Newly Vulnerable, Israelis Remain Traumatized and Mistrustful

  • February 17, 2024

After the Hamas invasion on Oct. 7, Doron Shabty and his wife and their two small children hid in Sderot, near the border with Gaza, and survived. A reservist in the infantry, he went into the army the next day.

He just returned after more than 100 days in Gaza, having lost friends. Mr. Shabty, 31, who sees himself on the political left, said he felt no sense of revenge, even if other soldiers did. Nor did he justify every act of the Israeli military, expressing sorrow over the many thousands of Gazans killed in the fight against Hamas.

But he said he felt certain that to restore Israelis’ faith in their country’s ability to protect them, there cannot be a return to the situation of Oct. 6. “We can’t live with an armed Gaza — we just can’t do that,” he said. “And in order to disarm Gaza, you need to pay a terrible price.”

The shock of Oct. 7 was emotional, physical and psychological, undermining the idea of security, both personal and national, and reminding Israelis that they have powerful enemies next door who wish them dead and gone.

Four months into the war, with mounting deaths, hostages still held by Hamas and no clear victory in sight, their own pain has numbed many Israelis to the suffering of Gazans, let alone the pain of the Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health says that more than 28,000 Gazans have been killed in the war, largely civilians, though the figures do not distinguish between them and combatants. The toll vastly outnumbers Israeli deaths since Oct. 7, when some 1,200 people were killed, according to Israeli officials. The latest cumulative Israeli figures say that a total of 779 civilians, including 76 foreign citizens, and 633 soldiers and police officers have died in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. More than 100 people are held as prisoners by Hamas.

While Israel’s Western allies generally regard the start of the war as justified, given the Hamas invasion, Israel’s conduct in the war has been widely criticized, given the civilian toll. South Africa has brought charges of genocide, dismissed by Israel, while even President Biden has called the Israeli military operation “over the top.”

But accompanied by a powerful new sense of Israel’s vulnerability, Israeli attitudes toward the war, which Israeli Jews overwhelmingly support, inform virtually their every expectation for the future. It is likely to do so for a long time to come, experts and Israelis themselves say.

Diplomats again talk of a two-state solution, but Israelis and Palestinians, both traumatized, have little faith in it and little faith in each other.

“Every Israeli sees themselves as a hostage family,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “We are all hostages,” read the slogans on the billboards and in the supermarkets, he pointed out. “And emotionally that’s true,” he said.

“We saw ourselves as a safe haven for Jewish people, rescuing Israelis and Jews in danger, and that was the best part of ourselves,” Mr. Halevi added. “So the ongoing horror of the hostage situation and our helplessness is tormenting us.”

Palestinians in Israel are traumatized, too. “Imagine being in deep mourning and grieving your people and not being able to express that grief. It’s maddening,” said Sally Abed, 32. “It’s almost an impossible reality.”

Jews seem to forget that Palestinians in Israel have relatives in Gaza, she said.

“Yet we cannot say that while existing in this traumatized Israeli society, where the vast majority are simply in this state of hate and revenge, almost like an ecstasy of destruction,” she said.

Ms. Abed, an Israeli-born citizen and Palestinian who lives and works in Haifa, is a leader of Standing Together, which promotes peace and an inclusive society. But even she feels she must be careful what she says. “You’re constantly being tested,” she said.

The other day, a Jewish colleague of her husband’s made a comment about how Israel had been “so graceful” in making sure Gazans had food and water, she said.

“It was so provoking. Are you kidding me?” she said. “Provoking us to see if we would react, and of course we wouldn’t react or risk it.”

When the war began, her mother told her to take all of their savings and said: “Just please leave. I don’t want you here.”

Ms. Abed paused. “That broke my heart,” she said. “I know my mother doesn’t want me to go.” She and her husband discussed it. “It is more clear to us now than ever,” she said. “This is my home; this is my country. We’ll never leave.”

Gadi Baltiansky, a former Israeli diplomat, runs the Geneva Initiative, devoted to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a two-state solution. He hopes that the current war will revive that idea, but he also recognizes that, for most Israelis, Oct. 7 undermined confidence in their own state and in a secure future.

He compares the sense of vulnerability with the years before the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, when Israel defeated a coalition of Arab armies.

