I am coming to the end of a 10 day trip to Israel and it has been possibly the most remarkable trip that I have ever taken (and I have been there probably 50 or so times in my life, including during previous “operations” against Hamas).
Before we start and before the “whataboutery”crowd pile in, I will wear my politics proudly for all to judge. I have been centreor centre-right pretty much all my adult life in UK political terms, voting at various times Conservative, LibDem, Labour, Green- basically a floating voter. If I were an Israeli citizen, I wouldn’t be voting Bibi, clearly. Re the conflict in the Middle East, I would risk my life (as most Israelis 18-35 are risking their lives today) if I had to, in order to ensure that my kids, and future grandkids perhaps, don’t have to live under the threat of such barbarism as Islamic terrorists displayed on October 7th; and I am a Zionist ( if you have suffered from too much anti-Israel propaganda, you might think that’s a pejorative term but to me it’s very simply a person who supports the right of Israel to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people- so I am proud to be a Zionist). I believe strongly in a two-state solution when conditions allow (ie when it’s clear Israel and Jews in Israel will never be threatened just for existing) so that the Palestinians can live peacefully alongside Israelis and with dignity in their own state. Both sides have suffered from poor leaders that has made that a more distant prospect currently, but it’s never too late to hope that can change.
So now you know the lens through which I view my experiences here.
Right now, Israelis are in trauma and Israel is still being attacked daily from the north and the south ( and the south east, but let’s ignore the Houthis in Yemen for now – Israel will no doubt deal with them later; that’s a country with GDP per head of less than $1000 by the way, but can’t find anything more useful to do with its money than try and kill a Jew or two). We had to take shelter from incoming Hamas missiles four times during our trip- yes Hamas firing missiles indiscriminately on the 4.4 million people in the Tel Aviv area.
If you want to understand this conflict better , first be aware of the geography- it ain’t big: Gaza is 35 miles south of Tel Aviv and the Lebanese border is around 85 miles north of Tel Aviv so in UK terms this would be like London being at the centre of an attack that comes simultaneously from Gatwick in the south and Cambridge in the north (terrorists infiltrated from both north and south on the weekend of October 7th, and missiles have been fired at Israel from both areas on most of the 70 or so days since).
As I said Israelis are in trauma. And of course, there will be many traumatised Palestinians in Gaza too and I don’t think that is any less important at all (but of course all the lost homes and lives in the past ten weeks for all could have been avoided if Hamas had not committed such brutality on October 7th). However not much has been said (certainly not on the BBC) about the disruption to ordinary life for all Israelis since October 7th and a war Israel did not seek. So, here’s what I have seen in the past 10 days.
Firstly, the trauma is first hand or at most “once-removed” for virtually everybody in the country – almost every family has either directly lost a relative or friend or has a friend that has lost an immediate relative. Israel is a small and close-knit country, so these losses hurt. Most people feel like they have been sitting shiva (the seven days of mourning for a parent, sibling,spouse or child observed by Jewish people) given the collective shock of Oct 7th and its aftermath. They had kids at the Supernova music festival or their friends had kids there. Some survived , many didn’t. I have a good friend , whose son zigzagged across the field to avoid Hamas bullets and thankfully survived (coincidentally I have just read the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor , whose son is a friend of mine , where he described a similar experience zigzagging Nazi bullets after jumping from a train destined for the death camps – and recommending it as the best way to avoid death in case you(one for the Jewish readers perhaps) ever need this tip). So please excuse Israelis for being in shock right now.
Secondly, and despite this, the community response to the needs of their nation at a time of existential concern for the State, and amidst deep social welfare needs, is so impressive (is that why people are jealous of Israel – I wish every country had this clarity of thought and communal spirit especially when many are suffering themselves). My wife and I joined with Israeli friends this week to pick avocados (because many of the foreign workers returned home because of the events of Oct 7th but the farmers need help harvesting crops. Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza also usually come and work in the fields but now, given the security situation, the Israeli Government understandably will not allow permits for them for the moment); we also helped a volunteering effort to provide a treat of a decent burger to soldiers serving close to the Lebanese border (and under regular attack from the Iranian proxy Hezbollah). These are not government initiatives but simply Israeli society coming together to do what it can. Interestingly, many of the structures around organising the civil protests against the judicial reforms earlier in the year were immediately mobilised to coordinate many of these volunteering efforts (most obviously helping the 200,000 or so displaced people from around Gaza and also from the border with Lebanon- these people are likely to be displaced for months if not years sadly). Indeed, most of those digging deepest to help their country at this hour of need are those most critical of the Netanyahu coalition pre-war. So yes, you can criticise the Israeli Government (it’s always been a national pastime), and still be a Zionist.
Thirdly, the lives of 9mm Israelis have been mostly upended since October 7th. We talked on the street with primary school children from Sderot (a town,5km or so from Gaza, of 40,000 people so roughly the size of Grantham in the UK which now has zero- yes zero- inhabitants after the attacks of Oct 7th) who had been rehoused temporarily in a run-down hotel in Tel Aviv and had set up a small toy shop on a trestle table to keep themselves occupied, with schooling non-existent for them largely during the past 70 or so days.
But away from that, it’s almost everybody we speak to. The 50yr old banker who is now back serving voluntarily with the IDF and trying to do both roles whilst getting 4hrs sleep a night; the property manager who is now helping the hostages families raise money by selling hoodies in Hostages Square, as it’s now known, so they can keep pressing their case for the release of the hostages to anybody who might listen (Qatar, Intl Red Cross, UN anybody there?); the carpenter who now has no work and whose pick-up truck anyway is now needed by the IDF to assist the war effort (so he volunteers to teach carpentry to the displaced children instead); the businesswoman who has no revenues now but still wants to find a way to pay her employees; the student whose psychology course is on hold and is helping soldiers with their mental health; the young couple who, displaced from their kibbutz near Gaza, gave birth to their first child whilst staying in a hotel room in Netanya; the 33yr old reservist who is an operations manager for a company in Tel Aviv but is now running logistics for a brigade of the IDF (and sleeping on a camp bed) for the last ten weeks; the events manager (this being Israel, he also holds some patents for medical products he developed) who is now managing a farm; and it’s the 19 year old kid in Tel Aviv struggling to stay awake having returned from duty with his gun slung across his shoulder and eating his pizza with friends across from my table in the local Italian…frankly it’s everybody I meet, their lives having been upended by Hamas’ actions of Oct 7th. Yes real people, actually really good people who just want the right to live in peace in their ancestral homeland.
So if you are one of those who have a desire for Israel and Jews to be hurt, rest assured, there is a deep economic impact , and a deep emotional and psychological hurt – but for those like me, that see, first-hand, Israel as the remarkable country that it is, and a necessary safe space for Jewish people (and boy have our eyes been opened to the need for that amongst the shameful behaviour of many in Europe and the US since October 7th -don’t get me started on the academic somersaults US university presidents have to do to see calls for genocide of Jews as within reasonable conduct), we know that Israel will defeat Hamas and will see the brighter days that its resilient and resourceful citizens deserve ( and that all the citizens of the region that truly want to live in peace deserve).
Meanwhile, we in the UK and elsewhere in the West will have other crucial battles to fight (particularly on campuses but also elsewhere) to avoid this conflict leaving fissures and threats that our societies can’t afford if they are to remain the vibrant, multicultural societies many of us (me included) had regarded as desirable. The son of one of those murdered on October 7th in a kibbutz by Hamas maybe summarised the severity of our situation best when after I enquired as to how he was coping, he asked “But are you ok?” upon hearing we lived in the UK.