Israelis Were Shattered on Oct. 7. Can They Recover?

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By Ketrin Agustine

Israelis Were Shattered on Oct. 7. Can They Recover?

I landed in Israel and went straight to a funeral.

It was at a small cemetery surrounded by cypress trees and flowering bougainvillea. Being laid to rest were Dana Bachar, a kindergarten teacher, and Carmel, her 15-year-old son, who loved the waves. They were murdered by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, near Gaza. Carmel was buried with his surfboard while his father, Avida, who had lost a leg in the attack and was in a wheelchair, looked on and wept.

Several hundred people were present, friends and strangers alike. The mourners were distinctly secular and, in their dress, casual. Be’eri was well known for its pro-peace sympathies: It had a special fund to give financial help to Gazans who came to the kibbutz on work permits, and kibbutzniks would often volunteer to drive sick Palestinians to an oncology center in southern Israel.

“They were to the left of Meretz” is how one leading Israeli political figure described the kibbutz’s political sympathies, referring to the most progressive political party in Israel. Hamas must have known this. It butchered the people there all the same. The group may have had several objectives on Oct. 7, from derailing an Israeli-Saudi peace deal to getting Hezbollah to open a second front. But not the least of its aims was to kill Jews for its own sake, to instill a sense of terror so visceral and vivid that it would imprint itself on Israel’s psyche for generations. In that, it has succeeded.

Avida Bachar, who lost a leg in the attack on his family’s kibbutz, with his surviving daughter at the funeral of his wife and son.
Carmel Bachar’s last wish was to be buried with his surfboard.

What, I wondered, will it take for the country to recover? Surely a decisive military victory over Hamas, for the sake of deterrence if not justice. But any kind of military victory would be far from sufficient.

I have been coming to Israel for 40 years, through good times and bad. I’ve never seen it in a more damaged state than it is in now — a state in which grief competes with fury and where the target of fury is split between the terrorists who committed the atrocities and the political leadership that left the country exposed to attack.

And beneath the fury, fear.

From the funeral, I drove (with a brief roadside stop to take cover from incoming rocket fire) to the morgue at the Shura Army Base, where a forensics team opened trailer-size containers of bagged corpses in cold storage. Even at low temperatures, the smell left no doubt as to what was inside. Gilad Bahat, a police investigator, described examining babies who had been shot and burned, people who had been decapitated after being killed and a gruesome hodgepodge of hard-to-identify arms, skulls and other remains.

The morgue at the Shura Army Base, made up of trailers storing human remains.

“Never have we seen such a sight,” Bahat said. He’s been on the force for 27 years.

Later, at an army headquarters in Tel Aviv, I was given a private screening of some 46 minutes of footage of the events of Oct. 7, assembled from security cameras, smartphone videos recorded by victims and survivors, and the GoPro footage taken by the terrorists themselves. I watched as one terrorist casually murdered a father with a hand grenade and then raided his fridge while two orphaned boys whimpered in fear. I watched another who tried to behead a wounded Thai field worker with a garden hoe while shouting “Allahu akbar.” I listened to a third who, in a phone call to his parents, boasted, “I killed more than 10 Jews with my bare hands!”

I also visited Kibbutz Nir Oz, which lost a quarter of its approximately 400 members to murder and kidnapping. I saw bedroom floors and bunk-bed mattresses soaked in blood. I saw incinerated homes and graffiti in Arabic taking ownership of the crime: “Al-Qassam Brigade.” I met Hadas Calderon, who lost her mother and her niece on Oct. 7, and whose two children and ex-husband are now, as best as she knows, hostages in Gaza. “The world has to scream,” she said. “Bring the children home now.”

Words such as “evil,” “horror,” “blood bath” and “terror” tend to exist, for most of us, on a conceptual or hyperbolic plane. Not for Israelis. They are under no illusions that had the Hamas terrorists been able to kill 100 or 1,000 times as many of them as they did on Oct. 7, they would have done so without hesitation.

