claimed "terrorists [were] beheading children," while speaking at a meeting of Jewish leaders at the White House. His office later clarified that he had not actually seen evidence of such beheadings. Meanwhile, mainstream news outlets, from Metro News in the U.K. to Sky News Australia, also reported on the alleged atrocity, with Fox News in an Oct. 10 headline claiming, “At least 40 babies, some beheaded, found by Israel soldiers in Hamas-attacked village.”

The conflict began on Oct. 7, 2023, when the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza followed by Israel attacking and blockading Gaza, actions that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas' attacks came after months of surges in violence against Palestinians by the Israeli military.

Unverified reports about the escalating violence spread with incredible speed online, sometimes even with the unwitting help of journalists. The rumor about Israeli infants being beheaded was chief among such viral claims, considering its lack of evidence for independent verification.

The story appeared to stem from alleged observations by Israeli soldiers after a massacre in the village of Kfar Aza. For example, an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson told Insider that "soldiers on the ground who are there" told him that soldiers found the decapitated corpses of babies at Kfar Aza. The spokesperson said he had not seen photos or videos of the alleged deaths himself, and no further details about that alleged visual evidence were available.

A few journalists claimed to have obtained, or at least seen, visual proof (photos or video) of the deaths, though that evidence also was not publicly accessible, nor available to Snopes as of this writing.

When Snopes reached out to the IDF to comment on the underlying rumor — namely that Israeli babies were beheaded by Hamas — the military did not confirm that the purported beheadings happened. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesperson Tal Heinrich stated to media that babies and toddlers had been found with their “heads decapitated” in Kfar Aza.

That said, Israeli authorities told other journalists they had not shared photographic evidence of the killings to preserve the privacy of victims and their families. “It’s a dead baby," an IDF spokesperson said to CNN. "Does it matter if it’s burning or decapitation?”

On Oct. 12, 2023, Israel released images of slain children and civilians, showing them to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO defence ministers. Blinken told reporters he saw photographs and videos of a baby riddled with bullets, young people burned alive and beheaded soldiers. Netanyahu's office also posted online photographs of a dead infant in a pool of blood and the charred body of a child. Reuters noted that none of the released images indicated evidence that militants had beheaded babies.

We should note, Jewish burial rites may complicate the search for answers, given the emphasis on the dignity of the dead and the requirement for burials to take place within 24 hours if possible. Viewing and exposing the body is also considered objectionable and disrespectful.

Hamas representatives have denied the allegations involving the beheading of children.

Below is everything we know about the claim, including its origin story and how mainstream media outlets played a role in its spread.

Infants Died. Does It Matter if They Were Beheaded or Not?

When Kfar Aza, just 3 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, was attacked on Oct. 7, 2023, men, women and children were brutally killed by Hamas fighters. The massacre was documented in photos and videos by reputable news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and BBC. A Reuters report from Oct. 10, 2023, said the attackers “laid waste” to the village: “A baby's crushed crib lying outside a burnt-out home. Corpses strewn on streets. Body bags lined up on an outdoor basketball court. The stench of death everywhere.”

So, given that infants were indeed among victims killed in the violent attack, why does it matter if they died by beheadings or another way? The alleged beheadings have been a focus of media attention, appearing in headlines and viral posts, and have been repeated by politicians at the highest levels of government. When Biden made the claim, he called in the same statement for additional military support for Israel, aiding an army that has already carried out retaliatory attacks against civilians in Gaza—a region that faces a humanitarian crisis after relentless bombardment from Israel.  

People should be wary of claims that echo Islamophobic rhetoric, or statements that compare the violence in Kfar Aza to “ISIS-style” killings — i.e., beheadings that have taken place in a different context and were committed by a different group. Such rumors that emphasize specific, unverified acts of brutality against infants and that attempt to connect them to patterns of violence carried out by unconnected Islamist groups have the potential to become dangerous propaganda.

The facts, when confirmed, should be revealed, whatever they may be. As of this writing, there is not enough evidence to verify that infants were beheaded.

From Where Did the 'Beheaded Babies' Rumor Originate?

In the early hours of the rumor's life, many news outlets cited reporting by the Israeli news channel i24News, which published a YouTube livestream titled, “Beheaded Babies and Women Found in Kfar Aza," featuring correspondent Nicole Zedeck. In the video, Zedeck walked through an area with body bags, and, at one point stated, “One of the commanders here said at least 40 babies were killed — some of them, their heads cut off.”

