The scenes of devastation in Israel’s south on October 7 were almost beyond description. Children killed in their beds, babies taken from their mothers’ arms, the elderly slaughtered in their kitchens. Kfar Aza, a kibbutz close to the separation barrier with Gaza, was burned nearly to the ground: a charnel house. Between a quarter and a third of nearby Kibbutz Nir Oz’s residents were killed or kidnapped. Roughly 10 percent of Kibbutz Be’eri’s population was murdered. At least a dozen of tiny Kibbutz Holit’s two hundred members are dead. The streets of the city of Sderot were littered with bodies. At an outdoor rave near Kibbutz Reim, more than 260 young men and women were gunned down as they tried to flee.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants from the Gaza Strip killed at least 1,400 Israelis, the vast majority of them civilians, and took at least two hundred Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage, almost all of whom remain in captivity as of this writing. It was the deadliest single day not just since Israel’s founding but in the entire history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Swaths of the western Negev—a region speckled with religious towns, agricultural communities, and small kibbutzim, several of them left-leaning—have been effectively depopulated. The surviving residents have fled, with many seeking refuge in the Red Sea city of Eilat or at kibbutzim in the country’s center.
On the day of the attacks, during the Jewish holiday weekend of Shemini Atzereth/Simchat Torah, meant to be a time of joyful dancing and exuberance, Israeli forces had been deployed to the West Bank in anticipation of settler violence and Palestinian responses. It took the army more than eight and a half hours to arrive at Nir Oz, more than thirteen hours to arrive at Be’eri, and more than twenty hours to arrive at Kfar Aza. Residents of the besieged towns and kibbutzim documented the hours before their deaths in videos and text messages, after which their fates dissolved into the haze of carnage.
Israel is a small country. No one has been spared bereavement. Hamas’s surprise assault and the sheer magnitude of the slaughter caught Israeli authorities so unawares that they were slow to confirm the status of those who remain unaccounted for. Each day brings another notice that someone else has been named among the dead. Communities in Israel’s south have buried entire families, like the Kutzes—Livnat, Aviv, and their children Rotem, Yonatan, and Yiftach—and the Kedems, Tamar and Yonatan and their children Shachar, Arbel, and Omer. Parents have dug graves for children, grandparents for grandchildren. Relief workers continue to pull charred and mutilated corpses from the ruins of torched homes. At least 350 bodies have not been identified, and may never be.
Every morning horrific new testimony surfaces on Israeli TV. On News 12, a young man named Roi sobbed as he recalled the final moments before the murder of his girlfriend, Mapal Adam, at the music festival. They hid beneath a truck and played dead when Hamas gunmen attacked. Both were shot, but only Roi survived, left to watch as Mapal bled out. Amit Man, a twenty-two-year-old paramedic, was shot and killed as she tried to help the wounded in Kibbutz Be’eri’s small medical clinic, her final words recorded in a WhatsApp message to her sister as Hamas militants arrived. A worker with ZAKA, a volunteer search and rescue unit, described entering a home to find the bodies of two children across the room from their parents, the corpses handcuffed and mutilated—fingers severed, an eye gouged out. All had been executed.
Israel is now at war, in what it has dubbed “Operation Iron Swords.” The army has called up some 360,000 reservists, roughly 4 percent of the country’s population, in anticipation of a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza. Businesses have closed as their workers have been sent to fight. Agricultural fields lie untended. Many of the country’s beaches are closed. Israel’s Homefront command has issued regulations strongly discouraging outdoor gatherings of more than thirty people in the country’s most populous, central region, as well as in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
According to researchers with the Israel Democracy Institute, around 300,000 Israelis have left their homes since the attacks. Roughly 10,000 residents of twenty-eight towns and kibbutzim along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon have been ordered to evacuate, as have the 20,000 residents of Kiryat Shmona, one of the north’s largest towns. In the south, the 30,000 residents of Sderot have fled. In the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, which has been hit by more than a thousand Hamas rockets, tens of thousands of residents whose homes lack bomb shelters have also been evacuated.
Alongside grief, the overwhelming public sentiment appears to be one of abandonment, helplessness. In the harrowing stories of the survivors and the final messages of those who were killed, a question repeats itself: “Where is the army, and where is the government?” If there is one thing that might be said to have united almost all Jewish Israelis, it was a faith in the might and trustworthiness of the army as their ultimate defender. That belief has been shaken as never before.
The state of Israel emerged in the aftermath of the Holocaust: it made as a pillar of its founding ethos the commitment that Jews would never again go “like sheep to the slaughter.” That Hamas militants were able to besiege, torch, and execute Israeli Jews for hours without army intervention has rekindled the anxiety that many believed Israel’s existence had mollified. Israeli coverage of the carnage in the south is filled with comparisons to the Holocaust, some by newscasters, some by survivors: Who would have thought, they ask, that even in Israel we would need to hide in closets from our killers, that we would be led out and shot en masse in fields, that again our bodies would be burned to ash?