That’s a point that needs to factor in to any thoughtful analysis of the Jewish state’s predicament. There’s an asymmetry in this conflict, but it’s not about the preponderance of military power. Israel’s goal in this war is political and strategic: to defeat Hamas as the reigning power in Gaza, even though there will be unavoidable cost in innocent lives, since Hamas operates among civilians. But Hamas’s goal is only secondarily political. Fundamentally, it’s homicidal: to end Israel as a state by slaughtering every Jew within it. How can critics of Israeli policy insist on a unilateral cease-fire or other forms of restraint against Hamas if they can’t offer a credible answer to a reasonable Israeli question: How can we go on like this?

The day after the Bachars’ funeral, I traveled to Camp Iftach, a small military base a few hundred yards north of the Gaza border. It was Oct. 25, a day after Hamas had attempted, unsuccessfully, a seaborne infiltration of the nearby beachside kibbutz of Zikim. The entire area was on high alert.

Getting to the camp meant driving my car at high speed from military checkpoint to checkpoint, tailing an Israeli Army Humvee on sandy roads surrounded by fields burned to ash by falling rockets. The camp itself was a collection of concrete bunkers, with hundreds of shell casings from the pitched battles of Oct. 7 littering the pavement outside.

One of the senior officers on base is Lt. Col. Tom Elgarat, whose careworn face looks much older than his 41 years. When I met him, he was getting his soldiers ready for the ground invasion that would begin a few days later.

“This cannot go on,” he said. “If you have to lose life, if you have to take life, this cannot go on.”

By “this,” Elgarat meant the matzav, the situation, in which Israelis now find themselves. He lives in Tel Aviv, where his wife was trying to hold things together while schools were closed and the kids were home. But he grew up in Nir Oz. One of his cousins there, he says, is “alive by pure chance,” having been barricaded with her family for hours. “I want to look in her face and say, you can go back to your house.” Two of his uncles and one of his best friends are among the hostages.

The issue of Israel’s internally displaced people gets short shrift in most news accounts. But it’s central to the way in which Israelis perceive the war. There are now more than 150,000 Israelis — proportionately the equivalent of about 5.3 million Americans — who were forced out of their homes by the attacks of Oct. 7. Small cities like Sderot, near Gaza, and Kiryat Shmona, near Lebanon, are now mostly ghost towns and will remain that way if the government can’t secure its borders.

Should that happen, sizable parts of Israel’s already minuscule territory would become essentially uninhabitable. That, in turn, would mean the failure of the Jewish state to maintain a safe homeland, presaging the end of Zionism itself. It’s why Israelis think of this war as existential and why they’re willing to put aside their fury at Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers, for a while, to win the war.

An Israeli soldier in a burned-out room at Kibbutz Nir Oz.

Will they win?

If the question is whether Israel will be able to defeat Hamas, the answer is almost certainly yes: Israeli military planners have been war-gaming an invasion of Gaza for decades and, despite the intelligence blunders of Oct. 7, have tools and tactics that can flush Hamas’s fighters out of their maze of tunnels. Nor is the Israeli public likely to be swayed by civilian casualties into supporting any kind of cease-fire in the military campaign until Hamas is defeated and the hostages are returned. Israelis spent 18 years watching Hamas turn to its military advantage every Israeli concession — including free electricity, cash transfers of Qatari funds, work permits for Gazans, thousands of truckloads of humanitarian goods. Israelis won’t get fooled again.

But while Israelis are still processing the horror from the south, the threat of war looms on every side. Around the world, too many people are showing their true colors when it comes to their feelings about Jews, and darkness in the West has made it feel colder in Israel.

A few days after my visit to Camp Iftach, I drove north to Metula, a picturesque Israeli village on a finger of land surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. Other than a handful of soldiers, it was mostly deserted; it would almost surely be captured by Hezbollah in the early hours of a full-scale conflict, which would make the Gaza front look like child’s play.

In the West Bank, nightly Israeli security raids against Hamas and allied terror cells in cities like Jenin and Nablus are largely what stand in the way between the unpopular and corrupt Palestinian Authority and a Hamas coup. Compounding the tension is a sharp uptick in settler violence, with some seeing the crisis as an “opportunity to vent their spleen with M-16s,” as an Israeli reporter put it to me. Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, has even suggested effectively banning the Palestinian olive harvest, ostensibly for security reasons. “That would be like banning the Super Bowl,” the reporter observed. It would guarantee an explosion.

