Six months after October 7, a lament for the paths not chosen

I write to Israelis who believe they have no place in their hearts for Gaza, to understand how we got to this terrible war — and how we must get out of it.

Just over six months have passed since October 7, and life here in Tel Aviv has strangely returned almost completely to normal. But the fear has not gone away.

Since January, I no longer find myself stopping the car at the sound of a rocket siren, pulling out my 4-year-old son Carmel, and lying on top of him to cover his body. I don’t have to calculate which angle is best to shield him from any potential shrapnel flying in our direction, in the hope that it would only kill me and not him. I don’t have to pretend that we’re playing a game of “safe corner,” imagining his favorite TV superheroes protecting us, trying (usually successfully) to make him laugh, wondering how he would remember me if I died. That near-daily experience is no longer part of our lives here in central Israel.

And yet, after that horrific morning on October 7, it’s hard to restore any sense of security. So many things we thought we knew about this country turned out to be false. What once appeared to be a functioning state was in fact a hologram.

The stories of survivors of the Nova music festival, and of families in the southern kibbutzim — left defenseless for hours, begging for help, with hundreds ultimately slaughtered in their homes or in shelters — have weighed on me. The government’s abandonment of the remaining hostages, dying in captivity in Gaza, betrayed twice by their state, enrages me; everyone in Israel has imagined ourselves or our loved ones in that condition. To add to that, a regional war seems to be right around the corner; it certainly felt that way on the night of April 13, when we learned that a barrage of Iranian drones and missiles was on their way here.

The dread the follows me is very different from the one I grew up with during the suicide bombings of the 1990s and 2000s. The fear today is not just for my own safety or the safety of my family; it is of the destruction of the very society in which I live. Not the apartheid regime, which must be dismantled, but Israeli society itself: the people, culture, language, and human fabric that makes up life as I know it. I fear that, in the future, there won’t be anyone left to mourn us.

I know that this fear is not entirely rational; terrible things may still happen, but I don’t truly believe that everyone around me will be wiped out. Yet the fear is present in my heart, and it penetrates my dreams. There’s no escaping it because it is everywhere around me. I see it in Israeli news broadcasts, which make it seem as if the past half a year has been an endless October 7. I see it in a building not far from my house that is currently sheltering the displaced community of Kibbutz Re’im, which was attacked on that day. I see it in the faces of friends whose family members are among those murdered or kidnapped.

But this is only a small part of the fear that grips me. Because I’m also in tremendous, truly paralyzing horror at what our country is doing in Gaza. I feel a completely different kind of horror in that I understand better how terrible things are possible in the world, including October 7. I see how terror, fear, pain, and trauma can allow a nation to seal its heart and mind, while members of that nation commit unimaginable crimes against some collective “enemy,” even when the victims are innocents: babies and children, men and women, the elderly and the sick. It’s a black mirror whose reflection is impossible to bear.

I’ve barely been able to write due to the magnitude of the horrors that my country is responsible for in Gaza. I can’t fill my children’s bathtub without thinking about the thirst of Palestinian children living and dying only a few miles away. When I get in my car, I think of Hind Rajab, the 6-year-old Palestinian girl left to die alone for days in a car, surrounded by the lifeless bodies of her family members who were killed by Israeli tank fire. And I think of my friend in Gaza, who told me how he kisses his family goodnight every evening, not knowing if they will be alive in the morning.

“I have no place in my heart for the children of Gaza — I’m hurting too much for us,” is a line I have heard over and over again from Israelis in various forms. I understand where it’s coming from, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic or ominous for our future. Because if that’s how we feel after one deadly day in October, how can we even imagine what Palestinians feel after decades of constant expulsion, military rule, siege, oppression, imprisonment, and killing by Israelis? Or after six months of this vicious war?

So today, I write to those Israelis, and to the people who care about Israelis, who believe they have no place in their hearts for Palestinians in Gaza — to those who are afraid or angry, to those who think revenge is the solution, to those who are still willing to listen.
Catastrophe and failure

I belong to a small, left-wing, Jewish-Palestinian camp in Israel that has opposed this war from day one for a myriad of reasons. Not because we are indifferent to the massacres carried out by Hamas and other Palestinian militants on October 7, but because we believe there are other choices we can and should take in response. Half a year on, it is abundantly clear that, for Palestinians, this war has been a catastrophe on a scale equal to or even greater than the 1948 Nakba. For Israelis, it has been a total failure even on their own terms.

Israel’s onslaught has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, and at least another 8,000 are missing and presumed dead under the rubble. That is almost two percent of the Gaza Strip’s population slaughtered, most of them civilians, over a third of them children. We also know that the Israeli military willingly harms civilians — as Gazans themselves have recounted to us, and as our colleague Yuval Abraham further showed in his investigations for +972 and Local Call.