The sense of security, invincibility, even complacency that Israelis have enjoyed since the end of the second intifada roughly twenty years ago has been shattered. Of course, that perception was always an illusion, but it seemed resilient as long as the Palestinians remained invisible to most Israelis behind high concrete barriers and razor wire fences. Viewed this way, the current war, devoid of any clear strategy, appears to be not only an offensive against Hamas and a brutal insistence on the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, but also an effort to restore the country’s self-image as an undefeatable high-tech military power. From Israel’s perspective, the fight is for Zionism’s proof of concept: that it is in Israel where Jews are safest.
Failed by the government, flooded by images of death and gore, the Israeli public burns with calls for revenge. Officials have announced the objectives of their retaliation in bluntly eliminationist terms. On October 9 Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip. “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly,” he said. IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari stated that “the emphasis” in the current war “is on damage and not on accuracy.” Calls to “flatten Gaza” echo throughout the TV news panels and opinion pages. “Gaza will become a city of tents,” one high-ranking security official said, according to the Israeli journalist Alon Ben-David. “There will be no buildings.”
The Israeli military appears to be pursuing these aims. According to Sari Bashi, the program director at Human Rights Watch, at least 40 percent of the housing units in the Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed since the Israeli bombing began on October 7. The civilian death toll is staggering, already far higher than in any previous Israeli war in Gaza: more than seven thousand Palestinians have been killed, including 2,913 children. On October 24 health officials in Gaza reported that more than seven hundred people had been killed in a single night.
Entire neighborhoods have been leveled and entire extended families wiped out. Khaled al-‘Azayzeh lost twenty-six members of his family when their home was bombed; in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, fifteen members of the extended al-Dos family were killed by an Israeli air strike, including an eighteen-month-old baby; twelve members of the Hijazi family were killed in another strike, among them three young children.
“One idea in particular haunts me, and I cannot push it away,” the Gaza-based Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha recently wrote. “Will I, too, become a statistic on the news? I imagine myself dying while hearing my own name on the radio.” Overwhelmed by the carnage, deprived of electricity, clean water, and medical supplies, Gaza’s hospitals are on the brink of collapse; doctors are forced to operate without anesthesia, with vinegar for antiseptic and rags for bandages; refugees are sleeping on the floors. The morgues are filled, and health officials have resorted to storing bodies in ice cream trucks.
Since Israel issued an order for Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza on October 13, more than a million people have been displaced. Increasingly it appears that Israeli authorities are contemplating an enormous forced population transfer, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing. Pressured by the US, Israel has in turn pressured Egypt to take in Gazans fleeing air strikes. Egypt has so far refused. Many have rightfully criticized this proposal as a precondition for the second Nakba that so many Palestinians fear—and that many Israeli politicians have long promised.
Pressed to describe their strategy, Israeli leaders speak of “taking down Hamas,” but it remains unclear what, in practice, that will mean. The closest the government has come to articulating any program was on October 20, when Gallant announced a three-part plan. The first stage would be the miliary invasion of Gaza to remove Hamas from power, the second the “elimination of pockets of resistance,” and the third “the creation of a new security regime” and “the relinquishing of Israeli responsibility for life in the strip.” These proposals all amount to the same thing: the continuation of the status quo by other means, occupation management by another name.
Seemingly incapable of long-term thinking, Israel’s leaders cannot see that even if successful this campaign will achieve little more than unfathomable suffering and death. There is no talk of any future diplomatic resolution, no serious consideration of the fact that Israelis will never know security as long as the Palestinians remain under their boot. The occupation and siege may prove so rigid, the power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians so great, that all this death cannot change anything.
What has already changed is that Netanyahuism—as political style, as mode of governance, and as defense paradigm—has entered its last days. Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, in office with a few interruptions for more than fifteen years. He has never been more unpopular. He once said that he wanted to be “remembered as the protector of Israel,” but to many he has become Israel’s forsaker, absent during the country’s deadliest attack and the army and the state’s most grievous failure. According to a poll by the Israeli newspaper Maariv, 84 percent of the Israeli public believes his government should take responsibility for making Hamas’s atrocities possible; more than half say he should resign after the war.
Netanyahu, however, has preferred to let high-ranking military and intelligence officials take the blame. He is so afraid the people may hold him accountable that he will not risk an unscripted moment. Instead he has addressed the nation from behind a podium or via staged photo ops with the troops. When Netanyahu surrogates have dared to show up to the TV studios, they have spread the responsibility for the state’s failure to everyone but themselves and their leader. Some have accused Yitzhak Rabin—assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995 for pursuing peace talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat—of enabling the October 7 disaster. Others have pointed the finger at Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Shai Galili, a Likud official, declared on the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 that “the crimes of Oslo and the crimes of the left” were the reasons for the Hamas attacks.
