The devastation in Israel’s south is almost beyond description. Even the gruesome reports—children killed in their beds, babies taken from their mothers’ arms, the elderly slaughtered in their kitchens—that have circulated across the Internet barely suggest the scale. Kfar Aza, a kibbutz close to the separation barrier with Gaza, has been burned to the ground, a charnel house of mangled corpses. At least ten percent of Kibbutz Be’eri’s population has been killed. The number of casualties in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, located less than a kilometer from Gaza, has yet to be released, but there, too, the toll is likely to be high. In the town of Sderot, under siege for several days, the central police station was reduced to rubble, the streets littered with bodies. At least a dozen of tiny Kibbutz Holit’s two hundred members are dead, one is taken hostage, and another is missing.
These are among the hardest hit of the roughly two dozen towns that were attacked. Swaths of the Western Negev, a region speckled with small kibbutzim—several left-leaning—and religious communities, have been effectively depopulated; the surviving residents have fled their destroyed communities, with many seeking refuge in the Dead Sea city of Eilat. Israel currently counts more than 1,300 killed, mostly civilians; the number could still rise. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are currently holding at least 150 Israelis hostage. Apparently of their own accord, Hamas militants and others have uploaded footage from the attacks and videos of traumatized hostages.
Hebrew-language social media is saturated with the panicked, despondent last moments, recorded on Whatsapp voice memos and phone calls to loved ones, of those who were killed. On Israeli TV, survivors of an outdoor rave attacked by Hamas militants—who killed at least 260 people there—recounted their attempt to hide in a bunker, only to have Hamas’s men throw a grenade into their shelter and spray those hiding with automatic gunfire; their friends’ dead bodies shielded them from mortal injury. Entire families—parents and their children—have been wiped out. The delayed arrival of Israeli troops to the Western Negev—most of whom had been deployed to the West Bank over the Jewish holiday weekend of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, in anticipation of settler violence and Palestinian responses—meant that the residents of the attacked towns and kibbutzim, besieged and in hiding, documented the hours before their deaths in real time, after which their fates dissolved into the haze of carnage.
Israel is a small country. No one has been spared bereavement. The sheer magnitude of death and the shock of Hamas’s surprise assault caught Israeli authorities so unawares that they have been slow to confirm the status of those who remain unaccounted for. People trying to locate the bodies of their relatives have taken to the airwaves seeking information. Daytime television anchors have become central conduits for desperate families to gain even the most fragmentary sense of the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The public’s rage toward a government that they know has failed them is enormous. Netanyahu has said that he hopes to be remembered as “the defender of Israel.” Instead to many he has become Israel’s forsaker, an absent leader during the army’s and the state’s greatest failure. To the frustration of a great many Israelis, Netanyahu was so preoccupied with preserving his far-right coalition for the day after the war that it took him five days to acquiesce to demands for an emergency national unity government that includes former IDF chief Benny Gantz, who leads a center-right opposition party.
After seemingly hiding from the public in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, representatives of Netanyahu’s government have begun to appear at hospitals and funerals to show support for the families of the wounded and the dead. They have been met with screams of grief and anger. At Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, a man who said he had lost friends demanded that veteran Likud politician Nir Barkat, currently minister of the economy, resign. “You have no idea! You have no idea!” the man shouted. “You are to blame!” At Shamir Medical Center in Tel Aviv, a woman yelled at Edit Sliman, a hard-right Likudnik and minister of the environment, before the crowd, led by a doctor in scrubs, forced her out.
Also enormous is the demand for vengeance that rejects any notion of proportionality. Calls for exterminationist measures resound throughout the TV news panels and opinion pages, voiced by pundits and high-ranking generals. “Gaza will become a city of tents,” one high-ranking Israeli security official said, according to the Israeli journalist Alon Ben-David. “There will be no buildings.” While in the past US officials have typically and swiftly urged Israeli to operate with restraint, this time the US government response has been different. In his address on Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden affirmed the US’s unequivocal backing for Israel’s actions and made no mention of the mounting Palestinian casualties or humanitarian crisis in Gaza. At least as far as public statements go, this is a blank check to Israel as it carries out an atrocity.
Already starved by sixteen years of siege and routine bombing, the Gaza Strip—now cut off from water and electricity—appears on the precipice of total disaster as Israel’s ceaseless bombardment intensifies. At least 1,500 people have been killed. Some 130,000 people have been internally displaced. Hospitals, filled to capacity with the dead and wounded, are on the verge of collapse. As of this writing, a ground invasion appears imminent. What Hamas’s intentions were in launching this attack are not clear—according to some reports, they did not expect “success” of the kind that they achieved. But rather than the putative opening move of a broader Palestinian uprising, Hamas’s attack may instead be the first step in what the writer and analyst Nathan Thrall has called an act of suicide.
The result is also that the Middle East is closer to a broader regional conflict than ever before. Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is now a site of regular skirmishes between Israeli forces, Palestinian militants and Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon. The US has already sent one aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford, and its strike group, to the eastern Mediterranean—a sign both that the US government takes the possibility seriously that this could be the beginning of a much bigger and more destructive war, and that the US will back Israel to the hilt.
The current chaos makes any full prediction of what may unfold impossible. Even if Israel wins this war—which seems likely given the backstop it has in the US—the toll will be greater than anything it has ever seen. Already, the massacre in the south makes last Saturday the deadliest single day not just since Israel’s founding but in the entire history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Humanity demands that all the Israeli hostages be released, that Israel cease its bombardment and siege of Gaza and end its decades-long occupation in the West Bank, and that Israeli and Palestinian leaders reenter the process to reach a just, long-term resolution to the conflict. Yet these, I fear, are inhumane times. We face a gathering dark.