Saturday will be remembered as one of the most devastating days in Israel’s history.
The events were all too reminiscent of the attacks 50 years ago last week, on the morning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. That day, in October 1973, Israel was attacked by a coordinated Arab coalition triggering a brutal, three-week war. The country survived only because of the huge sacrifice of its young men and women. It traumatized an entire generation of Israelis and changed the nation profoundly.
Saturday was our 1973.
The videos circulating of Israelis — women, children, older people — taken hostage, defenseless, will haunt us for the rest of our lives. The images are anathema not only to the basic Israeli ethos of self-defense but also to the country’s raison d’être as a safe haven for Jews. It shakes us to the core, but we do not have the luxury to dwell in the shock. We don’t have the time to digest the horrors. The Israel Defense Forces need to find the strength to regroup immediately and, once it has contained the situation within Israel’s borders, recalibrate and retaliate in a way that holds Hamas and its allies accountable and has a strategic logic, too. Our political leadership as well must re-examine the path it has charted and significantly change course.
These tragic events have one protagonist: Hamas. But there are two major Israeli blind spots that prevented us from recognizing and forestalling what we should have seen. The first is a policy of trying to appease the enemy, in the hopes that Hamas would eventually grow out of its jihadist origin. Instead, it was Hamas’s military wing that grew — from a small organization to a powerful army. Our second blind spot was letting our internal political differences consume us, distracting us from external threats and dividing both our society and, critically, the army.
In four years, Israel dedicated three military operations in Gaza to fighting Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a small Iranian proxy organization. Hamas, the ruling party of Gaza, which operates an army with tens of thousands of missiles and elite commando units, had been largely left to its own devices since the Guardian of the Walls operation in 2021. We paid the price of war — as did civilians in Gaza — for zero strategic gain. Why? Because Palestinian Islamic Jihad was the easier target. Israel wanted to avoid a big war in Gaza, and we got a slaughter in Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas manipulated its way to this moment. It secured de facto immunity from Israel’s military force and got Qatari money every month for basic needs to help ensure the population didn’t revolt. Politicians and military officers alike have spent the past two years leading the public to believe that Hamas was deterred, that it was not interested in a full-on escalation and was internalizing its role as the legitimate government of Gaza.
Now many in Israel are asking, understandably, how did one of the best intelligence operations in the world fail to see the signs? One answer is that we tend to ignore details according to our preconception — which in this case was a misconception about what Hamas is and what its intentions really are.
But this is just part of the story.
In the past five years, as Israel dissolved government after government and held divided election after divided election, and even more so in the past year since Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister, the nation has been busy tearing itself apart from within. The Jewish state seems to have forgotten its second role in the world, as a place that embodies the idea of Jewish solidarity. Israelis instead found themselves engaged in an all-out war — not against terrorists but against themselves.
Over the past nearly 40 weeks, as the battle over the judiciary overhaul surfaced, violently, old questions of identity and religious affiliation, as well as ethnicity, class and privilege, shook the populace. Is Israel more Jewish or more democratic? Many in Israel experienced real anxiety: The judiciary change, presented by the most right-wing government in the country’s history, seemed to threaten the liberal nature of their beloved country. They felt they were fighting for the soul of the nation and that in this fight, all bets were off and nothing was sacred — including the once-untouchable idea of shirking reserve duty in the army. Despite the turmoil in the streets, the ruling coalition refused to accept the fact that with a slim majority, it could not enforce such massive changes without consensus, plowing ahead with ever more anxiety-inducing policies day by day.
As a nation, Israelis acted as if we had the luxury of a vicious internal fight, the kind in which your political rival becomes your enemy. We let animosity, demagogy and the poisonous discourse of social media take over our society, rip apart the only Jewish army in the world. This is our tragedy. And it carries a lesson for other polarized democracies: There is someone out there waiting to gain from your self-made weakness. This someone is your enemy.
If there can be one conciliation after this darkest of days, it will be Israel returning to its senses, ending the political crisis and forming a unity government. There are many hard decisions that await us after the funerals, chief among them how to bring back home the young children and many others taken hostage by Hamas’s terrorists.
The acts of deep solidarity that we witnessed in the past day remind us of our true nature, beneath the layers of political differences and old resentments. So many have opened their homes to families fleeing the horrors in the south, lined up for hours to donate food, drink, blood. And then there are heroes that risked — and in too many cases sacrificed — their lives, going from home to home, saving family after family.
Saturday was a good day for the jihadists and their supporters around the world, for the people who celebrate the murder of civilians, who thrive on hatred and violence. Tomorrow Israelis will bury their dead. Israelis will think about the people taken captive, regroup and go out to win this battle. But the soul searching will eventually have to come.
Shimrit Meir was the senior adviser to Naftali Bennett when he was prime minister of Israel.
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