How Israel's retaliation could lead to wider conflict in Middle East

Netanyahu government has vowed to finish Hamas once and for all

46-Israeli-army-on-the-move-at-Sderot-near-the-Gaza-border Fight to the finish: Israeli army on the move at Sderot near the Gaza border.

On the walls of the National Digital Centre in Sderot, a small city in southern Israel, there are pictures of nearly 90 hostages, now believed to be in Gaza. According to Israeli officials, the youngest hostage is just nine months old while the oldest are above 80. It is yet another painful reminder of the Hamas attack on October 7, which left nearly 1,500 Israelis dead and more than 3,000 injured.

The Israeli army is very mean to us, they beat up our people every day. We have to be brave and patient. ―An Arab hotel owner, Jerusalem

“If the United States had its ‘9/11’, this is ‘7/10’ for us. A date we will never forget,” said Amir, a 42-year-old Israeli travel operator. “Ours is a tiny country with a small population. Imagine what will happen if some 50,000 people are massacred in a day in a similar attack in the US and the reactions that it will generate.” Like everyone else in Israel, Amir, too, has had his share of national service. The Israel Defence Forces has not yet recalled him because of a health condition. “I am very angry. I am also worried because I have children. Who can murder women, children and the elderly? You have to be a criminal of the worst sort to do this kind of thing,” said Amir. “I was in the army so I can understand a soldier killing another soldier. We will not let even our coming generations forget this.”

The road from Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem is usually chock-a-block with traffic, even on Friday nights, just before Sabbath. But as THE WEEK team took the road, it looked deserted as Israelis preferred to stay indoors, feeling worried and afraid. Also, most mobilised reservists have already left to join their units.

Israel has mobilised more than three lakh reservists. Among them is Naomi, a 20-year-old girl from Sderot. At an age when she should be studying, Naomi is carrying an M16 automatic rifle. “Nobody should face what we are facing,” she said, pointing towards vehicles full of bullet holes.

Quiet determination: Ofir, who fought and rescued fellow Israelis on october 7, with his daughter, Shira. Quiet determination: Ofir, who fought and rescued fellow Israelis on october 7, with his daughter, Shira.

Ronen, a 45-year-old first responder from Sderot, recalled the first distress call which came at 6:30 in the morning on October 7. “It was about a rocket hit on a building. As we were rushing there, the mayor summoned me to the command centre. He said terrorists were shooting everywhere and had killed 41 victims in Sderot alone. I pulled an injured officer aside from the road, picked up his M16 and started firing at the terrorists. I got hit by two bullets on my left shoulder,” said Ronen, a former soldier. “Hamas is Islamic State. Today it is us, tomorrow it will be you. Recognise this evil and destroy it,” he said.

Shira, a shy eight-year-old girl from Sderot, was trying to reach her father, Ofir, all through the day. Ofir was busy fighting and rescuing people. “Dozens of bodies were lying on the streets. I think over a thousand terrorists attacked that day and many of them had come equipped to stay here for long. We fought them off,” said Ofir.

Dafna Rousso and her family members from kibbutz Kfar Aza, five kilometres east of Gaza, woke up to the sound of sirens on October 7. She and her husband Uri could hear indiscriminate shooting from very close quarters. “Our three daughters were sleeping in safe rooms and my husband left quickly. When my daughters asked me about him, I told them that daddy never went anywhere without saying goodbye, so he would be back. Although I sent him a text message, there was no reply,” said Dafna. She then went to the head of the community brigade in the kibbutz, but he did not have any answers for her. “Upon hearing the firing outside, my initial thought was that it was the IDF trying to protect us. Only later did I realise what was really happening,” she said.

Dafna’s sister then messaged her that Hamas killed her mother-in-law and injured her son Netta. “The kid is so close to me. It was at this time that I realised that something very bad was happening to us,” she said. Dafna and her daughters were locked inside their house till the IDF arrived. Along with help, however, came some very bad news. The IDF told her that Uri lost his life in the battle with Hamas. “The army returned his personal weapon and six bullets were missing. They told us that there were six dead people around him. So he managed to kill at least six terrorists. I told my daughters that their father was a hero. He did whatever he could to keep everybody safe,” said Dafna, holding back tears. “I want my daughters to remember how much their father loved them and how he wanted the best for them.”

Nani and Avital are an elderly couple living in kibbutz Magen in northwestern Negev near Gaza. When rockets started raining in, they went into the shelter inside their house, along with their daughter Nil and her husband and three babies. Nani and Avital have another daughter, Rimon, who lived in kibbutz Nir Am. “Rimon texted Nani that terrorists were outside her window and were firing indiscriminately. By around 8:30am Nani and Avital lost contact with Rimon,” said Shani, Rimon’s cousin. “When they went to look for her, they found the house riddled with bullets and covered in blood.”

