Today marks five weeks since Hamas’ bloody rampage through the Israeli towns, villages and military bases surrounding the Gaza Strip. It’s Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. The streets of Tel Aviv are quiet; coffee bars are crowded but less so than normal. Couples with young kids throng the swings and slides in the park near my home.
Eighty kilometres south of here, Israeli forces have closed their stranglehold on al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, with thousands of patients, medical staff and refugees trapped inside. The hospital’s operating theatres are dark, due to a lack of electricity, medical supplies and clean water.
Hidden in tunnels beneath the hospital, according to the Israeli army, is a key Hamas military command centre. That is enough to turn the hospital and those inside it into fair game. “You wanted hell, you will get hell,” as one senior general put it.
Far from the grim reality of al-Shifa, Western pundits argue whether Israel’s assault on Gaza – which has so far taken some 11,000 Palestinian lives and counting – can legitimately be termed genocide, which is how many supporters of the Palestinians describe it. The subtleties of the arguments, both pro and con, are probably lost on those trapped in the hospital.
Personally, I believe that the rhetoric accompanying Israel’s onslaught on Gaza was and still is undeniably genocidal. In addition to the promise of hell for the inhabitants of Gaza, other politicians and generals have used such terminology as “human animals,” turning Gaza into “rubble” and creating a place that is “temporarily or permanently impossible to live in.”
We will know soon enough whether what is being implemented on the ground matches the international definition of genocide, namely, “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The rapidly escalating body count and Israel’s attempts to transfer civilians out of the northern part of the strip don’t augur well for Israel and its genocide-denying supporters.
Significantly, apart from the soldiers and other security personnel involved in the warfare, Israelis themselves know little of what is going on in Gaza. The local TV channels steer well clear of the humanitarian crisis underway in Israel’s back yard and few of the newspapers give it much coverage.
That is not only due to the McCarthyite backlash that has gripped the country – dozens of Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, have been arrested for making supposedly anti-Israel statements on social media and elsewhere – but because Israelis have long since become inured to Palestinian suffering. They simply don’t want to know.
Had that not been the case, the Hamas outrage on October 7 may well have been avoided. Israel’s sensory inoculation to all things Palestinian created the widespread complacency that preceded the rampage. Israelis lulled themselves into believing that all was quiet and good on the Palestinian front – a misconception that provided fertile ground for the country’s entire, misguided security-political approach.
Israelis wanted to believe that the Palestinian danger was a thing of the past – and went about their lives as if it was. Until the Hamas blood-fest, that is.
Israel today is a country in shock. Not because of the dead children in Gaza and the army’s exacting of revenge on a biblical scale – few Israelis are able to empathise with the Palestinians – but because of the depraved horrors of October 7, the unknown fate of the 240-odd people being held hostage in Gaza and the collapse of the psycho-emotional structure on which they had built their lives.
Despite the belligerence of their leaders and the government’s in-your-face campaign to forge national unity, Israelis are confused and scared – with good reason. Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia is dipping its toes in the conflict and may well decide to go further, Shiite forces in Iraq and Yemen are lobbing the odd missile and drone our way, and Iran, as always, looms in the background.
The shopping trips to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have evaporated into the ether. The febrile talk of peace with Saudi Arabia has been silenced. Israel is again isolated and alone in the Middle East and its name is mud in large swathes of the West, including in its patron and benefactor the United States. Joe Biden’s policy of moderating Israel through hugs, kisses and arms shipments seems to be coming apart at the seams.
For the first time in almost two generations – since the 1973 October War, to be precise – Israelis are fearful for their future. No-one ever knows what tomorrow will bring, but in Israel today that ignorance is existential. By and large, I think, Israelis trust their army – despite the appalling intelligence and operational failures that made Hamas’ incursion possible – but they don’t trust their politicians.
The fact that the war is being managed by the same bunch of revanchist and messianic incompetents that got the country into the mess in the first place – or, at the very least, brought it to its current nadir – only contributes to the nationwide uncertainty and despair. Leaders who talk of using nuclear weapons (as one minister did) and re-establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza don’t exactly placate fears and doubts.
In 1973, the population of Israel was largely united and able to mobilize itself for the war effort. That is not the case 50 years later. The entire year leading up to October 7, 2023 was devoted to a government effort to turn Israel into an autocracy and mass demonstrations by a large segment of the population to thwart that effort.
The Israel that Hamas attacked five weeks ago was already cleaved down the middle between secular and religious, democrats (albeit of the watered-down Israeli variety) and authoritarians, annexationists and those less certain about the legitimacy of the occupation. With the war now in full swing, those divisions make for a very insecure populace facing a highly uncertain future.
Not withstanding the bellicosity and even arrogance of many politicians, generals and journalists, Israel has lost its mojo. Given the strength of its army, its technological advantages and the active support of the US, it is unlikely to lose the war, but the victory may well turn out to be pyrrhic.
The veil of willful complacency has been torn loose. The Palestinians want their freedom and are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it; the moderate Arab states may want Israeli technology, tourism and heft with the US but there’s a limit to how far they can go; the pro-Palestinian (or anti-Israel) constituency in the US and Europe is large and increasingly vocal. The charge of anti-Semitism (previously a thermonuclear weapon in the propaganda arena) appears to have lost its punch.
Whatever happens over the next weeks and months, Israel is likely to emerge traumatized, diminished and even more divided than it was going in. Zionism, as we know it, has ended (with apologies to Francis Fukuyama). It will either become the full-throated and unambiguous ideology of fascist Jewish supremacy or an historical oddity with little contemporary significance.
My bet, sad to say, is on the former.