JERUSALEM – Two weeks after the 7 October pogrom, Israel faces its hardest moment. Hamas’ atrocities reawakened the ghosts of the Shoah, the surprise attack exposed the vulnerability of military defences, over 200 hostages held in Gaza are tearing the country apart, and the scenario of a multi-front conflict with armed groups created by Tehran – not just Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but also Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemeni Houti, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria – puts over nine million citizens in danger of being on the front line. Even for a nation that has been fighting neighbours trying to wipe it off the map for the last 75 years, this mix of risk and unknowns is almost without precedent.
Israele, tra il dolore e la guerra
It all begins with Hamas’ reawakening the ghosts of the Shoah; to understand what it means for Israel, one must listen to the voice of the survivors telling what happened during the jihadist pogrom. Perach Filo, a Holocaust survivor, was home alone on the Be’eri kibbutz when the terrorists arrived. She locked herself in the mamad – a safe room every home has – with half a litre of water, half a loaf of bread and a blanket. She spent almost two days there, managing on her own the little food she had, relieving herself there, and keeping totally quiet while she listened to the jihadists destroying her house and firing at the armoured door of the mamad to break it down. “While I was locked in there, I kept thanking God for that half-litre of water, that little bread and that blanket I had brought with me because, thanks to those things, I managed to cope,” she says, evoking in any listener the memories of those people who suffered Nazi persecution, those who know that a single slice of bread can allow you to survive. And also what Perach Filo did when she heard that the jihadists had moved away comes out of the manuals of Jewish survival: she lowered herself from the window of the mamad, started a small car and reached the Israeli soldiers fighting outside the kibbutz.
Voices from the pogrom
Some of the most horrendous crimes were committed in Be’eri. This is where children’s burnt bodies were found. Among the first to see them is a manager of ZAKA, a volunteer group that collects the remains, even the smallest ones, of every single human being, to give them a burial. As he tries to describe what he has examined, he spreads his arms wide and cannot find the words, gets a lump in his throat, and admits he has never been confronted with anything similar.
The entire family of 13-year-old Ariel Zoharfrom Nir Oz has been exterminated. He was spared because, in the early morning – the attack started shortly after 6 o’clock– he was out running. Like the man who saved himself from the raid on the Jews of Rome on 16 October 1943,which also took place on a Saturday – because he was out buying cigarettes. In a week’s time, Zohar is going to attend his bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual, accompanied by his only relative left, his grandfather, who survived the Shoah. History merges.
Horror in Nir Oz
Nir Oz is one of the four most devastated kibbutzim, along with Kfar Aza, Be’eri and Nahal Oz, of the 22 Israeli locations where Hamas killed over 1,200 people, wounded 2,500 and took at least 210 hostages. Nir Oz, more isolated than other kibbutzim, has a peculiarity: it is the only one where Hamas met no resistance, where its armed men entered and did as they pleased, without haste or hindrance, massacring and then quietly going back to Gaza. Visiting it today shows their way of operating: first killing all civilians within firing range, then setting fire to the houses where people hid in the mamads. They burned down all places where they believed there was someone, going from house to house. Even the kindergarten. At least a third of the 350 residents of Nir Oz got killed, burned to death or deported to Gaza. Men, women, elderly and children.
The heinous precision with which Hamas operated in Nir Oz, burning people alive in their own homes, evokes the Einsatzgruppen – the SS paramilitary death squads – employed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe to kill, wherever they found them, the largest number of Jews in the fastest time, before the industrial phase of extermination using gas chambers began.
Hamas manuals found by the Tzahal military on some terrorists – dated October 2020, hinting at when the attack was planned – prove that the choice of killing all civilians, in any way possible, was the fundamental objective of the entire operation. Catapulting into the heart of the 21st century this Jew-hunting method, the first evidence of which dates back to ancient History: when in Ancient Persia, the evil Amanplanned the destruction of all Jews, or when in the Middle Ages, soldiers of the First Crusade devastated Jewish villages in the Rhineland.
