At noon on October 7, Chaim Talker was working in his grocery store with his daughter at the Tekoa settlement near Jerusalem when he got a bot call (playing a recorded message) on his mobile phone. The message asked him to report to his IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) unit within two hours. He could hear emergency sirens warning of rocket attacks and he knew what the message meant.
Traditionally, the message is known as ‘Order 8’. First mentioned in the Security Service Law of Israel (1949), it can ask any soldier to report for reserve service when necessary. There was mass mobilisation of troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but at that time there were neither bots nor mobile phones. There would be an announcement on the radio or a letter would be dropped to the residences with codes of officers who knew that the call was for them and they would quietly slip away from their homes.
Dropping all work, Talker, 55, changed into his olive uniform, kissed his kids goodbye and set out to join his army unit. Along the way, as he travelled through the streets of Israel, Hamas cadre were butchering, shooting and kidnapping hundreds of innocent people, including women, children and the elderly. Hamas, the Iran-backed militant outfit that runs the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea, has openly vowed to destroy Israel and kill an Israeli hostage for every Israeli act of retaliation. “It is war,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Even though we did not start it, we will end it.”
Hedged between the western ideals of democracy and the pressures of an unfriendly neighbourhood, Israel has been witnessing a major political churn of late. There have been major protest demonstrations and candle-light marches against Netanyahu over his decision to change the way the judicial system works. As internal turmoil kept the political class busy, Israelis were not surprised that rumoured intelligence reports from Egypt about “something big and terrible’’ were ignored. The besieged government of Netanyahu now stares at an uncertain future.
On the other hand, the Israeli intelligence, with an impressive history of swift counter-terror actions, had known through open sources about Hamas planning an operation, but its hide-and-seek games with peace on the Gaza Strip brought about a catastrophe. The Israeli airspace got lit up by nearly 5,000 rockets, and thousands of attackers on para-gliders, bikes and cars invaded Israeli homes, army bases, police stations and even old-age homes. The death toll soon hit 1,200, with 2,700 wounded. Hundreds are feared to be kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza.
“The United States had its 9/11, India had its 26/11 and Israel now has 7/10,” said Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce. “Hamas has taken entire Palestine as hostage, and it uses the civilian population as human shields. They have built rocket launchers on top of hospitals and schools, knowing that the Israelis will think twice before attacking civilians.”
It will not be a Six-Day War this time; it will be a long one to wipe out terrorists, said Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on October 9. Each and every Israeli is preparing for war in different ways. Hundreds of them are out on the streets, distributing goodies, raising national flags and offering emergency kits, sleeping bags, water, toothpaste and biscuits to soldiers going to war.
An attack of this scale with thousands of rockets flying across the heart of the country can put a brake on civilian lives in many countries. But, for Israelis, counter-terrorism is a way of life, if not an instinctive responsibility. Every adult in Israel knows how to use a gun. The country has compulsory military service for those above 18―three years for men and two years for women―making self-defence a key component of life. “We have to be on high alert, much more than most people around the world,’’ said Jonathan, a Tel Aviv driver who ferries foreign tourists.
Chaim Talker is prepared, and so are the three lakh reserve soldiers of the IDF. Even men and women in their 60s have been pressed into emergency service in the biggest mobilisation Israel has seen since its inception in 1948. “I have trained every year with the IDF since I was 21, but I also have two grocery stores. One is run by my wife and son, and the other by me and my daughter. Now she will run it on her own,” said Talker. The reserves are considered IDF recruits as soon as they are pressed into service. They get IDF salary and medical cover, and they continue to get salaries from their regular employers.
Talker and other Israeli soldiers are being deployed at various locations around Gaza as Israel prepares for what could be the bloodiest war in the country's history, coming exactly 50 years after the Yom Kippur War that saw more than 2,500 Israeli soldiers getting killed. The Yom Kippur War took Israelis by surprise as Egypt and Syria struck on Judaism's holiest day when the entire country was in prayers. Hamas, too, took advantage of the festival, as Israel was caught unawares despite having the world’s most advanced intelligence and interception systems.
The dissimilarities are, however, glaring. Unlike the Yom Kippur War, the attack by Hamas is not a military one (already civilian deaths and injuries have surpassed the military ones) and no ethics of warfare are being followed. Hamas attackers entered civilian neighbourhoods and dragged out children, women, elderly, foreign workers and tourists, taking them to Gaza as hostages. Israel had left Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, but bloodletting never stopped.