“People see they still want to destroy us,” he said. “There is more antisemitism, a feeling of no safe place for a Jew. And the main mission for Israel is to protect Jews, and now it’s the most dangerous place for a Jew to be.”

The gnawing vulnerability seemed an echo of an earlier time, agreed Bernard Avishai, an American-Israeli professor and analyst.

“There is a growing recognition that Israel is on the edge of a volcano, as it was between 1948 and 1967,” he said, again surrounded by enemies. “So everything feels genuinely existential.”

Israelis have a reasonably good idea of what is happening in Gaza, he said, including the bombings and deaths of thousands of civilians as the military seeks to dismantle Hamas.

But the Israeli news media, while regularly showing devastation in Gaza, also concentrates on Israel’s own dead, and less so on Gaza’s civilian toll. The death of each Israeli soldier is saturated with media attention, including images of funerals and grieving family members. Similarly, pictures of the hostages taken by Hamas are ubiquitous at supermarkets and bus stands.

“There is a morbid feeling of death everywhere,” Mr. Avishai said, and the sheer numbers of casualties in Gaza produce “a corresponding numbness.” One day, three Israeli soldiers are killed, the next day, 21, he said. “So should I feel worse than yesterday? But yesterday I felt awful. And if it’s 50 Palestinians instead of 20? There comes a point that what the imagination can’t take in will later become a movie about one person that will make us all cry.”

Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular Israeli daily, said he understood Israelis who say, “How can we trust any Palestinian?” Israelis point to polls that show enormous support for Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, he said.

But the polls are telling on both sides. The latest Peace Index survey from Tel Aviv University “is a study in hopelessness,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and analyst.

She noted that, in the survey, 94 percent of Israeli Jews and 82 percent of the total population think the Israeli military has used “adequate or too little force” in Gaza. Some 88 percent of all Jewish Israelis think the number of Palestinians killed or wounded in Gaza is justified by the war.

Despite President Biden’s support, only 27 percent of Jewish Israelis support a two-state solution, and 38 percent support annexation of the West Bank and Gaza with limited rights for Palestinians. (Similarly, only 24 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution.)

“The Israeli and Palestinian peoples are strained to the breaking point or they’re already broken,” Ms. Scheindlin said. “Each is inconceivably traumatized, and the suffering is ongoing every day.”

Ofer, a soldier just back from reserve duty in the north who asked that his surname not be published to protect his family, said there was always the belief that, if necessary, Israel could destroy Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Iran.

“But now, with carte blanche in a war in Gaza, it’s clear we cannot,” he said, “and the same with Hezbollah, and that’s a big change. I feel we’re checkmated, restrained in Gaza by Lebanon and restrained in Lebanon by Iran and Syria. The country is more vulnerable, definitely.”

Naomi Sternberg, 27, is the child of an Italian mother and an Argentine father who immigrated to Israel and met learning Hebrew. Born after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, she has grown up, she said, “with a feeling of endless war and no peace on the horizon.”

Ever since her three years in the army — “three years wasted,” she said — she works with Israeli and Palestinian women to bridge the deep differences between them. “When Israeli women speak about conflict, they speak of security, but when Palestinian women speak, it’s about justice,” she said.

Now, after Oct. 7, she wonders, “Are we, as Jews, sentenced to a life that is insecure?” She is angry, she said, because “this could have been prevented, with a peace.”

She wonders how much room there will be now to speak for a peace based on partnership, as opposed to separation. “Even the left is talking now about separation,” she said. “But this paradigm leads us to where we are with Gazans — we completely dehumanize each other.”

Ms. Abed, like Ms. Sternberg, believes that two states for two peoples is essential, but unsustainable without “real healing and reconciliation.”

“My fight for liberation is for me and for every Palestinian to live freely where they chose to belong,” she said. “Israel is my home, this is my country, and a correct democracy would respect that, and let me experience what it is to be a Palestinian in Israel.”

Like Ms. Abed, Ms. Sternberg has no intention of giving up the struggle for a better Israel.

“Violence leaves such a small space for dreamers to thrive in,” she said sadly. “We proudly naïve people are considered not only traitors now, but stupid, which is almost worse.”

“But with all my energy,” she said, “we need to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now more than ever I feel motivated to do that.”

Gal Koplewitz contributed reporting.

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