Ohad Munder Zichri may never want to remember his ninth birthday. It fell on October 23, more than two weeks after Hamas unleashed a wave of terrible attacks across southern Israel, killing more than a thousand people and taking more than 200 hostages. The fourth-grade student from Kfar Sava in central Israel was among those kidnapped, along with his mother and his grandparents. They are said to be held in Gaza.
Just like Ohad, 43-year-old Ramadan, too, is a victim of the ongoing war. He is a Palestinian living in Israel and is worried about his future. After witnessing the arrest of a fellow Palestinian by the Israeli police he told me and Deputy Photo Editor Bhanu Prakash Chandra that it was better to stay away from the security forces. “They are very angry, please don’t go anywhere near them,” he said.
We were on our way to the Gaza border and at the Sa’ad intersection, four kilometres southeast of Gaza, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) stopped us. “You cannot go beyond this point. Only locals and IDF convoys are allowed,” they said. We retreated to a pomegranate orchard nearby, where we were joined by a team of television journalists from Greece.
Soon, a convoy of three IDF trucks loaded with ammunition arrived. Excited, the Greek team started doing a live telecast. But the soldiers got angry, asked them to stop and made them go back to the orchard.
With no chance to proceed further to the border, we talked to Renana Gome, who used to live in a kibbutz near the Gaza border. A divorcee, she lived in kibbutz Nir Oz with her two sons, aged 12 and 16. Both were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7. Renana had gone to another kibbutz for the weekend. The boys were at her husband’s place at Nir Am. Renana recalled the phone call she got from her sons just before they were kidnapped. “They were scared, waking up to the sounds of explosions, gunshots and sirens. They said someone was breaking into our house. Hamas terrorists took my kids and their father. I keep blaming myself for not being there for my children,” she said. “There is nothing left at Nir Oz. It was a beautiful place that our community had built over a period of 60 years.”
Renana wants the Israeli government to negotiate with Hamas. “They should give away as many prisoners as Hamas wants. The prisoners anyway are enjoying a good life, getting showers and good food. The government should do everything in its power to get the hostages back. After that, even if they raze the entire Gaza Strip, I don’t care.”
Roni Eshel was a young soldier posted at an army base near the Gaza border. The last time her family heard from the 19-year-old was on the morning of October 7. Her base was under attack and she sent a message to her mother, “Mom, I am okay, I am busy, I love you all.” She was taken by Hamas. “Not knowing what is happening to your children is devastating,” said Roni’s relative Idith Eshel.
Arabs in Israel are, meanwhile, more vocal about stopping the indiscriminate attacks on Gaza. Gul, an Arab woman we met in Jerusalem, said both Israeli and Palestinian civilians should be protected. “What happened on October 7 was very bad, but Israel has been doing some very bad things to us, for years,” she said. “I feel Israel was waiting for an opportunity. When the war is over, there will be schools and hospitals functional here in Israel, but that will not be the case in Gaza.”
But the mood in Israel is sombre and the demand for revenge is unrelenting. At a news conference of relatives of missing persons, Eftah, whose nephews, Kfir and Ariel, were taken by Hamas, could not control her tears. Kfir is only nine months old. “He needs baby formula, he cannot eat solid food. Two weeks have passed, it is the worst nightmare for us. Babies and children cannot be pawns in the games of war,” said Eftah.
Ada, another member of kibbutz Nir Oz, said five members of her family were kidnapped. Her mother was murdered. “I did not get time to mourn my mother because I have to fight for our children,” she said. “Kibbutz Nir Oz was totally destroyed. They burnt down most of the houses. It was hell. But I don’t care about it. I care only for the release of children and other hostages,” she said.
Khaled Abu Awwad, a Palestinian, said what Hamas did was totally unacceptable. “But that does not give Israel legitimacy to attack civilians in Gaza. What they are doing is an extreme reaction against the people of Gaza under the name of fighting Hamas,” said Awwad. “They will have to go back to a political solution to the problem.”
Awwad and his Jewish colleague Hanan Schlesinger have been running a peace initiative called Roots for the past eight years. “The idea is to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. There is need for mutual respect and recognition from both sides,” said Schlesinger. They have been organising talks in schools, colleges, universities and even in pre-military academies in Israel. “Those who are more progressive and open minded learn that there are two sides and two perspectives. Their students and soldiers will be more compassionate even when they do soldiering,” said Schlesinger.