And then there is the story of Mrs Tasa from Netiv Ha’asara, not even 45 years old, who lost her husband and a son. Here’s what she says: “The terrorists’ attack was a sure hit. They carried a map of the houses with a detailed list of our families living in them, they knew how many children were in each house and also who had pets”. There’s not need to make any comparison with the SS troops knocking on doors with lists of people to be taken away. It is in the mind of anyone listening. And Mrs Tasa goes on: “The only person who could have given them such detailed information is Halil, a young Arab from Gaza who lived with us for years, tending gardens, painting walls and repairing everything. He had become one of us; we considered him a man of peace, our link to Gaza. Instead, Halil gave them our addresses and names”. Like the collaborationists who in so many European countries betrayed their Jewish neighbours, school friends and acquaintances without any qualms, handing them over to the Nazi-fascists, and then looking away.
These stories deeply move anyone in Israel, they superimpose Hamas atrocities over those committed by persecutors in the past, make the young and very young feel that what the Nazis did to their grandparents has been done again now. To a people accustomed to living History as a unique inherent event – remembering every year the Exodus from Egypt as if it happened today – it means the most horrific nightmares are back . Discovering that the Night of Broken Glass, the Tsarist pogroms and the hunt for the Jews has happened again in 2023. Showing how anti-Zionism and antisemitism overlap. Of course, the history of anti-Jewish hatred teaches that every antisemite learns, repeats and updates the tactics of his predecessor, even centuries later, but no one until now dared to think that even Adolf Hitler’s torturers might have copycats in the age of the web and the iPhone.
And that’s not all, because the images shot by security cameras in the devastated villages show Gaza civilians mixed in with the terrorists looting the place: children stealing bicycles, men robbing houses, taking television sets, stealing credit cards from corpses, taking personal hostages. As if they were in the supermarket. In one frame from Be’eri, an old man in a jalabiya is seen getting out of a Hamas car, limping, helping himself to a cane, but proceeding at a fast pace to follow the terrorists into the kibbutz. They are pogrom images, because in tsarist Russia as in Baghdad in 1941 or Tripoli in 1945, ordinary people mixed with armed gendarmes threw themselves at Jews not only to slaughter them but also to rob them of everything. That is why the tales of 7 October, whether of Jews of European or Arab origin, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, break the heart of all Israelis.
The tales of individual acts of heroism by those who opposed the pogrom, acting on instinct during the long hours of absence of an army taken by surprise, also bring back the past. Like the story of Shifka, policewoman and mother of 10 children: as soon as she heard about the massacre at the Rave Party, got into her car and drove to Nova, engaging – with three other officers – in a fight that lasted 13 hours. After which, they pulled young people still breathing from under the piles of murdered ones. Or that of Tali Haddad, mother of a wounded young man also at the Nova festival, who drove over to help him and saved 12 lives. Or that of the Bedouin soldier who, inside a base overpowered by the attackers, takes off his uniform and, wearing a white T-shirt, picks up a rifle and calls out in Arabic to the terrorists to come to him, pretending to be one of them, and shoots them at point-blank range, killing them. The account of the individual’s choice to act alone in the face of Evil is another piece of the massacre, complementing and supplementing the testimonies of the victims.
This is the story that produced a collective shock, alerting Israel of the danger of the annihilation of a country accustomed to seeing itself as a “Start-Up Nation”, protagonist of 21st century innovations. Israelis were projected towards new global knowledge goals but discovered they still had to fight hard for the most primordial of rights: the right to exist. Hence the feeling of being in a precarious balance this nation is experiencing as it did in 1948 and 1967. As a matter of fact, Ben-Gurion, when reading the Israeli Declaration of Independence, had to overcome a strong internal resistance from people who believed Jews were too few and too poorly armed: they would be easily overwhelmed by the much more powerful Arab armies. There was no hope of succeeding. And in the weeks leading up to the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had mass graves dug, showing he took seriously the daily threats of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt to overwhelm the young state, exterminate its inhabitants and throw into the sea the few who would survive. Several times in its short history, Israel has faced unprecedented challenges, challenges so great they could defeat the nation. As during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack, Anwar Sadat’s army destroyed the bunkers built in the sand by General Bar-Lev along the Suez Canal with powerful jets of water, and Hafez al-Assad’s tanks swept over the Golan Heights, almost reaching Tiberias. What is happening these days bears many similarities to that past.
