This time the bloody choreography that has been repeated for years — by which Hamas and the Israeli army exchange rocket fire and the bombardment of Gaza — has not been fulfilled. This script is different, more terrifying, and now being written by the fundamentalist militia. Never before has Hamas operated at such a level, kidnapping more than a hundred people and gunning down the inhabitants of the kibbutz and villages near the Strip, killing 1,200 people. The images and testimonies that are coming in give an idea of the magnitude of the massacres committed by the militia. While this was taking place, Israeli forces were nowhere to be seen, as if absent.
It took four days for the all-powerful Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to take control of the southern border with Gaza, where the security fence was demolished by a bulldozer, an action that has become a symbol against the occupation and the deadly Israeli blockade of the Strip. In the aftermath of the attack, a feeling of chaos and abandonment is spreading among the Israeli population. Where is the army? And the government? A friend of mine this week showed me a photo of her relatives, who traveled to the southern border from Tel Aviv with boxes full of food for the soldiers because they were short on supplies. On Tuesday, a man shouted on a conservative television channel. “Mr. Prime Minister, come out, face the media, apologize.” There are many other who feel the same way. It is the same sense of abandonment they feel when the army relentlessly shells the Gaza strip, seemingly oblivious to the fate of the hostages. This is also new in Israel, a country that in the past has gone to great lengths to recover the living, and the dead, from its side.
A feeling of fragility and mistrust towards a state that has justified almost everything in the name of security is emerging strongly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the standard bearer of security and an iron fist, has failed miserably on his own terms. The security he claimed to embody turned out to be a chimera. Emperor Bibi was in fact naked and the image of the strong and invincible Israel has evaporated, and not only in the eyes of Hamas. “We have been living in an imaginary reality for years,” a senior military reserve officer said this week in the daily Haaretz.
That imaginary reality has in recent months concentrated Israel’s security problems in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory where more than half a million settlers live illegally, in addition to more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem. While the army and the ultra-right-wing government were carefully guarding the invading settlers, it was neglecting the threat coming from the Strip, according to many analysts. Last June, the army decided to expand its presence in the West Bank from 13 to 25 battalions. Netanyahu’s strategy of benefiting from the divide-and-rule between Fatah and Hamas, and allowing the Islamists in Gaza to grow fat in order to weaken the authorities in the West Bank, has ended in bloodshed.
Over the last 18 months the West Bank has been the scene of daily army raids, as well as continuous attacks by settlers, who now have significant representation within a government that protects them. In the first six months of 2023, the United Nations counted almost 600 attacks by settlers, the highest monthly average since it began recording them in 2006. This year has also seen the highest number of Palestinians killed since 2005 — more than 200 by Israeli gunfire and 35 Israelis killed by Palestinian attacks — even before the war broke out last Saturday, UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland reported recently. Meanwhile, the government has approved 13,000 settlement homes and legalized 20 embryonic colonies, according to statistics from Israeli pressure group Peace Now, again the highest figure since records began in 2012. For if Gaza has been condemned to the blockade, Palestinians in the West Bank have been forced for years to live in Bantustans where settlers impose their law and their violence.
The question Israelis are all asking is - where were the soldiers yesterday? Why was the IDF seemingly absent while hundreds of Israelis were slaughtered in their homes and on the streets? The unfortunate truth is that they were “preoccupied”. In the West Bank.— Breaking the Silence (@BtSIsrael) October 8, 2023
Gnawing at the foundations of the State of Israel
It is those settlers that so many Israelis now look to and accuse of gnawing away at the foundations of the State of Israel, jeopardizing its security for the sake of a messianic, ultra-nationalist agenda that pursues the conquest of what they consider the promised land. “The question Israelis are all asking is — where were the soldiers yesterday? Why was the IDF seemingly absent while hundreds of Israelis were slaughtered in their homes and on the streets?” Breaking the Silence, the Israeli army veterans’ collective that is critical of the occupation, posted on the social network X. “The unfortunate truth is that they were “preoccupied” In the West Bank. We send soldiers to secure settler incursions into the Palestinian city of Nablus, to chase Palestinian children in Hebron, to protect settlers as they carry out pogroms.”
Last weekend, soldiers were also protecting far-right MP Zvi Sukkot, who on Friday moved his parliamentary office to a temporary building in Hawara, one of the hot spots for settler attacks in the northern West Bank, to celebrate the Simchat Torah holiday.
Now, the sense of chaos has replaced the militarized security of recent years, when many Israelis believed that everything was under control, that they trusted a state and an army that until now seemed to be able to manage the conflict: not to solve it, but to manage it by force and abuse. Since Saturday, the idea that Gaza was manageable, as if it were a pressure cooker where it was enough to lower the heat so that the valve would not blow up, has lost any hint of validity.
Unity despite differences
Even so, the immediate response of the population after the shock will once again be unity. Despite the deep differences that divide Israeli society, the country will remain united in the face of the new conflict. The demonstrations against Netanyahu’s judicial reform have been suspended and politicians, including the opposition, are preparing to form a national unity government.
The army has reminded the population that this is not the time to analyze the failures of the state — compared to those of the 1973 Yom Kippur war — and that the rest can wait. “First we fight, then we investigate,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said. Or as Nahum Barnea wrote this week in Yedioth Ahronoth: “Shut up and shoot,” recalling what journalist and government advisor Amiram Nir wrote at the beginning of Lebanon’s first war in 1982. But anger against this government is palpable and comes at a fertile moment, when discontent has already been expressed in the streets for months. The silence threatens to turn into a roar when the guns fall silent.
It is too soon for all that. Now there is pain and astonishment at the reports documenting the crimes committed by Hamas. Another Israeli friend reminded me last night that it is a small country and that everyone knows a family victim of the barbarity of the last few days.
But few doubt that a new era is dawning, in which business as usual is not an option. The paradigms on which the security of the state was based have proved to be false and the illusion that the occupation can be maintained for life, and the freedom of five million people can be cut off, has proven lethal for Israel.
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