Israelis and Palestinians confront a terrifying new reality
JERUSALEM — Even in a place so timeless that it sometimes seems the stones themselves are telling old, old stories, a single week can change everything.
On Friday, as the Jewish Sabbath was about to fall, and as Muslims marked their principal prayer day, Israelis and Palestinians alike struggled to come to terms with the terrifying new reality created by Saturday’s devastating cross-border strike by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
“There are no words, no words at all, no words for this horror,” said Eliram Kalif, a 36-year-old father of three from Nir Am, a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip.
His was one of a string of small southern Israeli communities targeted by Hamas, along with a sprawling all-night dance party that, fatefully, had drawn thousands of young Israelis to the desert near Gaza.
In the aftermath of the militants’ onslaught, hundreds of Israeli civilians — babies and children, the young and the elderly, entire families — lay dead in homes and fields and in bullet-pocked cars on highways; scores more were dragged into Gaza as captives, creating an unprecedented hostage crisis in a country that has traditionally gone to enormous lengths to free even a single Israeli in enemy hands.
In the three-quarters of a century that Israel has existed, the state has never suffered such a staggering loss of civilian life in so short a time, dwarfing already grave military losses in the assault.
By day’s end Friday, the Israeli toll stood at more than 1,300, the great majority of them civilians.
For Palestinian civilians living in the crowded confines of sealed-off Gaza, the long-standing grind of daily hardship has been overshadowed by an Israeli aerial assault that military observers termed remarkable in scope and scale — bombardment that is seen as a likely prelude to a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of the narrow coastal enclave.
“When I look outside now, I can’t tell if what I’m looking at was a street, or a building,” said Gaza poet Mosab Abu Toha, speaking by phone as heavy blasts echoed in the background. “The entire topography has changed.”
Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas. But the militants are embedded in neighborhoods where ordinary people live, and civilians are paying the heaviest price.
Palestinian officials said at least 1,900 people had been killed in Gaza by late Friday, most by relentless airstrikes that have reduced entire neighborhoods to piles of rubble, filling the air with gritty gray plumes of dust and the ever-stronger smell of death.
In a part of the world where biblical language often finds its way into common speech, some people speak of the week’s events in passionate floods of verbiage. Others stutter out a few words and fall suddenly silent.
Israel Attar, a 50-year-old Jerusalemite, rubbed his reddened eyes after burying his 23-year-old nephew, an army lieutenant who was killed in the first hours of the Hamas assault. Loss “is something that happens here,” he said, but somehow, this past week felt very different.
“Everything now,” he said, “is black, black.”
Among Israelis, the intelligence and operational failures that led to the wholesale slaughter of so many fellow citizens produced an outpouring not only of sorrow, but of rage — directed at Hamas, of course, but also toward the already embattled government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prime minister and his far-right government have weathered months of enormous protests against a plan that critics say would hamstring Israel’s independent judiciary, among an array of other anti-democratic measures.
The strength of the Israeli security establishment has long been a foundational article of social faith, and catastrophic vulnerabilities exposed by Hamas attackers — who blinded electronic surveillance with drones, breached a high-tech border fence with construction equipment and soared over the barrier on paragliders — are likely to leave a generational scar, many observers say.
“We never imagined this could happen to us — we thought our army always protects us,” said Odeya Harish, a 33-year-old criminologist from Jerusalem. She was part of a friend group attending one funeral after another — some for young soldiers, some for the young revelers gunned down at the doomed desert rave near Gaza.
Many have likened the shock to that of the war in 1973, but with crucial differences. Half a century ago, Israel was caught off-guard by an attack by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria that also unfolded on a Jewish holiday — Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.
“In the Yom Kippur War, we fought against state armies. The war was along battle lines, and soldiers fought to defend civilians at home,” said analyst Kobi Michael of the Institute for National Security Studies. “This wasn’t the situation here — here, the civilians were the front line.”
