The Gaza war as a mirror for Israelis

Protesters gather with placards and Palestinian flags during a 'London Rally For Palestine' in Trafalgar Square, central London
Protesters gather with placards and Palestinian flags during a 'London Rally For Palestine' in Trafalgar Square, central London

Why don’t British Jews wave the Israeli flag proudly since the war on Gaza? How can one explain the average British pro-Palestinian stance after the massacre of 7 October ? And can we separate between the government’s responsibility for the destruction of Gaza, and the responsibility of the IDF and of the Israeli people?

Recently my niece came to visit me in London. She is a young Israeli who was released last September from her service in the IDF in a base near Gaza. It was only a month before the massacre by Hamas took place, when she lost nine of her friends who served with her there.

She is not the only one from my family who was directly affected by the attack of Hamas, and I have therefore suffered from nightmares following October the 7th. I feel sad for my family, innocent Israelis who wish we could live peacefully next to our Palestinian neighbours, but had to pay such a heavy price. Almost 1,600 Israelis have been killed since October 7th. Why did so many have to die? And how many more would have to lose their lives in a war without a realistic goal, which only strengthens Hamas, and increases the hate against Israel and Israelis in the Palestinian street, as in the entire world.

Despite the painful trauma some of my family members went through, Hamas’ attack has not changed my ideological views. I still believe there is no militaristic solution to this conflict, and that more walls and checkpoints, deepening of the occupation and expansion of the settlements will definitely not grant security for Israelis. Hasn’t October the 7th proven us exactly that? Israeli peaceniks have always said that the occupation is not sustainable, and that something bad would happen. But the occupation was too easy for Israelis not to see or feel. “A third Intifada” sounded like a meaningless attempt to warn of an unrealistic scenario. And Yet, no one could imagine such a nightmare could happen. But it has.

A sacrifice for defence or for an extremist ideology?

It is much easier for people who are driven by such tangible fear, to join the reserved army and fight in a war which feels for many Israelis an existential war. But are we actually fighting for our existence, as many would perceive? Does the mass killing of about 36,000 Gazans, the creation of a humanitarian crisis of 1.9 million displaced Gazans, as well as destruction of hospitals, schools and universities in Gaza promote our existence in any way?

This is not a vengeful victory – as some right wing people may see it – but another defeat for Israel, one step towards its isolation globally, and a wake up call for the international community who started practical steps to change the situation, such as the impending ICC warrants against Netanyahu, recognition of a palestinian state by a few EU countries, and more to come.

Hundreds of parents of combat soldiers have already written about their opposition to the war, and more of these letters may represent a fracture in the contract between Israelis and the IDF. From conversations I had with very patriotic Israelis I know, I understood that some of them would think twice before they send their children to serve in the IDF under the current government. It’s one thing to sacrifice your life for protecting your homeland; but it’s another thing to do it for an extreme nationalistic ideology, which aims “to win”, “to defeat”, or as one MK said it unapologetically – to “ethnically cleanse the Palestinians”. This ideology does not prioritise our security, let alone the security of the non Jews who live next to us, and among us. So why would liberal Zionist Israelis risk their lives for an ideology that contradicts theirs?

The pro-Palestinian protester in the eye of an Israeli

In one of the last weekends, my niece and I  crossed the massive pro-Palestinian protest in central London. On the way there, we sat in the train next to a young British man with a Palestinian Kafiya, who was obviously on his way to the protest. As a peace activist who has never gone to these protests, I took the opportunity to speak to an arbitrary (non Muslim, I assume) protestor and understand – what is his motivation to participate in this protest? Does he understand the situation,or is he, as many Hasbara channels portray the protesters, an ignorant person who doesn’t know which river and which sea they refer to, when chanting “From the river to the sea”?

From our conversation I understood he wasn’t an antisemite, but simply a person who objects to the disproportionate attack of the iDF against Hamas, and against, some will argue, the Palestinian people.

“I Don’t understand why the average British person who saw what happened on October 7th, takes the side of Hamas”, my niece had told me in one of our previous conversations, when she saw many Palestinian flags hung in London, but not even one Israeli flag. Like her, many Israelis would struggle to understand. That’s why I spoke to the protester on the train. I wanted her to understand that it’s not that they agree with Hamas’ attack on civilians, they simply don’t accept the disastrous response of the IDF. but she didn’t.