“The region is divided into two,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem. “The countries that want peace and prosperity and those that want destruction and radicalism.’’ She said Israel, Bahrain, the UAE and even Saudi Arabia wanted peace. “I don’t see any countries reversing the Abraham accords, but the road with Saudi Arabia may be a little longer now.’’ People like Hassan-Nahoum who have worked for the normalisation of ties between Israel and the Gulf states in the I2U2 (India-Israel-US-UAE) alliance are getting calls from friends across the axis hoping they can get back on track with normalisation with the rest of the Arab world.
“We don’t have any [Israeli presence] in Gaza,” said Cohen, exhorting the world community to condemn the attacks. “There is no dispute with regard to land,” he said. “We supply them water and electricity and try to give them work in Israel.’’ Hamas launched the attack from a crossing from where thousands of Gazans enter Israel every day for work. “The fact that they attacked this crossing, murdered soldiers and rendered it nonexistent speaks of the complete disregard Hamas has for its own people,” said Cohen.
Of late, more Palestinian refugees are allowed to enter Israel for work during festivals. There is an unsaid understanding, especially during Sabbath, on less vehicular movement, less communication and less action. “If complacency had set in at the borders, it also showed there was quiet and peace there,” said an Israeli. But the economics of terror was at work this time, said intelligence experts, and it blew the bridge of peace. A major worry is whether the 2.3 million people inside Gaza will have to flee to Egypt or suffer a terrible humanitarian crisis as their lifelines have been choked.
“Terrorism has been coming in waves,’’ says Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former IDF intelligence officer, who now serves as a senior research fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. “There is plenty of anti-semitism planted in young minds,” he said, referring to multiple instances of car ramming and stabbing by the ''pay to slay'' gangs of Hamas. There are widespread indoctrination programmes aimed at preparing the youth for future strikes.
When I was in Tel Aviv on July 4, a 20-year-old Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians outside a shopping complex, and then jumped out of his car and stabbed anyone he could. He wounded nine people, including a pregnant woman who eventually lost her child. He was shot dead by a civilian.
Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, has been studying how youngsters are being groomed in Gaza to target Israel. The IDF, meanwhile, has been on a mission to take out militant groups inside Gaza through surgical strikes and to choke funding to these groups. Israeli intelligence officers say global aid for Palestinians is being funnelled to reward attacks against Israelis.
Israel alleges that the Palestinian Authority (PA) runs a prisoner payment programme that provides monthly stipends to Palestinians who are imprisoned or injured by Israel. “The prisoners are paid 1,500 new Israeli shekels (031,000) a month for small crimes and the amount rapidly goes up to 8,000-12,000 new Israeli shekels for major crimes like murders,’’ said Kuperwasser. “That salary is more than the salary of a supreme court judge in the PA.” He said the PA spent nearly 1.3 billion new Israeli shekels annually on the project, which was 7 per cent of its budget.
In 2018, the United States enacted the Taylor Force Act aimed at stopping funding to the PA until it discontinued the practice of paying prisoners. Since 2018, Israel also started withholding funds from the PA, saying that an amount equivalent to the money paid to the prisoners would be deducted from the taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA and put into a separate account. That account now holds nearly 3 billion new Israeli shekels, which is being used to pay compensation to victims of terrorism. But the economics of terror seems to have overrun Israel as evident from the Hamas attacks on October 7.
There were intelligence warnings that all militant groups in Gaza had joined hands against Israel. While Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, were in favour of using firearms and rockets whenever they get a chance, some others showed a liking for Molotov cocktails, car rammings and stabbings. Unfortunately, the latest attacks have the imprint of all of them, including the signature beheading style of the Islamic State. Naturally, there is alarm beyond the Middle East.
“During the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war, there was talk about the lessons we learned from the omissions back then, and whether such an awful surprise can happen again,” said Bernstein-Reich. “The movie Golda starring Helen Mirren is on screens now, telling the story of Golda Meir who was our prime minister during the 1973 war―the only woman prime minister in our history. Who would have thought that history will repeat itself? Maybe we lost a battle, but we will surely win the war.”