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Israel’s week of infamy: ‘We don’t yet know where it will end’

The moment Nadav Peretz began to lose hope was when he finally got through to the emergency helpline.

The Hamas militants embarking on what would become the deadliest ever attack on Israeli territory had burst into his kibbutz, or communal village, of Nahal Oz. Peretz and his partner had been hiding in the safe room of their house for hours, desperately trying to call in help from Israel’s security forces.

“I was begging [the woman who answered my call] ‘send the army, send them’,” Peretz recalls. “And she told me: ‘We know, we’ll be there.’ And then she must have thought I had hung up, because I heard her start crying and say to a colleague: ‘I can’t answer any more calls like this. We can’t help them.’”

The episode was a microcosm of the chaos and terror that engulfed southern Israel last Saturday, as the lightning dawn assault by the Islamist militant group Hamas surprised and then overwhelmed the country’s vaunted security forces in the border region with the Gaza Strip.

Within hours, hundreds of Palestinian militants had poured into Israel via land, sea and air, breaching its high-tech barrier around Gaza in tens of places, before rampaging through dozens of towns and villages in the countryside around the coastal enclave.

In the following days, the militants killed more than 1,300 people, injured more than 3,000, and took dozens more hostage, according to Israeli officials, in a devastating assault that has left the Jewish state reeling. Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has responded with a ferocious bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 1,800 people, according to Palestinian health officials. On Friday, Israel dropped leaflets urging civilians to leave Gaza City in the territory’s north within 24 hours. Families fled their homes in panic, fearing that a ground invasion was imminent, and uncertain if they would ever be able to return.

But the repercussions will be wider still — and are likely to change Israel’s society, its relations with the Palestinians, and its position in the region for years, as its leadership battles to restore citizens’ faith in the state, and deter enemies emboldened by the biggest security failure in Israeli history.

“This week is such a devastating blow to Israeli society that it is still ricocheting around and we don’t yet know where it will end,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster. “But it’s hard to overstate how colossal the rupture is between Israelis and the state. There’s such a huge sense of confusion and abandonment.”

Darkest days

As Israeli forces gradually regained control of the kibbutzim that had been overrun this week, day by day, the scale of the death toll and the brutality of the assault began to emerge: 260 people killed at a music festival in Re’im; 110 gunned down in Be’eri; dozens more at the kibbutz at Kfar Aza. In the charred houses and gardens left behind, spent ammunition shells littered the ground, and the stench of rotting corpses filled the air.

For Shir Mathias, a 21-year-old from Holit, a kibbutz a couple of kilometres from the border with Gaza, the ordeal began early Saturday morning, soon after militants began launching rockets at Israel. She took refuge in the safe room of her apartment while on the other side of the kibbutz, her parents, Shlomi and Shachar, and her 16-year-old brother Rotem, did the same. But it was not enough.

The aftermath of the attack on the Supernova music festival shows vehicles that were abandoned and set on fire © Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

“My mom sent us a message that people had infiltrated the kibbutz and that they heard sounds of breaking glass in their house . . . And then 10 minutes later, my brother sent all of us a message that mom and dad are dead,” says Mathias, beginning to sob.

“The terrorists blew off the door of the safe room. [My brother] said he heard my dad scream that he had lost his arm. And then there was a lot of shooting and mom died on him. She protected him. And he just lay there. He was under her body for a long time . . . and he was bleeding a lot.”

For a state in a hostile region, born in war and founded to be a haven for Jews who had endured centuries of persecution in Europe and the Middle East, the events of the past week are a calamity. Relative to Israel’s size, the scale of the killing was 10 times greater than the US endured on 9/11.

Both the slaughter, and the images of Jews being dragged away to captivity in Gaza, have dredged up the deepest traumas in the national psyche. “Not since the Holocaust,” Israel’s president Isaac Herzog said on Monday, “have so many Jews been killed on one day.”

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has fought numerous wars with the Arab countries that surround it. But its citizens have long felt its powerful military and intelligence services to be a guarantor of security.

Many Israelis came to believe that this, combined with the mixture of walls, checkpoints and other security infrastructure overseen by Benjamin Netanyahu over the past 15 years, was enough to neuter Palestinian anger at 56 years of occupation. Netanyahu could champion himself as the man who brought stability and prosperity to Israel, while overseeing the creeping annexation of the West Bank.

That image of safety and stability was shattered this week, as Hamas militants were able to penetrate as much as 20km inside Israel, overrun military bases and murder civilians for hours before the army could reassert control.

The friends and family of a victim of the Hamas attacks grieve at a funeral in Haifa on Friday © Shir Torem/Reuters

One person with detailed knowledge of the early examination of the events said part of the reason for the military’s initial struggle to respond to the attack was militants’ success in targeting its communications systems and teams. “The early responders [such as the police], they got there and they were killed within minutes,” the person said.

“If you look at the early hour of the attack, [Hamas] took out the cameras, then they killed the technicians, the IT engineers, the communications people in these bases . . . Once [they] took out the eyes, it was hard to see what was going on.”

But analysts say the failure to prevent an attack that was planned for months goes far wider. Many argue that the broader security failings eclipse even the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israel was surprised by a co-ordinated attack by Syria and Egypt, in what was previously considered the country’s worst security debacle.