I regret having that conversation in front of my niece. The emotional explosion came later, when we crossed the massive pro-Palestinian march. “Look how many people”, I shared my astonishment. “Stop it, Matan!”my niece burst into tears. “Don’t you understand? These people hate me. They want me dead, just because I was a soldier in the IDF.”

I hugged her. She cried. I had nothing to say.

For most Israelis, the thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Europe, the US and elsewhere are antisemitic, Israel haters who justify the barbaric Hamas attack on October 7th. You only need a few people who say that, to be able to look at everyone as such. There’s no other way of seeing them. Because practically, this is how the Israeli media presents them. It would also undermine the Israeli perception that “the world hates us”, and that we  can rely on no one but ourselves; and that the protesters are violent –  not us – and that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Despite the pictures that come out of Gaza, which we are simply too blind to see.

Fear of antisemitism or subconscious shame?

When I raised my niece’s question with Jewish people I know – why aren’t Israeli flags hung proudly in the streets of London? – their answer was clear: fear of antisemitism. But is it the only reason? Unlike Israelis, British Jews are exposed to what happens in Gaza, simply because they watch the BBC news, which covers both sides. They would try to cling onto a video of a Gazan who says that the situation isn’t catastrophic as they show in the news, or onto Hasbara videos which would put the full responsibility on Hamas. But everyone knows that these are the soldiers of the Jewish state who pull the trigger, who throw bombs on Gaza, more precisely or less.

Many Jews would claim they hold no responsibility over the actions of the IDF, as they are not Israeli citizens, and that to claim so would be antisemitic. But isn’t that a way of saying they don’t justify the actions of the IDF? That may be.Somewhere deep inside, they think: It’s really not OK, what the IDF does in Gaza. It’s really not Jewish.

Criticise the government – but the IDF is holy?

To criticise the government is appropriate, and even important, but the IDF – the people’s army, our little children – one must not dare to. It would be incitement against Israel, against the people. I assume most Israelis would perceive it that way. And I remember well, working as an anti-occupation activist for years now, the clear line in between the Israeli government which we must criticise, and the IDF and the people, which we must not.

But in recent years, and even more so since the Israeli response in Gaza, the line has become blurred. Firstly, Israelis are the ones who elected an extreme right wing government, which promoted hatred and expanded settlements, and which should take full responsibility for the oversight of October 7th. Israelis have chosen to ignore the occupation, to allow physical and mental walls to hide it, and to continue living in temporary prosperity, allowing the ticking bomb to explode. And it exploded, in the most cruel way possible.

Our politicians should also take responsibility for the incitement. For vengeful calls to “wipe Gaza off the face of the earth”, for starving its people, may God forbid. These calls penetrate into the people, Israelis who are recruited to defend the homeland. But who, at the end of the day, pulls the trigger? Who throws the bombs which destroy Gaza, kill thousands of innocent people and create millions of displaced Gazans? This is why calls for accountability are demanded globally.

Israelis don’t see what happens in Gaza, but global citizens, Jews among them, do. Some of us have already challenged the notion of “the most moral army in the world” in the past, but today it is clear that the IDF is not the most moral army in the world. Videos and pictures uploaded by IDF soldiers show this. Those who believe it, bury their heads in the sand.

It’s not a simple thing to do, as there are repercussions, but it’s the most appropriate thing: to break the silence. The IDF, and not just our government, hold responsibility for the mass killing and destruction of Gaza. The cruel massacre by Hamas does not justify our response. We can continue telling ourselves what we want to believe to justify our actions, but the world is watching. And the world will not forgive. This is why warrants have been applied for  against Netanyahu for his war crimes. But he is not the last one, because he is not the only one who holds responsibility.

About the Author
Matan is an Israeli peace activist living in London. He is an organiser of Meretz UK and a consultant of The Balfour Project. In the past, he coordinated the global work of the SISO Diaspora-Israeli partnership for ending the occupation, and helped establish the Jewish Democratic Initiative in South Africa