Military sources themselves have told us that the Israeli army systematically bombed civilian structures in order to “create a shock” among the population during the early weeks of the war, and detailed the army’s permissive policy toward “collateral damage” as it struck thousands of AI-generated human targets in their family homes. A Haaretz investigation also revealed the army’s policy of killing anyone found in areas where its forces are operating, without checking who they are or why they are there; this policy was made evident to Israelis when the army “mistakenly” killed three Israeli hostages waving a white flag after escaping from their captors. All the while, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli fire, but they — along with the sick, the pregnant, and the prematurely born — cannot receive the medical treatment they need because the army destroyed most of Gaza’s health system.

To add to this, UN bodies, aid organizations, and human rights groups have determined that Israel has created a catastrophic state of food insecurity, forcing famine upon all the residents of the besieged Strip and especially in the north. The army has systematically prevented the entry of sufficient quantities of food, killed workers responsible for distributing it, shot at civilians trying to access it, bombed food convoys, and dismantled institutions that maintain the Strip’s civilian infrastructure. Dozens of children are known to have died of malnutrition and dehydration in recent weeks, and the trajectory of death from hunger and disease is expected to intensify.

Seeing all this, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Israel to urgently allow masses of aid into the Strip. Contrary to the claims of Israeli officials and their mouthpieces, Israel is still responsible for the lives, wellbeing, nutrition, and health of Gaza’s population — both as the occupying power for 57 years, and having destroyed the local Palestinian government. And we haven’t even mentioned the ethnic cleansing, the mass looting, the torture and abuse, or the genocidal rhetoric by Israeli soldiers, commentators, and politicians.

The Israeli government has insisted that its aims are to eliminate Hamas and bring back the hostages. But six months into the war, Hamas is far from defeated (if such a thing were even possible), it still enjoys significant levels of support from Palestinians, and it still holds most of the remaining captives. Many of the hostages have reportedly already died — including from Israeli fire — and more may die because their leaders are not truly interested in an exchange deal.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Israelis are still displaced from the northern and southern regions, with no clear sense of when they will be able to return home. Survivors of the October 7 massacres are not receiving the treatment and services they need. The prospects of normalization agreements with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have plummeted, at least for now. Global public opinion on Israel is worse than ever — and rightly so — with even its friendliest allies beginning to publicly disapprove of Israeli policy. The ICJ found that there is plausible reason to argue that Israel may be committing genocide. And last weekend, we saw the first ever barrage of missiles directly from Iran.

Our response to resistance

So what does the Israeli government offer us in the face of all this? More of the same.

Netanyahu gleefully proclaims that Israel is “one small step away from victory.” But even those Israelis who are completely indifferent to the killing and suffering of Palestinians, and care only about the security of Israelis, cannot celebrate this war as any kind of victory. As the American-Jewish writer Peter Beinart recently put it, more violence against Palestinians has never brought more security to Israelis — otherwise we would have long been safe given the decades of oppression we have meted out. Even if Hamas were somehow defeated, the core issues driving Palestinian resistance will not go away; if anything, they have only multiplied over the past six months.

Most Jewish-Israelis see October 7 as the only relevant starting point for everything that is happening now. But, as Palestinians will tell you, history didn’t begin in late 2023. Israel has been violently determining the fates of Palestinians since the Nakba, and since 1967, it has been the supreme authority across the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It has maintained an apartheid regime through a complex array of territorial divisions, legal statuses, and other forms of control over the Palestinian people — whether they are second-class citizens inside Israel, occupied subjects under military law and siege, or refugees forcibly exiled in neighboring Arab countries and denied the right to return.

Any situation in which one national group controls another, denies the latter basic rights, takes its resources, and blocks any democratic or legal means to strive for equality and justice, will always generate resistance. This is not something that can be changed with bribes, “economic peace,” “conflict management,” or overwhelming firepower. Such a basic understanding of human history and societies does not in any way justify the massacre and abduction of civilians — Jews, Palestinians, or migrant workers — on October 7, but it does help understand how we got here.

Since the end of the Second Intifada in 2004, for example, most Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule has primarily been unarmed — sometimes even to the cost of Palestinians themselves. Through the Oslo Accords, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) — which Palestinians have long viewed as corrupt and authoritarian — has cooperated with Israel in repressing both militant groups and political activists who threaten either Israeli or PA power. The PA claimed that these commitments would make it a legitimate partner for negotiations in the eyes of Israel and the United States, and in the long run would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

After spitting in the face of this framework, including a decade in which Israel under Netanyahu (and the so-called “government of change” under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid) refused to negotiate at all, this approach has lost much of its credibility among the Palestinian public. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s governments encouraged the split between Fatah and Hamas, and between the West Bank and Gaza, by undermining Palestinian reconciliation talks, keeping money flowing to the Hamas government, and contributing to President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to thwart elections in the occupied territories — precisely in order to eliminate any possibility of peace negotiations.