By Thursday night, the recriminations were already beginning, with Netanyahu’s office insisting he had only been informed of the attack at 6.29am last Saturday, after reports in the Israeli press claimed intelligence had been received the night before of unusual movements by Hamas within Gaza. Earlier this week, the government also denied receiving a specific warning from Egypt about Saturday’s attack after Egyptian intelligence repeatedly told Israel the situation in Gaza could “explode”.

“Clearly it is an instance in which there have been failures on all levels,” says Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, “beginning with shortcomings on the military side, gross failure on the intelligence side, and policy failure on the leadership side.”

Israel-Hamas war

In a bid to unify Israel’s fractious politics in the wake of the attacks, Netanyahu struck a deal on Wednesday for the National Unity party led by former general Benny Gantz to join an emergency war cabinet and unity government for the duration of the conflict.

The alliance will help ease some of the bitter tensions in Israeli society by pausing a controversial judicial overhaul being pushed by Netanyahu’s far right government. Military leaders had repeatedly warned the divisions risked eroding Israel’s military preparedness in recent months, as thousands of military reservists refused to volunteer for duty in protest.

But Israeli security officials argue that the only way Israel can restore the population’s faith in the potency of its security apparatus is by destroying Hamas, the group formed during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and since designated a terrorist organisation by the UK, the US and many others.

“It has been made clear that all Hamas members will be hunted down. We will not do that for the purpose of revenge. It is clearly intolerable to have a terrorist group on your borders,” says Arad. “You simply have to do away with their offensive capabilities and intentions.”

Gaza under fire

Fighting a ground war in the narrow streets of Gaza, where Hamas has spent years building a network of tunnels known as the Gaza Metro, is likely to involve huge casualties — both Israeli and Palestinian.

Some former security officials argue that if Israel does not deliver a crushing blow to Hamas, other actors in the region, such as the Iran-backed Hizbollah — which dominates southern Lebanon, and whose militants engaged in minor skirmishes with Israeli forces this week — will be emboldened. Tensions have also spiralled in the occupied West Bank, with 2023 the bloodiest year there since the UN began collecting data in 2005.

Smoke rises over Gaza City during air strikes on Monday © Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

But others argue that even if Israel does defeat Hamas, it will eventually also have to take on Hizbollah, which is a far more potent force, and which fought a devastating month-long war with Israel in 2006.

“Hizbollah is keeping very big forces on our border that can storm our towns just as Hamas did — or even more easily. They have more forces, and better training,” says Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military. “Eventually we will have to deal with it. We cannot let the north live under the same threat as the south has suffered.”

For now, though, the focus is on Gaza. Over the past week, Israeli aircraft have dropped 6,000 bombs on the impoverished enclave. Beyond the 1,800 dead more than 6,300 people have been wounded, according to Palestinian officials, while the UN warned on Friday that more than 400,000 have been displaced. The assault has rendered entire neighbourhoods unrecognisable.

Locals say it is unlike anything they have experienced, even in the four previous wars Hamas has fought with Israel. “In the past the Israelis would give warnings about specific buildings, but now whole districts are razed,” says Allam Nayef, an anaesthesiologist at Dar al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. “For example, the Karama district, which has 20 to 25 buildings — there is nothing left of them. Whole areas are being levelled to the ground.”

Israel has also cut off supplies of water, electricity, fuel and goods, exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in the enclave, whose more than 2mn inhabitants have been subjected to a crippling economic blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized control there in 2007.

Friday’s warning to more than 1.1mn Palestinians to evacuate Gaza City only added to the chaos, with long queues forming in front of petrol stations, which soon shut, as those with cars attempted to flee south, and those without agonised about what to do.

Ghassan Abu Sittah, who also works at Dar al-Shifa, says the past week had left the hospital in a “catastrophic situation”. Its 700-bed capacity had been far outstripped and its operating theatres overwhelmed by the number of wounded. “It has turned into a camp for displaced people. People fearing air strikes have brought their families and are staying in the hospital,” he says. “If there is a ground invasion, it will be a massacre.”

Other Gazans have similar fears. “What is happening [so far] is nothing to speak about compared to what [an invasion] will be like. I think there will be 10,000 martyrs and it will set Gaza back 200 years,” says Fadi Abu Shammalah, a father of three, and head of the General Union of Culture Centers, a civil society group. “What is happening is horrible vengeance. A war crime.”

Palestinian children wounded in an air strike are brought to Shifa hospital in Gaza on Wednesday © Ali Mahmoud/AP

In recent days, the international community has begun to urge Israel to exercise restraint and take steps to avoid civilian casualties. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Thursday that although Israel had “the right and indeed the obligation” to defend itself, “democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard”.

Few in Israel are in the mood to back down. On Thursday night, the Israeli army chief, Herzi Halevi, said Israel was striking Gaza “with full force, and we will not stop there”. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and his entire network are “dead men walking,” he said.

But others fear that even if Israel’s use of overwhelming force succeeds in removing Hamas, it will neither break the relentless cycle of violence, nor rebuild the trust in the state that was eroded this week.

“Force breeds further force,” says Scheindlin. “People need to believe in their institutions in general and certainly in the military. But whether yet another invasion of Gaza will be enough to restore public faith? I just don’t know.”

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Jerusalem and Mai Khaled in Gaza

Cartography by Steven Bernard

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