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30 October 2023

Fear and loathing in Israel

In the wake of the horrific 7 October attack, many Israelis are grappling with trauma and a desire for revenge.

By Secunder Kermani

Shir, a bubbly 22-year-old living in Holit, a small kibbutz in southern Israel, had been looking forward to going to a Bruno Mars concert in Tel Aviv on the night of 7 October. Instead, she woke up early in the morning to the sound of warning sirens, alerting residents to an incoming rocket attack. She threw herself on the floor of her saferoom. Her house was so close to Gaza she could hear the rockets being fired, as well landing or being intercepted.

Her parents, Shlomi, a music teacher, and Shahar, an English teacher, along with her teenage brother, Rotem, lived nearby. “My mum sent a message saying there are terrorists in the kibbutz, and my dad [texted], ‘If somebody knocks on the door, don’t open it, no matter what.’ ”

Shir was terrified and alone. Just over an hour after the rocket alerts had gone off, her brother sent a brief message: Sorry, mum and dad are dead.

When Shir was rescued by Israeli soldiers 12 hours later and eventually reunited with her brother, “I told him, ‘I need to know’,” she said, starting to cry. “They heard glass breaking and people walking in their house, outside the saferoom, speaking in Arabic.” Her father placed a mattress against the door, and her mother told her brother to hide. “There was a big explosion, and my brother heard my dad say he lost his arm, and they started shooting everywhere. My mum died on top of [my brother], protecting him. She told him, ‘Everything will be all right.’ ”

Despite Hamas’s risible claims that civilians were not deliberately targeted in the attack, whenever I’ve met militants in the Occupied West Bank they’ve been clear that they don’t believe there is such a thing as a civilian in Israel, where a period of military service is mandatory for most of the population.

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Israelis are in a state of shock. In previous conflicts with Gaza thousands of Palestinians have been killed, but never have more than 100 Israelis lost their lives. That awful disproportionality had been absorbed by Israelis as the norm, providing, along with the border fence, an illusion of security that was shattered on 7 October. This time, 1,400 Israelis were killed.

Anger courses through the country. The day after the attack, in the town of Ofakim, the furthest point Hamas militants managed to penetrate, a small group of Israeli men armed with crowbars vented their fury on the abandoned pick-up trucks left behind by the gunmen. Watching on from a neighbour’s garden, still in her pyjamas, was a young woman, Tamar. She suffered a panic attack as gunmen drove up and down her street, but she spoke to me of striking back. “We give them so much and look at what they’ve done,” she said, bitterly. “We just don’t want the Gaza Strip [to exist] any more… In their religion it’s good to kill Jews.”

[See also: Inside Israel’s intelligence fiasco]

The idea that a people blockaded, even prior to this war, into one of the most densely populated parts of the world, with only partial access to electricity and insufficient clean water, should be grateful to Israel would be offensive to any Palestinian. However, barring occasional rocket fire, or sporadic shooting and stabbing attacks, many Israelis had been able to largely ignore events in Gaza or the Occupied West Bank in recent years. Israeli leaders themselves have set about pursuing regional normalisation deals with other Arab countries instead of negotiations with the Palestinians. Many believed that Hamas did not want a renewed conflict, worried it would lead to the cancellation of Israeli temporary work permits for thousands of Gazans, a key lifeline in a bleak economy. There are many Israelis, like Tamar, who struggle to recognise the oppressive nature of the Israeli occupation or empathise with the plight of Palestinians living under it. Similarly, there are many Palestinians who, when asked about the awful massacres committed by Hamas on 7 October, justify or play down the atrocities as an inevitable response to previous killings committed by Israel.

These two worlds collided in the home of an elderly couple, David and Rahel, just across the road in Ofakim. Inside, bullet holes and blood stains were everywhere. The pair were taken hostage for 18 hours by five attackers. “I told them, ‘We are brothers, why are you doing this?” Rahel said. “But he said, ‘We are not brothers, I am a martyr,’ and he put a gun to my husband’s head.”