At the same time, the PA and Palestinian civil society tried to use diplomacy and appeals to international forums to advance their cause, demanding recognition of statehood and/or accountability for the Israeli occupation. These channels yielded little results, especially as the U.S. veto at the UN Security Council provided Israel with a diplomatic shield. Israel also baselessly outlawed top Palestinian NGOs that were approaching the International Criminal Court, characterizing their human rights work as “diplomatic terrorism.”

Other Palestinian nonviolent efforts came from the grassroots — most prominently the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This, too, was labeled by Israeli officials as “economic and cultural terrorism,” and even smeared as “antisemitic.” In the U.S., dozens of states have adopted this Israeli view and enacted laws and policies criminalizing BDS, with many European countries like Germany following suit.

Popular protests against settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have also waxed and waned, often being brutally suppressed by Israeli forces. The same was true of the Great March of Return in Gaza in 2018, during which Israel shot at thousands of unarmed Palestinians marching to the fence that encages the Strip, killing over 200 of them, as well as blocking the “Freedom Flotillas” that sought to break the naval blockade. Throughout this time, Palestinians have continued the practice of sumud — the steadfast resistance of refusing to leave their homes in the face of attempts at ethnic cleansing.
It’s not the neighborhood, it’s us

Over the course of those two decades of largely unarmed resistance, the public discourse in Israel transformed significantly — for the worse. Whereas both the First and Second Intifadas generated serious national debates over the occupation, today these discussions have almost entirely disappeared.

This erosion of debate within Israeli society can be traced back in part to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and the ensuing Goldstone Report, which accused both the Israeli army and Palestinian militants of war crimes. This sparked campaigns by Netanyahu and his allies to smear the Israeli left and human rights groups as traitors and foreign-funded moles, and to launch a wave of anti-democratic legislation that included laws banning the commemoration of the Nakba and criminalizing boycotts.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s governments — with the active collaboration of the Israeli mainstream media — succeeded in selling the narrative that the Palestinians had been beaten, that the conflict was being “managed” through military and economic means, and that Israel could focus on regional normalization without taking their occupied subjects into account.

This view soon became a national consensus. In Israel’s last election in November 2022, voters brought in a Knesset which, on a good day, contained about 10 out of 120 parliamentarians who were genuinely interested in ending the occupation. The remaining 110 at best saw the Palestinian question as unimportant or not urgent, and at worst were actively intensifying their dispossession and oppression. The shrinking left’s attempts to put the Palestinians back on the agenda always ran into a wall: “not now,” Israelis would say, because we’re dealing with social issues, or fighting Bibi, or defending democracy (for Jews).

Israel was not alone in this shift. Arab regimes — which in 2002 offered the “Arab Peace Initiative” to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for a solution with the Palestinians — have increasingly turned their backs on the Palestinians and pursued separate normalization agreements with Israel, culminating in the Abraham Accords four years ago. Even Saudi Arabia, the chief sponsor of the 2002 initiative, was expected to agree to full normalization.

Israeli politicians and commentators like to say that “Arabs only understand violence,” and that force is the political language of the Middle Eastern “neighborhood.” But history suggests that it’s not the neighborhood that responds to force; it’s us.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, curbed Israel’s hubris from the Six-Day War and led to a U.S.-brokered peace agreement with Egypt. The mass revolt of the First Intifada pressed Israel into recognizing the PLO and signing the Oslo Accords, as well as a peace treaty with Jordan. The armed violence of the Second Intifada led to Israel’s “disengagement” and settlement withdrawal from Gaza. The warfare of Hezbollah pushed Israel out of southern Lebanon. Time and again, violence and disruption repeatedly forced these political issues at the front of our agenda; nonviolent paths, however, were largely rewarded with repression and marginalization. That is a terrible message Israel has sent to the “neighborhood,” but that’s the message we have chosen for decades.

None of this is to say that Israel’s political responses to violence necessarily benefit the Palestinians, as we see now after October 7. Violence always creates fear, trauma, and dehumanization of the other, blaming the collective for the actions of a few. It pushes Israeli society toward indifference or justification of atrocities we commit. And for now, it is pushing much of our society even further right. By looking into the black mirror, we can see exactly how the same process — though on a very different scale — has occurred in Palestinian society after decades of killing, displacement, dispossession, and imprisonment, while their murderers and pillagers roam free.