But the public, for the most part, is not convinced. The evasions ring hollow and only generate more disdain. At Shamir Medical Center in Tel Aviv, a woman yelled at Idit Sliman, a hard-right Likudnik and the minister of the environment, before a scolding doctor in scrubs forced Sliman out. When Miri Regev, the transportation minister and a hard-right pugilist, arrived at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, irate citizens surrounded her car and threw their beverages at it. Similar scenes have played out in hospital waiting rooms across the country.
This does not mean that Israelis have suddenly become doves. To many, the cardinal sins of Netanyahu and his far-right government are not the blockade of Gaza and the entrenchment of the occupation in the West Bank but rather corruption and malfeasance. The prime minister and his allies filled the government and its agencies with incompetents and cronies. Decades of unchallenged Likud hegemony and privatization have turned the civil service into a system of petty favors. Seeking to evade conviction in his graft trial, Netanyahu has harnessed every office he can control in service of his political survival.
The past nine months of protests against Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul—shelved for the foreseeable future—sought to pressure the government to reverse course. Now a new movement may attempt to change the government itself—perhaps even by force. Yair Golan, a retired general who became something of a national hero for pulling victims out of the line of fire during the attacks, has called for a mass civilian uprising to lay siege to the Knesset and force Netanyahu and his government to resign. The investigative journalist Raviv Drucker has likewise predicted a mass protest movement that will sweep Netanyahu out of power. There are now even right-wingers, Likud voters, who want him banished from office.
One can already see the seeds of such a movement in some of the protests demanding an immediate return of the hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions. So far most Israeli officials have not stressed freeing them as a primary strategic objective. That may be a result of callous indifference or operational considerations: the total number of hostages is still unclear, and for all Israel’s vaunted intelligence and surveillance capabilities, it is doubtful that the IDF can locate all of them at this stage.
Still, for the government to fail to return any significant percentage of them would have profound political consequences. The Israeli public has historically been sensitive to hostages; in 2011, after a yearslong, highly public grassroots campaign in Israel, Israeli and Hamas negotiators agreed to a deal that freed the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, many of them former Hamas operatives. The families of the hostages expect their government to address their plight. They may be disappointed: a ground invasion will make recovering the hostages all but impossible.
Any future electoral shift will likely result from the fact that not only Likud but also the parties and politicians of the hard-line settler right have been disgraced, perhaps beyond recovery. Just months ago it seemed they were on the cusp of consolidating their capture of the Israeli state and restructuring its constitutional order to practically guarantee that the right would never lose power. These politicians are now afraid to show their faces in public, unwanted at funerals and shivas. Few Israelis will forget that Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the extreme ethno-nationalist Jewish Power party, was minister of national security during the worst attack in Israeli history. Few will forgive settler leaders like Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister and a minister in the defense department overseeing settlement planning in the occupied West Bank, for instigating the violence that required moving ground forces away from the south.
Netanyahu’s security doctrine has also been discredited. His governments have operated according to the logic that maintaining a divided Palestinian national movement advantaged Israel, even if it enabled Hamas to consolidate its rule in Gaza after expelling the Palestinian National Authority there in 2007. To prevent any possibility of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu and much of the defense establishment presumed that Israel could accept both strengthening Hamas in Gaza—for example, by facilitating cash infusions from Qatar to Hamas institutions—and suffering periodic bursts of rocket fire over Israeli cities, to which Israel would respond by “mowing the lawn,” a ghastly euphemism for its semiregular bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip. The October 7 attacks have made this logic of perpetual occupation management untenable, yet there is no Israeli consensus on what might succeed it.
Meanwhile, on the day of this writing, Israel briefly sent tanks into northern Gaza, apparently in preparation for a ground invasion that US officials increasingly worry could provoke a full-scale, multifront war between Israel and Iran. The Pentagon has deployed two US aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean, and additional air defense systems, including Patriot missile batteries, are on the way to US bases in the region. Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria have attacked US forces, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired three missiles toward Israel that were intercepted by a US Navy destroyer in the Red Sea.
On the Israel–Lebanon border, there are daily skirmishes and shelling between Israeli forces and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which recently reported that forty of its fighters had been killed since October 7; at least seven Israeli soldiers have been killed. Iranian officials have started to threaten that when Israel begins its ground invasion, they will be all but obligated to intervene. “Anything is possible at any moment,” Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned, “and the region will go out of control.”
There are, it seems, only two ways forward: catastrophe or compromise. Even if Israel achieves its stated goals—which seems likely, given the backstop it has in the US—the toll will be greater than any in the country’s history. Humanity demands that all the Israeli hostages be released, that Israel cease its bombardment and siege of Gaza and end its decades-long occupation of the West Bank, and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders begin again the process to reach a just, long-term resolution to the conflict. Yet these, I fear, are inhumane times. We face a gathering dark.
—October 26, 2023