Israel fears the worst, and instinctively reverts to behaving as it did in the first decades of its existence, when the state of emergency was the norm. That is why the country lives quietly. At Machanè Yehuda, the popular market in Jewish Jerusalem, vendors are present and stores are open but nobody shouts to attract shoppers. Rechov Yafo, the main street, is mostly emptiness, and in the open stores, covered with flags, the only music played are songs speaking of the country’s origin, such as “Erev ShelShoshanim,” the evening of roses that YafaYarkoni sang in 1957. The more expensive and tourist-oriented restaurants are largely closed while smaller, sometimes cramped establishments such as Rahmo in MachanèYehuda and Pinati on King George Street, are open. A few tables and paper tablecloths, where workers and families have always come to eat hot hummus with falafel or meat for a few shekels. And listening to Kol Israel, the hourly radio bulletins on everything. The traffic is gone and with it the deafening sound of horns. The streets of Jerusalem, which until two weeks ago seemed too narrow for a city of 800,000 souls, are now once again too big for the few vehicles passing through.
The reason is that a large part of the population, here as everywhere, has been mobilised. Only the youngest, the elderly, the officials needed to keep public offices and transportation open, men or women no longer old enough to be called up, are still in the city. The most productive, vital, creative part of Israel is simply no longer around. They are elsewhere preparing for the most difficult and unexpected defence. Older people remember that it had happened also before in 1967 – when hostilities started after three weeks of siege by Arab countries – and after the surprise attack in 1973. Everyone knows what is happening because every family has someone mobilised – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, grandchildren.
And just like in the 1960s and 1970s, the only thing they know is whether their loved ones in uniform are “in the North,” “in the Centre,” or “in the South,” the three fronts to be protected. Shalom has a son and three grandchildren – two boys and a girl – called up, and explains it this way, “They told us what area they are in, not what they are doing. The one who is most at-risk is my grandson in the South”. When he says “in the South,” his eyes turn red. Shalom is 83 years old, has seen all the wars and fought in many of them, is a teacher, belongs to the old Labour generation, does not like PM Netanyahu or Likud but says, “Now we have to get rid of these barbarians, then we will go back to politics.” Harel Wiesel, owner of the large-scale distribution network Fox, one of the country’s most prominent businessmen, and indomitable leading voice in the protest movement against the government’s proposed judicial reform, thinks along the same lines. Here’s what he says: “In the light of what happened, there is no longer a left or right; Netanyahu is everyone’s premier. He is my premier. If we don’t win against Hamas, there will be no Israel. My ideas now don’t matter, what matters is the existence of our nation and our people”. Harel Wiesel’s father survived Auschwitz, his sons are in special units, and he feels the responsibility of the moment. The role of civilians staying home is to unite the people and put a stop to the lacerating internal divisions that have weakened the country over the past 40 weeks. That is why there is another Israel that can’t be seen with the naked eye, made up of tens of thousands of people who meet and organize initiatives to support the soldiers and prepare for a long conflict whenever possible. There are chains of volunteers – women and men – always cooking to send hot meals to the soldiers, organizing how to transport them, preparing online teaching groups should the conflict cause prolonged school closures, and thinking about activities for young children. The smaller the urban centres, the more meticulous the volunteer groups. Effervescence is underground but it is everywhere. Anyone who can does something. But always quietly. It is a back-to-basics nation because that is where the recipe for survival is.
Surrounded by Iran
Planning civilian life during wartime obtains universal participation and is reminiscent of what happened in 1948, when the War of Independence was fought in every corner of the country, in every town, village and kibbutz. It could happen the same now, as well. Because the enemy is not only Hamas but also Iran, which supports it, along with all the military groups carrying out Tehran’s orders.
There is an Iranian infographic, published online by Iran International News, describing Tehran’s strategy: attack the Jewish State from all directions using long-range missiles and all armed militias created by the Guardians of the Revolution in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and the West Bank. This means that the ground operation in the Gaza Strip may turn out to be just one of the combat theatres. “Two weeks ago, none of us imagined Iran would want to carry out its plan to destroy Israel”, says analyst Alon Ben-David from the screens of Canal 13 – “ but now we have to come to terms with this reality”. It means being one of those fronts of the conflict between democracies and their enemies that President Joe Biden told Americans about Thursday night. And that’s why at the top of Rechov Yafo, where until 1967 was the border dividing the city, Putin Pub has closed, and even its sign is gone.
Translated by Barbara Bacci