Nothing here justifies what cannot be morally justified, but this is the context that Palestinians know all too well, and which Israelis have long been blind to.

A leadership willing to bring about justice

On October 7, it was clearly legitimate for Israel to use force inside its territory to repel the Hamas-led attack, protect Israeli citizens, and free the southern communities seized by Hamas. But that’s where Israel had to stop. Ensuring the safety of Israelis is one thing; unleashing a vicious onslaught is another.

Right now, Israel must act urgently to achieve a deal with Hamas for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all the remaining hostages, in exchange for the release of however many Palestinian prisoners it takes. This must involve a full Israeli withdrawal from the entire Strip, allowing Gazans to return to what is left of their homes.

In parallel, Israel must ensure the unrestricted entry into Gaza of as much humanitarian aid as possible, and as quickly as possible, in order to save lives and enable the vast reconstruction that will be required. It must cooperate with any government that can assist with this process — not simply to foot the bill for the disaster Israel has created, but to support rehabilitation on the basis of a new political vision for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

It is very likely that within such a framework, it will also be possible to lower the armed hostilities with Hezbollah in the north, and Iran from afar, so that all displaced people on both sides of the border can return to their homes. This will allow families time to recover, to rehabilitate their communities, and treat those emotionally and physically scarred by this war.

Israel will then have to continue with this momentum. Contrary to what the right has been telling us for years, Israelis have a vital interest in the existence of a Palestinian leadership that enjoys broad popular legitimacy and that can negotiate with an Israeli leadership. This means Israel must release imprisoned political leaders and support both Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the holding of democratic elections for the PLO and the PA.

The public discourse in Israel and among some of its Western allies completely rejects any notion of allowing Hamas to continue to exist. But Hamas is not going anywhere. It still retains the support of about half of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Its power stems from the material reality that Israel has created for the Palestinians, from the failure of nonviolence and dialogue to advance their national cause, and from internal grievances such as PA corruption. As one Palestinian friend — who detests and fears Hamas because of both its religious politics and its actions on October 7 — told me, the way to beat the group is not through military force, but through politics. So is the case with the Israeli right.

What is required, therefore, is not just an Israeli leadership that addresses the disasters our people experienced on October 7 and since. We need a leadership that also takes responsibility for the decades of disasters we have inflicted on the Palestinians. It needs to recognize the real and just connection of both peoples to this land, as well as the equal rights of both peoples to freedom, equality, security, and self-determination, and elevate the universal human desire to see our children have a better future than our current reality.

That leadership needs to do everything in its power to end the historical injustice against all Palestinians, including through negotiations, to establish a political solution based on these principles — whether in the framework of two states, one state, or a confederation — and by meeting the just demands that have been articulated by the PLO, UN resolutions, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the BDS campaign. A future vision must include a means for addressing the crimes committed by members of both nations against the other, and establishing a new regional order that will allow free movement and flourishing for both peoples.

Such solutions must be built on a wider political conversation both within each nation and between the two peoples, with an emphasis on listening to those who have suffered the brunt of violence and oppression. The responsibility to start this process lies with Israel, as the territory’s supreme authority and thus the one that holds the keys to ending this unjust system. None of this absolves Hamas of responsibility for its wrongdoings and war crimes, but it is vital to recognize that Israelis have a very different responsibility for our condition, and that it is we — after decades of enacting oppression — who must prove our willingness to bring about justice.

Is any of this likely to ever come about? Right now, for many, it certainly feels impossible. Israelis and Palestinians are today far less able to tolerate each other, and mutual dehumanization has reached new extremes. But there are also many people who want a different future, who would follow courageous leaders, and who want to show that a shift in attitude can help cultivate a partner on the other side.

The alternatives are far, far worse: a bloody, indefinite continuation of violence for generations, until we finally wake up and do exactly what we obviously should have done from the beginning. Israel must lead on this path not only because of its responsibility as the ruler of the land, but in order to prove to Palestinians that now, finally, they can find a partner for peace in us, and that the path of reaching an agreed upon solution is open – perhaps for the first time.

One thing is for sure, though: none of this can be achieved with the Israeli government currently in power. And so, our first task as Israelis is to kick out this coalition as soon as possible, and to choose a new leadership that will offer this path of reconciliation. Seeing where Israeli society is now, and knowing our political landscape, it is unlikely we will walk that path voluntarily. As such, the need for international pressure in the form of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions is ever clearer. Global action, elections, and negotiations — this is how we empower the currents in both our societies that believe in justice, equality, and security for all.

Check Also

Hezbollah-Israel clashes intensify as fears grow of all-out war in Lebanon

The situation on the Israel-Lebanon border is worsening, all while US efforts to reach a …