There has been an almost unprecedented, worldwide show of solidarity for Israel after October 7th. But there have also been reactions that Israelis have always been confronted with: People who still think terror attacks are about a fight for freedom, people who claim it is violence bred by injustice. In a press briefing with foreign reporters, CNN anchor Becky Anderson asked President Isaac Herzog about Israel’s “collective punishment” of the Palestinians, calling it a “war crime”. UK’s Channel 4 Matt Frei accused Herzog of “holding the people of Gaza responsible for Hamas”. The usually mild-mannered president reacted angrily: “If you have a missile in your goddamn kitchen and you want to shoot it at me, am I allowed to defend myself? That’s the situation.” Calling Israel’s bombardment of Gaza “collective punishment” demonstrates a completely misguided interpretation of the situation: The war is not about Israel taking revenge (though its leaders do use that rhetoric).
Israel is acting to defend itself, as any country faced with an attack of such dimension and atrocity would. Why is Gaza being bombarded so heavily, people might ask? The answer is simple: To create deterrence. To send a crystal-clear message North to Hezbollah, and further – to Iran: Anyone who dares to attack Israel or Israelis must fear for their lives. An Israel that is perceived as weak, as it has been of late, is vulnerable to attacks from beyond every single one of its borders: Hamas in the South and the West, Hezbollah in the North. Israel must be perceived as invincible to survive. And that is its very dilemma.
Because behind many of the reactions mentioned above lies that fundamental perception of Israel’s strength – military, economic, social and other – as opposed to the Palestinian people’s weakness, for example. This perception of Israel’s power in the Middle East as invincible is, in fact, one that many on any side of the pro- or con-Israel divide share. In the past few days, friends have said: “Terrible, unthinkably tragic as everything is – in the end, of course, Israel is sure to be the victor. There is no doubt about that.” What’s more, Israelis themselves share that perception, because they must. The message that is being sent within Israel, the message that politicians, journalists, military officials, the bereaved even, and other ordinary citizens are telling each other is: “We are strong and we will get through this.”
What many outside of Israel do not perceive, however, is the fragility constituting Israel’s very existence. If a war with Hezbollah now starts on Israel’s Northern front – militarily, Hezbollah is much more powerful than Hamas – there IS a true possibility that Israel will be destroyed. In the shadow of that threat is the perpetual, ominous shape of Iran with potential capabilities of launching a nuclear bomb. Israelis do fear for their very existence. The dilemma is that while they do, they must not show it to their enemies.
Following the atrocities, slaughter, and abductions committed by Hamas, it seems almost cynical that foreign journalists are asking the president about “collective punishment” – from an Israeli point of view, it amounts to questioning Israel’s right to defend itself from destruction. This is not to negate the necessity of alleviating Palestinian suffering, or, despite all setbacks, working to find a solution for the Palestinian people. However, when Israelis explain their situation to the world they are, more often than not, fighting for the recognition of that very right to exist – after 75 years of statehood. I dare claim that this is a sentiment no citizens of any other state in the world share.
A German version of this article was published in the newspaper TAZ on October 17, 2023.