And then there’s the wider world. Vladimir Putin, whom Netanyahu did so much to court over more than a decade, has all but openly thrown his support behind Hamas, in part because of Russia’s deepening alliance with Hamas’s patrons in Iran. In China, state-run and social media have veered sharply into open antisemitism. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom Israel had been engaged in a careful rapprochement, has reverted to Islamist form. “Hamas is not a terrorist organization,” he told members of his parliamentary group late last month, but a “mujahedeen liberation group struggling to protect its people and lands.”

Just as frightening to many Israelis I spoke with was the turn against Israel in the West, a turn that, increasingly, is nakedly pro-Hamas and antisemitic. It’s visible in more than just the attempted firebombing of a synagogue in Berlin or the chants of “gas the Jews” in Sydney, Australia. It’s also in the sheer indifference among educated elites to Israeli suffering — typified by college-age students tearing down campus posters of kidnapped Israeli civilians.

“The effort on campuses and progressive circles to equate Zionism with all that is evil prepared the ground for the hardening belief that ‘the Jews had it coming,’” Einat Wilf, a Harvard graduate and former member of the Knesset for the Labor Party, told me. To many Israelis, there’s a distinct echo of what happened at German universities beginning about a century ago.

It may be that what started near Gaza will end there, too. But there’s a growing sense among Israelis, as well as many Jews in the diaspora, that what happened on Oct. 7 may be the opening act of something much larger and worse: another worldwide war against the Jews.

The entrance to the border city of Metula, near Lebanon, is blocked.
A rally in Tel Aviv for the release of Israeli hostages.

A few days after my visit to Camp Iftach, as Israeli troops prepared to enter Gaza, I got a WhatsApp message from Elgarat: “Tonight is the start of the changing process that will bring Israel to a better place. But for my family and many friends, it is too late. All I can do now is focus on the mission. After this is all done, the time for sorrow and grief will come.”

Elgarat had clarity of purpose. But for many Israelis, what comes next seems much more muddled, especially politically. What can Israelis do about a government whose machinations had already created more turmoil and division than Israel had ever seen, whose incompetence and neglect had given Hamas a free hand, yet seems immovable?

“Toppling Bibi will be harder than toppling Hamas,” Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist and the author of “Bibi,” an acclaimed biography of Netanyahu, told me when I had dinner with him in Jerusalem.

Pfeffer’s view isn’t widely shared among Israeli political analysts, who think that massive protests or defections by Likud lawmakers or their coalition partners will quickly bring down the government once the war ends. My guess is that Pfeffer is right: The government, to adapt a line often attributed to Ben Franklin, will hang together because otherwise it will hang separately. And if one of the Oct. 7 lessons for many Israelis is that a right-wing government failed, another lesson is that right-wing ideology was vindicated, at least insofar as a Palestinian state is concerned. If tens of thousands of Israelis were put at mortal risk when Gaza became a quasi-state after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, what would it mean to put millions of Israelis at risk along much longer borders if the same process were to be repeated in the West Bank? That’s a thought that will weigh heavily on Israelis’ minds if there’s even a whisper of a chance that Hamas or a similar group might come to power.

Even so, it’s hard to overstate the breadth of public disgust with Netanyahu — not only for his failure to heed loud warnings from his generals before Oct. 7 about the military’s diminished readiness, but even more so for his refusal to take responsibility, much less apologize, for his role in the debacle. Seventy-six percent of Israelis think he should resign, according to a recent poll. Ministers can’t show their faces at funerals, shivas or hospital waiting rooms for fear of being yelled at and chased out.

Perhaps nobody feels this disgust more acutely than Amir Tibon, a correspondent for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Tibon became internationally famous last month after his family’s rescue, by his 62-year-old father, Noam (a retired general), when his kibbutz was overrun by Hamas terrorists. “Saba higea” — “Grandpa is here,” the words with which Amir’s 3-year-old daughter greeted Noam after 10 hours of terrified silence in their safe room — have since become words of pride and hope to Israelis desperately in need of both.

