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  1. Editor’s Note
20 March 2024

Here in Israel people feel deeply unsafe and the two-state solution looks doomed

At the site of Hamas’s 7 October attack, one struggles to comprehend the horrific consequences of the war and of what happened here.

By Jason Cowley

The walls and doors of the whitewashed, flat-roofed, three-room apartment we have entered in the “juvenile generation” neighbourhood of Kibbutz Kfar Aza are full of bullet holes. The floor is cratered where a thermobaric grenade exploded. This was Sivan Elkabets’ house, where she and her partner, Naor Hasidim, lived and were murdered on the morning of 7 October. On one of the walls, you can read a transcript of the final WhatsApp messages Sivani sent to her mother elsewhere in the kibbutz: “What is it, mom?/What’s going on here?/Mother… Mom, mother/Let me know every five minutes that you’re okay.”

It’s a warm morning and small, brightly coloured birds flit between the olive trees. Across nearby fields, perhaps a mile away, is the Gaza border; intermittently, you hear the boom of artillery being fired into the Strip. One struggles to comprehend the consequences of the war – the horrific loss of life and the absolute destruction – and of what happened here in October as you are guided in bright sunshine around the kibbutz by Zohar Shpek , a former police lawyer. He is dressed in a black T-shirt and army-green trousers, his head shaven. He can speak English but prefers to communicate through a translator, as if for greater precision. A semi-automatic rifle is slung across his shoulder. He says 69 people were murdered and 12 others were taken hostage after Hamas militants surged into the kibbutz and the killing spree began. They were followed by waves of civilians who looted and rampaged as a blood-dimmed tide broke across the kibbutz; as many as 3,000 people are believed to have poured out of Gaza and into Israel. “We broke our contract with the people of Israel on that day,” said Major David Baruch, an Israel Defense Forces reservist, whom we’d met earlier at the location of the Re’im music festival, now a memorial site to the Israeli dead.

Zohar is one of the few residents to have returned to Kfar Aza. Before the attack 950 people lived here, “nearly all of them left-wing activists”, as he describes them. He estimates that perhaps as many as 65,000 citizens have since been relocated from southern Israel. A similar number have been evacuated from the north of the country, which is under attack from rockets and anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah. Israel’s next war may soon be against the formidable, battle-hardened, Iran-backed Shia militant group inside Lebanon.

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We are introduced to a man whose brother, a member of the “first response team” that led the counter-attack against Hamas at the kibbutz, was murdered on 7 October. He and his wife and two young children had survived by sheltering for 22 hours in a safe room. He mentions his mother, who also lived at Kfar Aza. She too survived. “My mother is so left-wing that when she looks to her left there is nowhere to go,” he says with a sad smile. His mother worked with Road to Recovery, an organisation whose volunteers would meet sick children and their families at the Erez Crossing in northern Gaza and drive them to hospitals in East Jerusalem for treatment. She longs for peace. “We built relationships with Palestinians, sending aid and provisions into Gaza,” Zohar says. How does he feel now about what is happening to Gazans? “I don’t care about them. I care only about people this side of the border. My vision didn’t change from 20 years ago. I’m a peacenik. But I can no longer go to help an Arab child. I can only help my child. We are fighting for our lives.” His stare is cold, hard and unyielding. Later, opening his arms wide, as if in despair, he says: “This was Eden!”

What is left of the left in Israel? Not much. The Labor Party, once hegemonic, the party of Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the party of the old Ashkenazi elite, is a shell of what it once was and has only four seats in the Knesset. Over coffee one morning at a café in Tel Aviv, its leader, Merav Michaeli, a former journalist and columnist at Haaretz, said: “There are 50 shades of right in Israel and Labor. It’s all about who is more right-wing and who wants to kill more Arabs.” She said that Labor, despite its diminished status, was “the only representative of genuine Zionism”. What did she mean? “I mean equality of opportunity for all, with all our neighbours, no matter your sex, race, religion, even in the bloodiest circumstances. And we support a social democratic economy.” The Bibi era, as she called it, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister three times since 1996, had brought only division and conflict to Israel. Likud, his party, was now hegemonic: it controls organised labour, the unions, the institutions, she said. And all Israelis are in deep mourning. “Here in Tel Aviv we cannot say to each other: ‘How are you?’ Nothing is personally OK for anyone. It [the attack] has taken away the feeling of being safe.”

Her words were sombre. I left Israel convinced more than ever that there is no pathway to a two-state solution. People have been hardened by suffering. The mutual hatred and distrust are too deep. One senior Israeli official said that the Gaza war would end only when Hamas were militarily destroyed. And after that? “We need a deal instigated by Arab states, supported by the Americans and that Israel can live with”. What of a Palestinian state? There would be no Palestinian state, he said, because Israel had no partner for peace.

[See also: War and the West Bank]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024