Khaled Abu Toameh, a prominent journalist and commentator on Arab-Palestine affairs, said it was doubtful whether Israel would be able to eliminate Hamas completely. “Israel has suffered a big blow and hence it is out to finish Hamas. But Hamas is not just an organisation, it is also an ideology,” said Toameh. “Everyone is angry, be it Jews or Arabs. The Palestinians and the Arabs are mobilising against Israel in their own way. You rarely hear things against Hamas from them now. That was not the case earlier.”
The Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute more than 20 per cent of the country's total population, are caught in a major dilemma as they are forced to choose between their country and their ethnic brethren. Mohammad Kabiya, an Israeli Arab who served in the IDF, however, appeared quite clear in his convictions. He said he was an Israeli citizen first and only then a Muslim, and blamed Hamas for doing something totally un-Islamic. “I joined the IDF because I wanted to serve my country,” said Kabiya, who is now a reservist in the Israel Air Force and an adviser to the government on Arab issues. He said Israel helped Palestinians in so many ways. “They come here for work, for medical treatment and to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. So why do they think that they will not find their solution here?”
While Hamas appears the biggest threat now, Israel is not discounting the possibility of a two-front war, with the Hezbollah ready to strike at the northern front. During an interactive session at the Jerusalem Press Club, Eyal Hulata, former national security adviser of Israel, said the Hezbollah knew about the October 7 attacks. “That they did not join it tells a lot about their calculations. But unlike in the case of the Hamas attack, Israel is prepared,” he said. “People are united. They want the government to end Hamas once and for all. The Arab world should realise that Hamas has lost legitimacy. The Israel government should now think in terms of Gaza without Hamas, but it should never occupy Gaza,” said Hulata.
While Israel looks united in the face of the unprecedented attack, there is some criticism about how its much vaunted intelligence apparatus failed to anticipate and prevent the Hamas attack. Moshe Roth, a parliament member from the United Torah Judaism, a conservative alliance, admitted that the Israeli intelligence failed on October 7. “A day of reckoning will come for the army, the intelligence, the politicians and even the judiciary. We have been too lenient. But now is not the time to discuss this. Now we have to be united in order to eradicate Hamas. Now is not the time for inquiry commissions and criticism,” he said.
Roth suggested that the controversy over judicial reforms could have influenced Hamas's decision to attack. “But we are united now. We have not seen this kind of unity in many years.” He blamed Iran and Qatar for supporting Hamas. “Iran is the head and Hamas and Hezbollah are its arms. Qatar is funding them and is proud of it. This has to stop.”
We met Boaz Bismuth, a parliament member from the Likud party, at Sderot. Bismuth, who had covered conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq as a journalist, said it was unacceptable that Israel suffered a surprise attack despite having a strong army and a robust intelligence network. “How could this happen? Questions will be asked and they need to be answered.” On the campaign against Hamas, he said different yardsticks were always applied to Israel. “When Al Qaeda and the Islamic State were taken down, no questions were asked. But when Israel takes on its enemies, there are always questions. It is as if Hamas is a military organisation and not a terrorist outfit,” said Bismuth.
The visit of US President Joe Biden on October 18 came as a major morale-booster for Israel. “It is a very strong show of solidarity. Biden is the first US president to visit Israel during a war,” said Ashley Perry, former adviser to the government. “His message is very clear that other players, be it Iran or Hezbollah, should not get involved. The visit also means that the US will ensure all necessary supplies to Israel.”
The October 7 attacks have brought Israelis together behind the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that does not mean that they are happy. An Israeli citizen said he would not vote for Netanyahu in the next election. “I am a right-wing voter. But I will not vote for Netanyahu. He has to pay the price for such a big failure,” he said.
History does not offer much reassurance to Netanyahu. Despite leading Israel to victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, prime minister Golda Meir could not form the government in the next elections. She resigned as prime minister in April 1974 and also resigned her parliamentary seat soon thereafter. She felt that she had lost the confidence of the people. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu manages to avoid Meir's fate and continue to stay in power.