I went to see Amir in a kibbutz in the north, where he and his family were living with relatives. Amir pointed to his shirt: borrowed from a cousin. His car: also borrowed. His pants: from a giveaway rack collected by volunteers.

“We were trained all our lives to trust the government and trust the military,” Amir Tibon said. “After this, people are going to trust themselves.”

Amir hails from that segment of Israeli society that Netanyahu and his allies had spent the previous year demonizing: “elites,” “Ashkenazim,” “anarchists,” “leftists.” It’s true that by the terms of Israel’s political discourse, he and his neighbors tilted left; they had certainly been at the forefront of efforts to stop Netanyahu’s efforts to destroy the power of the Supreme Court. But it’s also true that on Oct. 7, it was largely his segment of society that became the embodiment of Zionism, as both its martyrs and its heroes.

I asked Amir what needed to change going forward. His first answer: More people would need permits to carry personal sidearms. “We were trained all our lives to trust the government and trust the military,” he said. “After this, people are going to trust themselves.”

His second: “Zero tolerance for semi-corrupt political appointments,” he said, a clear reference to characters such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right nebbish who holds the position of minister for national security. “Israelis are under too many threats and exposed on too many fronts to accept a mediocre, amateurish, self-interested rule by people who are not trustworthy.”

The Tibon family’s story is testimony that on Oct. 7, Israel’s people were far better than its government. Amir told me of sitting with a member of his kibbutz’s security team “who fought this insane battle, underarmed” against the hundred-odd Hamas terrorists who entered the Nahal Oz kibbutz that morning. “You cannot avoid a sense of despair when you see the leadership we have,” he told me. “And you can’t avoid a sense of pride when you see the citizens who saved lives on that day.”

There were other points of hope mixed into the general gloom of Israeli life today. I met reservists who had dropped busy careers and flown in from Chicago, Dubai and Melbourne, Australia, to rejoin their old units. A sergeant on Elgarat’s staff who goes by the nickname Cholo — he was D.J.’ing large parties in Brazil but flew back to Israel immediately after Oct. 7 to serve — was clear about where he stood: “I am not supporting this government, but I will go to the army.”

Not many countries can inspire such a willingness to sacrifice in times of crisis. It’s how Israel pulled through in the past, particularly during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where a costly victory helped ease the pain of an initial debacle and where an eventual peace redeemed the price of both.

Also hopeful was the willingness of Israelis to acknowledge failure — and to seek to learn from it.

Nobody in Israel, including in the highest echelons of its defense establishment, disputes the military and intelligence sides of the failure. The lessons from it, tactical and strategic, are sure to be digested in the months ahead. Chief among them: Don’t try to answer a strategic problem, such as Hamas’s rule in Gaza, with a purely technogical solution, like the various wonder weapons that were supposed to keep the group in check.

Northern Gaza as seen from Sderot, Israel.

But the country’s long-term fortunes will depend on its ability to recognize and correct the political failures that led to Oct. 7. Over dozens of conversations here, a few core questions emerged:

Will Israelis finally see the danger of electing tough-talking narcissists who practice the politics of mass polarization? And will they understand that politics in a Jewish state — which is as much a family as it is a polity — can’t be conducted by one narrow majority jamming its ideas down the throats of a bitterly opposed minority?

Will they see the folly of dividing themselves into a multitude of separate and mutually antagonistic tribes — Jewish and Arab; Ashkenazi and Mizrahi; left wing and right wing; secular and religious — so that they can tear one another to political pieces in full view of their foes?

Will they recognize that Israel’s single greatest strategic asset is the devoted patriotism that its people feel for their state — a feeling that will inevitably suffer if their government repeatedly comprises freeloaders, bigots, tax cheats and ideological arsonists?

Will they understand that the ultimate purpose of Zionism is self-rule for the Jewish people, not indefinite rule over others? A plausible Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel may be years or even decades away, given the wretched state of Palestinian politics. But Israel also has a long-term responsibility to safeguard the possibility of such a state against attempts to abort it.

Finally, will Israelis remember that the responsibility that falls on them now is a responsibility not for them alone? “I have a premonition that will not leave me,” the philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in 1968. “As it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish, the Holocaust will be upon us.”

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