Let us note here: In 2019 i24News was described by Israeli news outlet Haaretz as pushing narratives in favor of Netanyahu.

In another video, Zedeck interviewed Israeli commander David Ben Zion, who stated, "They [Hamas] chopped heads of children and women."

It was unknown whether the unnamed "commander" she referenced in the livestream who supposedly said "at least 40 babies were killed — some of them, their heads cut off" was Zion. No further information about the people with whom Zedeck supposedly spoke was known.

Zedeck also tweeted about what she had allegedly heard, without referencing beheadings: “Soldiers told me they believe 40 babies/children were killed [...].”

What Are Journalists Saying About Alleged Beheadings?

Many verified news reports documented the deaths of innocent civilians killed by Hamas militants in Kfar Aza. However, the circumstances under which those deaths occurred, and whether any of them included "beheaded babies," were unclear.

As of this writing, no firsthand source outside of IDF appears to have gone on the record to address whether any of the confirmed deaths involved beheadings of infants or children. (A firsthand source would be someone who directly witnessed the purported beheadings or was affected by them, like a parent.) Rather, news reports appeared to rely on alleged observations by Israeli soldiers, similarly to Zedeck's reporting.

That said, a few journalists did claim to have seen photographs of the bodies of beheaded infants and children. Snopes reached out to those reporters to independently verify the existence of such evidence and will update this story if we hear back.

In addition to Fox News, Business Insider, and Metro News (mentioned and linked above), here's how some news outlets reported on the alleged beheadings, whether of adults or infants, as of this writing:

  • Reuters. In an Oct. 15, 2023, report on Reuters, Israeli forensic teams found evidence of torture, rape, and abuse on bodies, according to Israeli military officers. "We've seen dismembered bodies with their arms and feet chopped off, people that were beheaded, a child that was beheaded," a reserve warrant officer identified only by her first name of Avigayil told Reuters. We have no independent corroboration of this account yet.
  • Haaretz. The Israeli news outlet visited the center for the identification of the dead, in what used to be the army's Rabbinate. While an IDF spokesperson wanted to reveal the extent of the crimes, they urged reporters not to give too much detail that would become "death porn." Citing unnamed people involved in the handling of the bodies, Haaretz reported that they confirmed Netanyahu's descriptions of beheaded babies.
  • CBS. Norah O’Donnell of CBS News posted about the alleged discovery of “beheaded babies and children" in southern Israel without detailing her sources. We have reached out to her on social media to learn more. A CBS News report from Oct. 11, 2023, cited Yossi Landau, head of operations for the southern region of ZAKA (Israel's volunteer civilian emergency response organization), who said he saw with his own eyes children and babies who had been beheaded — the first non-military source to say this that we've found in a news story. We have reached out to ZAKA in order to speak with Landau and will update this story if we receive more information.
  • BBC. The news outlet also spoke to Zion — the same soldier Zedeck interviewed — who described how Hamas gunmen killed families, women and children. Some of them were decapitated, he said.
  • CNN. Correspondent Nic Robertson was recorded on Oct. 10, 2023, sitting in front of Israeli soldiers who appear to be moving body bags at Kfar Aza. He described scenes of “bodies everywhere, murdered members of this kibbutz.” He stated, “men, women, children, hands bound, shot, executed, heads cut," without elaborating further. In other words, it was unknown whether infants were among the group he said were decapitated, nor whether he had seen those bodies himself. A day later, another CNN report from Kfar Aza detailed the massacre, adding the IDF could not confirm a death toll nor give details on the killings. That CNN report said it could not verify the IDF's claim that children were among those killed. Also on Oct. 11, 2023, an IDF spokesperson told the news outlet in another report later in the day that terrorists had likely decapitated babies in a different location, outside of Kfar Aza — another kibbutz in Be’eri. We have followed up with the IDF to learn more about that assertion, and we'll update this report when, or if, we receive more info. On Oct. 12, 2023, CNN anchor Sara Sidner apologized on X for repeating the claim after hearing it from Israeli officials who then retracted the story of the beheadings. She wrote: "Yesterday the Israeli Prime Minister's office said that it had confirmed Hamas beheaded babies & children while we were live on the air. The Israeli government now says today it CANNOT confirm  babies were beheaded. I needed to be more careful with my words and I am sorry."
  • LCI in France. Margot Haddad, a journalist with French outlet LCI, wrote on X (via Google translate), that "infants and children under 2 years old were beheaded by Hamas." She cited, "the Israeli army, internal intelligence service and atrocious images, which reached me and which I was able to cross-check," as well as "courageous journalists from the foreign press who were able to see/agreed to see with their own eyes the bodies in Kfar Aza.” Snopes reached out to Haddad to learn more about her sources, and to gain firsthand access to them for its own independent verification.
  • GB News in Britain. Charlie Peters of GB News claimed to have seen proof of "innocents beheaded and burned — murdered babies." When asked by another user on X if he had seen evidence of the allegedly beheaded infants, he said, "I said murdered babies. Infants have been killed and we have seen footage." It was unclear what video to which he was referring, and whether it was publicly accessible. We have also reached out to him for more clarity.
  • Sky News. Anna Botting of Sky News noted the main source of the claim appeared to be Zedeck. Botting added that Sky News "[has] not seen the evidence” to prove infants were beheaded and asked the IDF multiple times to confirm those numbers [involving 40 babies]. "That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen," Botting said.
  • The Independent. Bel Trew, a reporter with The Independent, posted clarifications about her old, since-deleted tweets (we were unable to find those old tweets) after she was accused of reporting unverified information about beheaded babies. Trew noted that she meant to say toddlers were killed and it was unknown whether beheadings were the cause of those deaths.