With few Israeli families left untouched by the carnage — either by having friends or relatives dead or missing, or via their young and middle-aged men joining the 360,000-strong callup of reserves — a wide-ranging reckoning over how Hamas was able to plan and execute such a complex assault is undoubtedly coming.
But not now, the country’s army chief suggested at a briefing this week.
The Israeli military “is responsible for the security of the state and its civilians, and this past Saturday we did not achieve this,” said the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi. “We will learn and analyze what happened, but now — it is a time of war.”
Many Israelis, however, cast the blame less on military brass than on the most senior political echelons, including Netanyahu, saying his efforts to cling to power had proved a fatal distraction.
For Palestinians, this war’s political backdrop is also complicated. Hamas, which has denounced Israel’s existence, has held control over Gaza for more than 15 years, and while few Palestinians would dare to speak openly against the group, private conversations tend to reflect deep disillusionment with its rule.
Israel is universally blamed by Palestinians for desperate humanitarian conditions and punishing mass confinement inside Gaza. But as much as Hamas is disliked, opinion polls last year suggested it was gaining ground on the Palestinian Authority, which is scorned as old and corrupt in its governance of the West Bank, although other political figures are more popular than either.
Within Israel proper, Palestinians and other Arabs make up a full one-fifth of the country’s 10 million citizens, and as the crisis has spiraled, many fear being scapegoated and attacked, just as they have been during past conflicts between Israel and Arab foes.
After Saturday’s attack in the south of Israel, a Bedouin tow-truck operator who was hired to deal with bullet-riddled vehicles abandoned by fleeing civilians reported an unpleasant encounter with Israeli troops securing the area.
Although Hamas infiltrators were suspected to still be active in the area, the driver, an Israeli citizen named Zayid, said he was not allowed to carry a weapon, as Jewish Israelis who arrived at the scene to help were allowed to do.
“The moment something like this happens,” he said, “they start looking at us with suspicion.”
In Jerusalem’s Old City, the chimes of church bells mingled with the call to Muslim prayer. At the Western Wall, Judaism’s second-holiest site, only a smattering of worshipers could be seen in the sun-scorched plaza at midday on Friday, hours before the start of the Jewish Sabbath.
The walled Old City is only a third of a square mile in size, and few places evoke to a greater extent the literal jostling of one Abrahamic faith against another. And few places are more emblematic of the fervor with which the faithful guard their traditions.
For some, the day’s religious rituals were a reminder of a painful temporal cleaving: the before-times, and the after. At this same hour last week, the current confrontation, already the bloodiest yet between Israel and Hamas, had not yet begun.
Nehora Cohen, a rabbi’s wife who came to worship at midday, said she had had a premonition weeks ago that things might be about to go horribly wrong. She was at the Wall on Saturday, she said, when air-raid sirens heralded the start of this war, and prayed, as always, for Israel’s safety.
“People are simply scared,” she said, gesturing around the near-empty plaza, guarded on all sides by heavily armed Israeli forces.
Nearby, Muslim worshipers braved a ferociously hot sun to reach the Lion’s Gate, leading to the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Israeli police enforced tight restrictions on those allowed to enter Al Aqsa mosque, on the raised plateau above the Western Wall.
To the surprise of many, including some worshipers, prayers passed peacefully despite calls from Hamas for a “day of rage” over the conflict.
Some worshipers deplored Hamas’ targeting of civilians, but said the world had ignored Gaza’s sufferings.
“See this cat?” said mosque-goer Khaled Basem, 55. “It has more rights than a Palestinian right now.”
Inside, the imam called for God’s help in defending what he called Gaza’s dignity. As congregants shuffled out, there was a momentary fracas near Lion’s Gate. Then quiet.
A 40-year-old named Yaqoub said he had hoped for calm.
“We’re just here to pray,” he said. “You want to go fight, you know where the fight is.”
Times special correspondent Lidman reported from Tel Aviv.
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