I told my daughters that their father was a hero. He did whatever he could to keep everybody safe. I want my daughters to remember how much their father loved them and how he wanted the best for them. ―Dafna Rousso (in pic, above), resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza

Nani returned to her house and the family was forced to defend themselves for nearly 30 hours. Help came only by the night of October 8. Nil was evacuated to the Dead Sea region along with her husband and three children, while Nani and Avital were taken to a hospital in Tel Aviv. Rimon and her husband are still missing, most probably taken to Gaza as hostages. “Rimon is 36, she takes care of animals that no one wants. She also loves music and flowers. Why would someone do this to her?” asked a weeping Shani.

Kibbutz Be’eri, located in Negev desert near the eastern border with Gaza, looks like a ghost community now. There are signs of destruction all round. Charred houses, destroyed vehicles and broken toys are everywhere, and the entire area reeks of burning smell. Roads are strewn with bullets from automatic weapons; there are abandoned RPGs, unexploded munitions and other weapons. More than 100 Israelis were killed in Be’eri on October 7. “It was a peaceful residential community till that morning. Terrorists massacred everyone whom they could target. We know that 54 police officers were killed, as they tried to save civilians,” said police spokesperson Dean Elsdunne.

Air raid sirens can be heard across Israel, as Hamas continues to fire rockets and Israel’s air defence systems intercept them. As sirens go off, one has to lie down quickly, with the response time being just about seven seconds. Sirens sounded twice when we were in Be’eri and there were explosions lasting about five minutes each.

“The battle in Be’eri went on for hours. Hamas came into our houses, took hostages and shot many people, forcing other family members to watch the massacre. They raped women and beheaded children. Then they sat down, and had food. The world needs to see this monster. Israel has every right to defend itself,” said Elsdunne.

50-Ronen-a-45-year-old-first-responder Ronen, a 45-year-old first responder from Sderot, who fought against Hamas.

The woes of affected areas like Be’eri are felt across the country, including Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city. Jerusalem, which has a significant presence of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, is on edge. We saw the arrest of one of them. His car was intercepted by a six-member security team. He was asked to get out, the car was searched thoroughly for weapons and then his hands and legs were cuffed. He and his car were then taken away by the police.

A woman who was present at the scene told us that such things happened routinely to Arabs and Palestinians. “For us, it has always been like this. Sometimes I feel whether Israel wanted this attack to happen so that they could retaliate heavily and could also get aid and more military supplies from the US,” said the woman, who works as a customer relations executive.

51-Shibhan Tale of woes: Shibhan, an Arab resident of Jerusalem who runs a gift shop. Arabs in Israel say they have been suffering in silence for long.

An Arab hotel owner whose family has been living in Jerusalem for more than four centuries echoed similar sentiments. “We have been suffering in silence for long. My ancestral house in the Old City is almost 400 years old. The Israeli army is very mean to us, they beat up our people every day. We have to be brave and patient,” he said.

There are many more people in Jerusalem with similar tales to share. A Palestinian taxi driver who grew up in Jerusalem said the city was beautiful and had a rich history, but the constant strife and tensions had made it unappealing for people like him. “I studied electrical engineering, but during the second Intifada in 2003, I was arrested by Israeli forces just because I had gone to fix some electrical appliances at a Jewish citizen’s house. I was only 22. My career was over in a matter of days and I had to take up the job of a taxi driver,” he said.

As Israel intensifies its efforts to dismantle Hamas, the threat of ground war is growing by the minute, despite the arrival of US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv. As we drove from Ashkelon to Netiv HaAsara on the Gaza border, we saw the full mobilisation of the IDF with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery guns lined up on both sides of the road. Camps of soldiers are everywhere. They do not say much, except asking journalists not to take photos. Overhead, we could hear IDF jets raiding Gaza unchallenged, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.

The Israeli government has vowed to finish off Hamas once and for all. Tal Heinrich, spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, replied to a query of this correspondent that the IDF would make sure that each and every perpetrator of the October 7 attacks would be dealt with severely. Israel says it will not negotiate with terrorists and has demanded the unconditional return of all hostages. Qatar, which hosts key Hamas leaders, is said to be trying to ensure the safe return of the hostages.

The entire Middle East is worried that the Israel-Hamas war could escalate into a wider conflict, forcing major world powers to step in. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, yet another major conflict will have devastating consequences not just for the Middle East, but for the world.