What Did IDF Tell Snopes?

While Zedeck, Haddad and others claimed to have heard about the beheaded infants from Israeli soldiers, when Snopes reached out to the IDF about the stories, spokespeople did not confirm in so many words that the purported beheadings happened.

We asked multiple times if any children or infants were beheaded, and, if so, how many. We received the following response: “We cannot confirm any numbers. What happened in Kibbutz 'Kfar Azza' is a massacre in which women, children, toddlers and elderly were brutally butchered in an ISIS way of action," referring to the Islamic State militant group. "We are aware of the heinous acts Hamas is capable of.”

Like Snopes, other media outlets received the same statement from IDF comparing Hamas' killings to those of ISIS.

Hearing from a Journalist in Kfar Aza

In part, many questions about the violence remain unanswered because journalists have limited access to many parts of Israel and Palestine due to safety threats and military brigades.

Among the few who have gotten access, however, was Oren Ziv, a reporter with the left-leaning Israeli news organization +972 Magazine. Compared to Zedeck, he shared on X a different account of what he heard from soldiers. Of the reports about decapitated infants, he said, "we didn't see any evidence of this, and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn't mention any such incidents."

I'm getting a lot of question [sic] about the reports of "Hamas beheaded babies” that were published after the media tour in the village. During the tour we didn’t see any evidence of this, and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn’t mention any such incidents. During the tour, journalists were allowed to speak to the hundreds of soldiers on site, without the supervision of the army's spokesperson team. [...]  Soldiers I spoke with in Kfar Aza yesterday didn't mention "beheaded babies”. [...]

This doesn't mean that war crimes were not committed. The scene in Kfar Aza was horrific, with dozens of bodies of Israelis murdered in their homes.

At the end of the thread he noted, “This story is still unfolding and information is still coming in that needs to be verified.”

Snopes reached out to Ziv, and he said he was permitted to walk around Kfar Aza after Israeli soldiers had evacuated civilians following Hamas' attack on Oct. 7. He said he saw the aftermath of brutal killings, including evidence that indicated people had been murdered in their beds while sleeping. He said he did not see evidence of decapitated infants, though he stressed his one tour of an isolated area was not broad enough to say whether that had happened anywhere.

In Sum

While we can confirm killings of innocent civilians in Kfar Aza and other parts of Israel at the hands of Hamas fighters, as of this writing we simply cannot confirm or deny that such beheadings occurred, given the IDF’s unwillingness to address our specific questions and the lack of substantiation from independent news organizations. At present, details are still emerging from communities affected in Israel, the death tolls are still being counted, and the manner of many deaths have not yet been confirmed. We will update this story once more information comes to light.

We also reached out to Israeli human-rights organization B'Tselem to ask whether its investigating the alleged beheadings. We'll post updates when, or if, we receive them.

Sources

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Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.