Israelis are being called up in record numbers. Schools have been ordered to close. Streets are deserted. On the pavements outside normally crowded cafés, empty chairs are stacked away: in the days since Hamas militants inflicted the worst-ever death toll in a single attack in Israel, almost no facet of life in the country has been left untouched.
“Everyone has family members or knows people who were murdered, or has kids that we don’t know where they are,” said Talya Hurwitz, who works in a café in Jerusalem. “It’s the most traumatic event in my adult life.”
Hamas’s assault — during which hundreds of militants burst through Israel’s barrier around the Gaza Strip, before rampaging through the towns and villages in the countryside around the blockaded Palestinian enclave — was an epoch-defining event in Israeli history. Per head of population, it has claimed a larger toll than the September 11 2001 attacks on the US.
Over three days, the Hamas commandos killed 1,200 people, injured more than 3,000 and kidnapped dozens more — among them children, women and the elderly — in an incursion that has brought to the surface the deepest traumas in the Israeli national psyche.
“To my mind, not since the Holocaust have so many Jews been killed on one day,” said Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, in an address on Monday.
“And not since the Holocaust have we witnessed scenes of Jewish women and children, grandparents — even Holocaust survivors — being herded into trucks and taken into captivity.”
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has fought numerous wars with Arab nations in the region, and Israelis have become accustomed to living in a hostile neighbourhood. But despite the frequent bloodshed, the country’s military and intelligence apparatus — the region’s most powerful — has long been seen as a guarantor of security. In recent years, some Israelis even came to hope that a mixture of deterrence and economic inducements could tame Hamas, whose leadership has long called for Israel’s destruction.
For many Israelis, such beliefs were demolished over the past few days, as militants were able to overwhelm Israeli forces in the south of the country and carry out massacres at sites as such as the Supernova music festival, Be’eri and Kfar Aza — names now seared into the public consciousness.
So great was the military and intelligence failure that many see it as eclipsing the disaster of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israel was caught unawares by simultaneous attacks from Egypt and Syria. That was previously regarded as a nadir for the country’s security apparatus.
“Everyone used to say that the IDF is the best army in the world, and that we’re safe — and I felt safe,” said Hurwitz. “And now this image is shattered.”
The fear and uncertainty has taken its toll everywhere. Supermarket shelves have been emptied by a rush of panic buying, amid speculation that Israeli forces will soon invade Gaza, and clashes with militants from the Iran-backed Hizbollah on Israel’s northern border. When Hurwitz tried to order milk for the café, she was unable to find any.
“Nothing is normal any more,” said Chen Renan, who works in Jerusalem’s normally bustling Mahane Yehuda market. “I think this attack will change the country for 30 years.”
For those caught up in the violence, life has been disrupted even more deeply. Eli Dudaei and his partner Nadav Peretz spent Saturday locked in the safe room in their house in Nahal Oz in southern Israel as militants rampaged through the kibbutz. Like others from towns that were attacked, they are now staying elsewhere, and Dudaei is unsure whether he ever wants to return.
“I’m trying to think about the first time I have to come back home, and immediately I shut down and say I’m not coming back,” he said, his voice breaking. “We are doing surrogacy in the US . . . and we are scheduled for a meeting next week. They normally ask ‘Where do you live, and what do you do?’ And I don’t know what will I answer.”
The plight of the displaced has prompted a huge civil mobilisation. Like many others, Rinat Sylvester’s restaurant in Jerusalem is closed to the public. But inside, her staff are all present, cooking food in huge quantities to send to Israelis who have been evacuated, as well as hospitals and soldiers.
“When you have a restaurant, you host people, and I don’t feel like doing that,” she said. “But I am in the mood to help people who need us.”
Some hope that the unifying effect of the assault could last longer, and help ease the deep divisions in Israeli society that have been exacerbated by a controversial judicial overhaul pushed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. The proposed changes have sparked the biggest wave of protests in Israeli history, pitting nationalist and religious supporters of the overhaul against their more secular, liberal compatriots.
“Maybe it will be enough for people to forget for some weeks or months, and people will connect again. The fight [over the judicial overhaul] has really broken some relationships and families,” said Renan. “So maybe something a little bit positive will come out of it.”
Others are less optimistic. “Now we are more united, everyone wants to do things for the soldiers, to give food and money, or a place to stay. We are really good in times like this,” said Hurwitz. “But I feel like when the fighting stops, the divisions will still be there. It was always like this.”
There is also intense anger. For days, Israeli jets have been pounding the Gaza Strip, in a bombardment that has already killed 950 Palestinians. But many Israelis want a far more aggressive response — and across the south of the country there are signs that Israel is gearing up for a ground invasion.
On the motorway north of Ashkelon, hundreds of cars have been left on the hard shoulder by soldiers reporting for duty, as Israel carries out the biggest mobilisation in its history. On the roads further south, lorries are towing tanks and artillery batteries towards Gaza.
The Israeli airwaves and media are full of voices demanding that Hamas be destroyed. And even among those who once hoped for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mood has hardened.
“You feel that there is no one you can talk to [within Hamas]. Hamas is a terror organisation so you just have to destroy them,” said Renan. “I lost any hope of peace. Co-existence and all that — I just don’t believe in it any more.”
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