The terrifying, surreal hours ticked by. When the militants demanded food, a neighbour dropped off a dish of chicken and rice. “We gave them Coke Zero,” David told me. “And they said, ‘No, we want Diet Coke.’ I said, ‘Where am I going to get Diet Coke from?’ ” Eventually Israeli soldiers managed to kill the militants, freeing the couple at around 2.30am. They were the lucky ones. More than 200 Israelis, including children and babies have been seized, and are being held hostage in Gaza by the militants.

There is a palpable fury at the state’s failure to detect this murderous attack in advance, and at the length of time it took security forces to respond. Israel has been wracked by its deepest internal divisions in recent months, with huge street demonstrations against controversial plans for judicial reform being pushed through by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. Many hold him and his ultranationalist allies responsible for the security failures.

Others are keen to push aside questions over how the attack could have been allowed to take place to unite behind the military response. In the south, not far from the border with Gaza, volunteers have set up a huge outdoor barbecue to feed troops stationed nearby. As the flames of the grill are fanned with a leaf-blower, Ellie, 63, a tour guide, is prying frozen kosher hotdogs apart. “We’re too old to serve in the army,” he said, “so the most important thing to do is make some gourmet food for the soldiers.” His tone hardened when I ask about civilian casualties in Gaza. “I don’t care about them any more,” he said. “If before I cared about children and women and old people from the other side – no more.” Another man interjects: “We are telling them to evacuate, we are not murdering anybody… Don’t listen to people whose blood is boiling.”

Israeli officials resent the current international focus on horrific images from Gaza, where thousands of children have been killed by Israeli strikes. There is a battle to keep media attention centred on the 7 October killings committed by the militants. On 23 October Israeli officials hosted a screening of Hamas’s gruesome bodycam footage of the killings to foreign journalists in order to prove the extent of the atrocities.

No one, however, including senior figures in the government, seems able to articulate a plan for what will replace Hamas if Israel succeeds in removing it from power. In fact, Hamas has been growing in popularity in the Occupied West Bank, where it is seen as standing up to Israel, in contrast to the weak, ruling Palestinian Authority. Within Gaza, prior to the 7 October attack, Hamas had been facing rising levels of dissatisfaction. Now in the face of the Israeli bombardment, local journalists suggest public opinion is rallying around the group.

There are those calling for caution, even amid all the pain and suffering. Yonatan, a softly spoken man who grew up in Kibbutz Be’eri, is still searching for answers about what happened to his mother, Vivian Silver, 74. On 7 October he was awoken in his home in Tel Aviv to the sound of alerts and called her to check she was safe. While on the line, he heard gunshots: “She was hiding in her closet, and we decided to stop talking on the phone so she wouldn’t be heard.” They continued exchanging messages until 10.54am when she wrote, They’re inside the house. “I wrote, ‘I’m with you.’ She wrote, ‘I feel you.’ ”

Silver’s house has been burnt down and there is no sign of her body. Yonatan is clinging to hope that she’s survived and has been taken hostage. She lived just a few miles from Gaza and helped to transport medical patients from inside the strip into Israel for treatment, as well as being part of activist groups supporting Palestinian rights. “She dedicated her whole life to peace.” I asked what she would think of the scenes emerging from Gaza. “She would be mortified,” he replied. “You can’t cure killed babies with more dead babies, we need peace… Vengeance is not a strategy.”

The relatives of the Israelis abducted by Hamas are growing increasingly vocal, calling on their government to prioritise the return of their loved ones over any other military objective. With a handful of captives now released, the country seems caught between a desire for revenge and a desire to bring the hostages home.

Both sides in this conflict bristle at being compared to the other. Israel because it says that, unlike Palestinian militants, it does not deliberately target civilians. Palestinians because, they say, Israel is so much more powerful than them. But irrespective of the merits of their arguments, both sides see themselves as victims, not aggressors, and it’s that sense of victimhood that creates the justification for brutal violence in response – a vicious, deadly cycle with seemingly no end in sight.

[See also: Who is to blame?]

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