Israel’s Calamity—and After
All weekend long, in countless commentaries in the media, in painful telephone calls with friends in Israel, came the march of analogies, the inevitable attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible. Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the bloody storming of southern Israel that Hamas launched from the Gaza Strip, was, many were saying, the most horrific national tragedy since the Yom Kippur War, in 1973. Others said it was Pearl Harbor. Or the “Israeli 9/11.”
The audacity and brutality of the attack were as astonishing as its secrecy. Early on Saturday morning, Hamas fired more than two thousand missiles into Israel, and bulldozers and fighters easily breached the security fence near the Erez Crossing. In part because Israel had sent so many troops north, to the West Bank, to deal with unrest there—provoked by settlement expansion and settler violence—Hamas faced little resistance as they headed toward towns and kibbutzim in southern Israel to slaughter civilians and take as many hostages as possible. My colleague in Israel, Ruth Margalit, reports how, just before dawn, at the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, Hamas fighters in pickup trucks and motorcycles descended on crowds of young people as police shouted “Color Red!”—the code for incoming rocket fire. More than two hundred people were killed at the festival alone. In just a couple of days, the number of slain Israelis has, according to news reports, risen to more than eight hundred; at least a hundred and fifty Israeli women, men, and children have been captured and brought back to Gaza as hostages. The images of fear and bloodletting, of ecstatic attack and capture, guarantee that October 7, 2023, will become an indelible tragedy in Jewish history.
Anshel Pfeffer, a political columnist and the author of “Bibi,” a biography of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is among the people I talked to who suggested the most apt analogy for the lightning operation was the Tet Offensive, in which Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces executed a surprise attack that did not win the war on the battlefield, but managed to deflate the fighting spirit of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies and undermine support for the war in the U.S. The great difference, of course, is that the Tet Offensive was something that most Americans watched from the safety of their living rooms, on TV, more than eight thousand miles away. In Gaza and Israel, the conflict is intimate; everyone is fighting from home. The fear is general. There is no distance, no escape.
The editor-in-chief of the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, Aluf Benn, reached further back in history. “This is the worst calamity that Israel has faced since the founding, in 1948,” he said, in a hoarse, exhausted voice, from his office in Tel Aviv. Benn recalled the massacre of Russian Jews in Kishinev, in 1903, though, he added, “These are not the Cossacks. This is the firepower of 2023.”
For Ilana Dayan, one of Israel’s leading investigative journalists and the host of the Channel 12 program “Uvda,” the sense of vulnerability was singular. “Israelis have known so many wars and crises and intifadas, but what we have never experienced is the absence of the state,” she told me. “Even in 1948, there was at least the presence and protection of the mythic yishuv, the community, and, later, there was always the Army. We always had the confidence that this omnipotent Israeli ‘we’ was there. Now we’ve seen people crying for help in this kibbutz or that town. People hiding in closets, crying into their phones for help, and no one coming. People pretending to be dead to save themselves. These are stories from the ghetto. This is the trauma that we haven’t even started to grasp.”
Many Israelis summoned the memory of the Yom Kippur War. In October, 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when the entire country was shut down, the streets empty of traffic, and many were in synagogue, Egypt and Syria commenced an attack into Sinai and the Golan Heights. The Israeli Army suffered terrible losses in the first few days of the war before waging a successful counterattack. Though the fighting ended after less than three weeks, that war is recalled in Israel as a disaster, a cautionary tale of vulnerability and unreadiness. With that symbolic weight in mind, Hamas staged its operation almost exactly fifty years later.
“Still, there is no proper analogy,” a former Israeli national-security official told me. “This is the first time that hostile forces have penetrated Israeli territory and attacked civilian targets, killing women, children, soldiers, elderly people, in a radical way, like ISIS.”
Within hours of the attack, I was on the receiving end of a spray of WhatsApp messages, none with historical analogies, all with reports of loss, uncertainty, and despair. From just one friend:
Daughter of a friend—missing. Still not known if kidnapped to Gaza or killed at the party down south.
Brother of a friend killed at the party.
Sister of a friend missing from Kibbutz Be’eri, down south. No one knows yet if kidnapped or killed.
The sense of grief and vulnerability is most intense in the south, in the towns and kibbutzim where the attack took place. “People came from Tel Aviv and elsewhere to settle in these southern towns for the quality of life there,” the eminent Israeli historian Anita Shapira told me. “And a place that was the garden of Israel became a scene of horror.” But everyone in the country is now living with rockets, air-raid sirens, nights spent in shelters and safe rooms. Social media is filled with images of fellow-citizens being shot and kidnapped; houses and cars in flames; a white-haired woman in her mid-eighties being driven away in a golf cart by her captors, presumably to Gaza; a much younger woman at a music festival thrown onto a motorcycle as she screams for mercy. “Snuff films,” one Israeli friend called them. And yet, he said, “for some people it’s the only way to discover if their friends or relatives are alive or dead.”
The rage and grief will get only worse in the coming days. The death count is rising all the time. There will be funerals, hundreds of them, many televised, rituals of loss in a tiny nation where everyone knows everyone. Michael Sfard, a prominent left-wing lawyer in Israel who has represented Palestinians in the West Bank and various human-rights organizations, was stunned by the savagery of the attacks. “When you see pure evil it is very hard to digest that humans are capable of it,” he wrote on social media.
The Israeli response, starting with air strikes on Gaza, will be unrelenting. The fatalities there are already in the hundreds and this is just the beginning. More than two million Palestinians live in Gaza. Israel’s defense minister has announced that the area’s electricity, food, and fuel would be cut off; air raids over Gaza are under way. Netanyahu has warned its residents to evacuate. But ever since Hamas came to power, in 2007, the Strip has been blockaded. “Israel, with Egypt’s help, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison,” Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, has said. How, exactly, does one evacuate?
Until the rise of the latest Israeli government, the most reactionary in the history of Israel, even some of Netanyahu’s fiercest critics have said that he was, compared with many on the right, relatively reluctant to use overwhelming force. “But this changed with this government of horrors,” Aluf Benn, the Haaretz editor, said, referring to Likud’s current parliamentary alliance with far-right parties within Israel. Nearly lost amid the huge, weekly protests over the right’s judicial “reform,” the government has countenanced a rapid rise in the building of settlements in the West Bank. Among some right-wing ministers there is even vocal support for annexation. There have been numerous incidents of settlers humiliating or attacking Palestinians, and of counterattacks from Palestinians. Government leaders have supported Jews coming to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which they know is incendiary.
Without endorsing the bloodshed, some Palestinians outside of Hamas have gone to the media insisting that long decades of occupation and immiseration have led to this tragic point. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, was among the voices saying that the attack was “the direct result of the continuation of the longest occupation in modern history.” The violence, he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, would stop only with “the end of this illegal occupation” and acceptance of Palestinians “as equal human beings.”
Gaza is indisputably a welter of human misery. It is a poor, overcrowded, underemployed landscape of suffering that exists under conditions of enforced isolation; it is ruled within by a corrupt theocratic regime that has not held an election in seventeen years. While the people of Gaza have languished and the world has focussed its attention elsewhere, recent Israeli governments have practiced a minimalist strategy known, in security parlance, as “shrinking the conflict.” The Israeli leadership believed it didn’t need to resolve the conflict with Palestinians in Gaza so much as ameliorate living conditions with occasional modest economic incentives. Its strategy was essentially to try to render the Palestinians invisible. After the Hamas attack, a Haaretz editorial described it as the consequence of a foreign policy that was keyed to “annexation and dispossession” and that “ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
The timing of the assault, though, indicates motivations beyond the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli officials have accused Iran of helping plan the attack. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had worked with Hamas since August to train for the operation and then “gave the green light” last Monday, in Lebanon. Iranian leaders are deeply concerned about the prospect of closer Saudi-Israeli ties. A rapprochement between the two countries, they fear, might lead to increased American assistance to Riyadh, including nuclear technology; increased economic support from the West to Hamas’s rival in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority and its eighty-seven-year-old leader Mahmoud Abbas; and a more secure right-wing government in Jerusalem.
The leaders of Hamas and Iran may also have seen opportunity in the deep divisions in Israeli society and the warnings from some Israeli officials, including Dan Harel, a former director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, that military readiness was in a reduced state. They sensed that the behavior and rhetoric of Netanyahu’s cabinet members had eroded support for Israel in the West.
Both Iranian and Hamas officials have denied that the Iranian regime was involved in the attack, and yet Tehran has long been a crucial supporter and arms supplier to Hamas and to Hezbollah, which is based in southern Lebanon. So far, Hezbollah has not jumped full-force into the conflict. Its arsenal of missiles is vast and far more sophisticated than anything in the possession of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, another, smaller militant group. Escalation into a broader war could be catastrophic. As the author and journalist Ari Shavit told me, “If Hezbollah gets in, it’s Armageddon. Tel Aviv could be hit hard. They’ve got missiles accurate enough to hit power plants and Ben Gurion Airport.”